The Intangibility of Derek Jeter

19 Feb

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Derek Jeter is the most important Yankee over the past two decades. Those were the words echoed on the front and back pages of the major New York papers the day after Jeter announced that he will be retiring at the end of the 2014 season. Basically every sports writer in the city, not to mention plenty of Jeter’s current and former teammates, coaches, and managers said the same thing: Jeter is a stand-up guy, played the game the right way, and will go out as a prince amongst men.

This all sounds like a set-up for me to knock the Yankee shortstop down a few pegs. But it isn’t. Just about everything I’ve heard said about Jeter is spot on. Jeter is virtually criticism-proof. He has built up so much good will and trust with not just New York fans but fans of baseball that his shortcomings are often overlooked.

The most prominent criticism of Derek Jeter is arguably his defense. Jeter has won five Gold Gloves, an award that is voted on by coaches and managers, and is entirely subjective. Yet, according to Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, Jeter was, “the most ineffective defensive player in major leagues, at any position.”

In 2001, basically at the height of Jeter’s career, Rob Neyer wrote that:

Is Jeter the worst defensive shortstop in the major leagues? Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. There is some evidence to suggest that he is, but I’m sure there’s evidence to suggest that he isn’t, too. My point is that there’s no evidence to suggest that he’s an outstanding defensive shortstop, or even a good one.

Sabermetrics is constantly evolving, with new elements always being introduced that can be used to rate players’ performances. Fielding might be the most confusing area when it comes to sabermetrics. I am not going to try to explain the statistical analysis when it comes to fielding. I am perfectly happy to let the experts do that and to trust in their methodology. If Jeter really wasn’t that good of a fielding shortstop, I can accept that. Though, like many other fans, having watched Jeter for twenty years, I never really thought that he was a subpar fielder. Or, as Neyer later states:

I simply don’t believe that Jeter is a good fielder; nevertheless, the notion that he is a good fielder will likely endure as one of the great baseball myths of our time. [Emphasis in original.]

This reminds me of the quote from the great John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Derek Jeter will always be remembered by me for two plays. Not his 2001 World Series Game 4 walk-off homer. Not his 3,000 hit, also a home run. (It should be noted that Derek Jeter was many many things, but he was not a home run hitter.) Instead, there were two defensive plays for which he will always be known:

These are mythical plays. They go right up there with the Willie Mays catch. People will never remember that Derek Jeter had below-average fielding numbers. They will only remember these great plays. On the flip side, everyone remembers that Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1960 World Series – against the Yankees – with a walk-off home run. Few will recall that he was a great fielder, or in the words of Bill James: “Bill Mazeroski’s defensive statistics are probably the most impressive of any player at any position.”

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Numbers are tangible. They don’t lie. One can say that Player A had a higher On Base Percentage than Player B. Getting deeper into numbers, one can say that Player A was better than Player B because Player A had a higher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) than Player B. As a baseball fan I enjoy stats, but mostly I use them as a tool when I draft my fantasy team. I want to win fantasy (hasn’t happened yet), and I don’t really give a shit about anything but the numbers a player will produce. One has to be ruthless when it comes to fantasy; sentimentality has no place there. Similarly, there are plenty of non-fantasy baseball managers and general managers – Billy Beane and Theo Epstein come to mind – who utilize advanced sabermetrics when constructing a ball club.

I doubt very much that the Derek Jeter of the past five years would have passed muster with many sabermetricians, either professional or of the fantasy world. Yet, I do not doubt that most MLB teams would love to have had Jeter on their team.

There are aspects of who Derek Jeter is – as a man and as a player – that go beyond the boxscores, indefinable, intangible elements that can never be expressed with the objectivity of numbers but through the subjectivity of experience. Baseball fans – sabermetricians or not – do not watch games for the stats. We watch it for the game. True, I’m sure there are those who are not blown away by a dramatic late-inning homer, but only by the numbers of the man who hit it. And I am also sure that there are those who eat every meal knowing the exact nutritional value of each bite and keep a meticulous record of their intake of every carb, ounce of sugar, and gram of fat. But one has to wonder: do these people enjoy their meals? In the same vein, can a baseball fan enjoy a game based solely on the numbers that are shit out in the end?

No matter how much some will defend statistics, they only represent a player’s output. 14 HRs, 97 RBI. 34 SBs, and a .417 OBP. That’s what Derek Jeter did in 2006. But it only tells part of the story. There are intangible elements every player brings to the game. When Alfonso Soriano was traded from my Cubs to the Yankees last year, I said to a Yankee fan, “Well, his numbers aren’t the best, and he still strikes out too much, but he’s a really great teammate.” He responded with, “I don’t want a good teammate. I want a good player.”

Did Jeter improve his teammates performances? I don’t doubt that. Great players often do. They help them with their swing and with their glovework. Jorge Posada said of Jeter: “He made me a better player and a better person.” That statement cannot be quantified. We do not know how good Posada would have been if Jeter had not been his teammate. There are no numbers that can explain the affect one player has on another. How Jeter conducted himself – polite, no ridiculous scandals, not even a whiff of steroids – can also bleed into how his teammates conducted themselves. There is something to be said about being a good example and an inspiring role model.

Many hard core sabermetrics people have an issue with terms like: clutch, great teammate, clubhouse cancer, and hustle, because they cannot be broken down into terms of output. And yes, it is true that we cannot say that a player’s “hustle” got him an OBP of .375 rather than an OBP of .322. There is no correlation between a guy who runs out every single routine ground ball and whether his stats actually improve. But don’t we want guys to run out every routine ground ball, just in case the fielder makes an error? Wouldn’t we rather have a teammate who gives moral support as opposed to being the selfish guy who keeps to himself? Don’t we want a guy who will dive into the stands for a pop up? Wouldn’t we rather have players who play with heart, as opposed to those who merely phone it in? Numbers are output. But heart and hustle and effort are the input that numbers can never truly measure.

In film criticism there are many who prefer Citizen Kane and others who like Casablanca. One is technically almost perfect but few would call it a truly beloved film; the other has plot holes and is put together willy nilly, but is one of the most cherished films of all time. One speaks to the mind, the other to the heart. Why do people love Jeter? Because he speaks to the heart. Why do kids want to be Derek Jeter and not other, statistically superior, players? Because they see in him the qualities which they themselves admire and wish to emulate.

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When I was a kid I wanted to be second baseman for the Chicago Cubs because my favorite player was Ryne Sandberg. I didn’t like him because of his numbers, which were very good for a second baseman during the 1980s. I liked him because he played baseball with grace. He was fun to watch. He made clutch(!) plays, had a great glove, a sweet swing, and a smile on his face.

When Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire vied to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, it was Sammy that more people rooted for. Sosa was the one who was having fun, McGwire was the one who looked like he was going to work every day. McGwire won the race, Sosa got the MVP and (steroids notwithstanding) is still the one many remember from that summer. People prefer the guy who looked like he wanted to play the game, not the one who made it look like a chore.

One can be in awe of Barry Bonds’ seventy-three homers in 2001, but still remember the guy more of an aloof jerk who rarely smiled except out of a sense of his own awesomeness.

Derek Jeter has plenty of numbers to back up what is a remarkable career. Amongst New York Yankees, he is third in runs scored (behind Ruth and Gehrig), third in total bases (ditto and ditto), sixth in RBIs, second in doubles (Gehrig) first in stolen bases, and first in hits, the only Yankee to ever get more than 3,000 in that team’s storied history. But I think most people will remember him as a guy who came to play, who loved the game, possessed incredible baseball instincts (another unquantifiable concept), played to win, and was a good teammate.

For many of us, Yankee fans or not, Derek Jeter is exactly why we love the game of baseball.

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