April 20, 2011
Is Derek Jeter Really An All-Time Great?
Sometime this season Yankee fans will see their captain, Derek Jeter, achieve the 3,000 hit mark. Remarkably, this is a milestone which no Yankee has yet reached. But, three weeks into the season, Jeter's batting struggles from last season continue. As Jeter begins his final contract, are we watching the decline of an athlete approaching the end of his career? The use of steroids over the past two decades has masked this deterioration in many athletes. While the possibility of Jeter returning to form can't be ruled out, it's more than likely Jeter will never consistently perform at that high level again.
Derek Jeter may be the most overrated player of his time. There, I said it. But, before I develop this death-wish premise, let me say that overrated does not mean bad. Derek Jeter has had an outstanding career, but his aura has become greater than reality thanks to the New York media, the great teams he has been on, and a couple of important postseason plays. While The Captain has consistently batted over .300 during his career, he has never hit 25 home runs in a season, and has driven in over 100 runs only once.
One of the criteria I use to determine greatness is whether a player dominated his sport. Derek Jeter hasn't. Not only has Jeter never won an MVP award, he has only received a total of 15 first place votes in his entire career (a typical MVP winner will receive 15-20 first place votes in one season). Jeter was neither the most dominant player in the league, nor the most dominant player at his position. Taking Jeter's best years from 1997-2003, he averaged 17 HRs, 76 RBIs, with a .320 batting average. Comparatively, over the same 7 seasons, Alex Rodriguez averaged 43 homers, 120 RBIs, while batting .303 and Nomar Garciaparra averaged 24 homers, 93 RBIs, while batting .322. Jeter's fielding percentage was .974 over this span while Rodriguez and Garciaparra's were .980 and .969, respectively.
Many Jeter-fanatics like to refer to Derek's postseason play to support his legendary status. But as we explore the numbers, persona trumps reality. Yes, Jeter is first in postseason at bats, plate appearances, runs scored, hits, total bases, singles, and doubles. But, he also ranks first in games played. When Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were winning championships there were no Division Series or League Championship rounds. When using fairer statistics, such as batting average, on base percentage, slugging percent, and OPS (on base + slugging), Jeter is well outside the top ten in all those categories (minimum 40 at bats).
Despite the numbers game, Jeter-lovers will refer to his big hits in the postseason. Were there really that many? Jeter has one walk-off postseason hit in his career (just as many as Jeff Mathis, Mark Loretta, Chris Burke, and Joe Crede . . . exactly). The most well remembered hit of Jeter's postseason career was also one of the most infamous plays in postseason history. During the 1996 ALCS, with the Yankees trailing the Baltimore Orioles 4-3 in the 8th inning, Jeter hit a fly ball to right field which 12-year old Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall and caught. Replays showed that Maier interfered, and had he not, the right fielder would have caught the ball. But, in the pre-replay era, the umpires ruled the hit a home run. Had this occurred today, the result may have been different. Jeter's other most memorable postseason hit was a walk-off home run during Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. If my memory is correct, the Yankees lost that Series.
Jeter has been the picture of consistency, kept himself healthy, and had the good fortune of playing on some of the greatest Yankee teams in history. Those teams have been great in part due to Jeter's presence and yes, he has been an outstanding player for a long time. But, as he enters the twilight of his career, can we really consider him one of the all-time greats of the game? Or is he an all-time Yankee great whose accomplishments have been magnified by playing on the game's grandest stage?
Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He can be reached via email at Peterfmundo@gmail.com.