So Derek Jeter has been in the news quite a bit lately. He is, after all, the most recent proud owner of a Viagra Milestone Moment. Yesterday, Craig was excoriated by legions of barely literate Yankee fans* in the comments to the NBC blog for suggesting that maybe seven separate stories by one newspaper surrounding the tying (not even setting, tying) of a single franchise record by a single player was overkill.
* I'm not making a generalization about Yankee fans at all, just talking about those particular Yankee fans, and I'm not exaggerating. Go read those comments and discover for yourself.
Also yesterday, Jason at IIATMS put up what I think is a really nice piece on what Jeter means to him as a fan. And I think that's great. Jason expresses exactly what one should feel about a great player that's played for your own team for 14 years.
I've been a pretty harsh Jeter-basher over the years (only mentioned him once on this blog, but it wasn't friendly), but none of that has anything to do with how Yankee fans feel about him. And really, none of it has anything to do with Jeter himself; while I feel he's showboated and behaved overtly selfishly more than the greatest leader in baseball history should, guys who play hard are fun, and he seems like a pretty solid character overall.
Rather, my problem has been with how the national media has taken all that love and all that character and rolled it together into this larger-than-life, iconic hero for the whole baseball nation. It obscures his weaknesses--which have been real and numerous--and takes a lot of attention away from other players who (if only momentarily) have been better. Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn were heroes to their own fans, and that's a wonderful thing. And they were great players. But they weren't the kind of players who should have dominated all coverage of the sport. I believe that essentially, Jeter is basically what would've happened if Puckett or Gwynn or Cal Ripken, Jr. had played his entire career with the Yankees instead. And that can get awfully annoying to the rest of us.
But let me change gears completely: I think it's time for us -- and by "us" I mean sabermetric types who are fans of teams other than the Yankees -- to back the hell off and give Jeter his due. No, to this point, he arguably hasn't been markedly greater than Barry Larkin or Alan Trammell, both of whom will have a hard time getting into the Hall, while Jeter will waltz in on the first ballot if he retires tomorrow. But those guys should be in the Hall, and the unfortunate fact that they haven't gotten the attention they deserve isn't a great reason to deprive Jeter of the credit he has earned.
Furthermore, you can't really look at Jeter and compare him to those other guys and say "and he hasn't even had his decline phase yet!" anymore. Yes, the decline phase is coming eventually, but Jeter is 35 years old. At 35, Trammell was no longer a full-time player, and immediately became a very bad half-time player for his final three seasons starting with age 36. Larkin had already declined significantly and was in his last year as a useful player. Jeter, meanwhile, is having one of the best seasons of his career.
And then there's that defense. I remain thoroughly convinced that Jeter has never been even an average shortstop, and I think Bill James was probably more or less right when he wrote that he was one of the worst regular shortstops we've ever seen who was allowed to stay at the position for more than a year or so. Moreover, it still kind of pisses me off that they moved A-Rod to third for him, when A-Rod was obviously the superior shortstop. But. UZR and plus/minus aren't available before 2002, and I don't trust any other defensive stats. Even the new measures are subject to wild fluctuations from year to year that can't just be explained away by players having good years or bad years. But by UZR, Jeter has had two awful years, one bad year, and four more or less average years since 2002, and now this year he's been above zero, and actually very good (+5.1). I'm not prepared to believe that a guy who can look that good at age 35, and average so many other times, is as awful as we once thought.
Another common stathead criticism of Jeter is that (in a given year) he's not even the best player on his own team, and I guess I get that when you're trying to combat all the Jeter love, but it also strikes me as a little silly--the fact that Bernie Williams is having a great year or A-Rod is A-Rod shouldn't take away from Jeter's greatness any more than Nick Punto and Delmon Young being bad at baseball should take away from Mauer's MVP candidacy. And at any rate, now -- at an age when most middle infielders, even the best of them, are in serious decline or retired -- Jeter unquestionably is the best player on his team, and that team is the best team in the game right now. So that doesn't work anymore either.
Finally, there's his consistency. Jeter has been one of the two or three best shortstops in the American League every single year for at least the last twelve and possibly more, and that's really something when you're playing at the same time as A-Rod and Nomah and Miggy. That's more than one can say for Trammell or Larkin, both of whom fluctuated quite a bit over their careers (and Larkin was always hurt). Jeter could justifiably have won two MVPs, and would be in line for a third deserving MVP this season if not for Mauer.
No, Jeter is not one of the three or four best Yankees of all time. It's profoundly silly to compare him favorably to Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig or DiMaggio. But he's a great, great player, certainly among the greatest of our current time, and it's time to stop begrudging Yankee fans their right to enjoy that. And maybe to start enjoying it just a little bit ourselves? I can't believe I just said that.
Totally cool to keep ripping on ESPN and Tim McCarver, though. I mean, everybody has a breaking point.
10 hours ago