To my knowledge, what the Baseball Hall of Fame did yesterday was unique: It tweeted the date for an induction ceremony for a still active player to be welcomed into Cooperstown. The date, if you want to make your reservations now, is July 26, 2020. (A player must be retired for five years before he goes on the ballot.) And if I were you, I wouldn’t wait.
Not only will Derek Jeter be a first ballot selection, he may well be what Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron weren’t -- a unanimous choice. If that happens, and I think there’s a very good chance that it will, it’s bound to stir up even more resentment toward Jeter than we’re seeing in the blizzard of stories that have already appeared since he announced Wednesday that 2014 would be his last year.
If one had to synthesize most of the recent Jeter coverage under one headline, it would be: Is Derek Jeter a True Hall of Famer or Is He Overrated?
Let’s deal with the first question. There isn’t any doubt that he is going to get into the Hall of Fame. Only nine players in the history of baseball have more hits than Jeter. He’s a 13-time All-Star with five World Series rings. And he’s tremendously popular. If you put down a deposit on a hotel room in Cooperstown for July 2020, it’s good as gold.
Those who have cast doubts about his HOF worthiness have always stressed the lack of bold numbers on his statistics page on BaseballReference.com. In other words, he never led the league in many offensive categories. This is true. He only led the league in runs scored in 1998 and in hits in 1999 and 2012, and HOFers have usually topped the list in more stats than that.
He was never quite a match for the top superstars of his era. Or as Ted Berg put it in USA Today (in a piece titled “Derek Jeter is the most fervently overrated shoo-in for the Hall of Fame”), “In terms of overall value to his teams, Jeter just doesn’t stack up to recent historic greats like Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds, and can’t quite match great contemporaries like Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell either.”
This is also true, but not to the point. Jeter is a greater player than a Yankee shortstop of the 1940s and early 1950s, Phil Rizzuto, who is in the Hall of Fame. Nobody said Rizzuto should not be inducted because “He doesn’t quite stack up with Ted Williams and Stan Musial.” Like Rizzuto, Jeter is a shortstop, and shortstops (and second basemen and catchers) aren’t expected to put up the same numbers as slugging outfielders or first basemen because their position is so much more difficult to play.
For that matter, of the 23 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, Jeter is probably more worthy than all but three or four – Honus Wagner, for sure, probably Arky Vaughan, maybe Cal Ripken and Ernie Banks (who is officially listed as a first baseman, though he won back-to-back MVPs at shortstop).
Not that Jeter was great at shortstop. I don’t trust any of the supposedly scientific measures of fielding ability, but here are two that surely have some measure of validity: Jeter’s career fielding percentage, going into the 2014 season, is .976, compared to the average for players at this position over the same period has been .972. His range in the field has been four chances per nine innings while other shortstops over the same span averaged 4.5. I’d say that on the whole this indicates that Jeter was an average fielding shortstop, perhaps a tad below average. But he hit and ran the bases well enough for the Yankees to keep him there regardless of his defensive deficiencies.
In any event, he isn’t going into the Hall of Fame because of his fielding – he’s going in because of his hitting and base running.
Let’s save time and compare Jeter to a hitter who everyone acknowledges as a legitimate Hall of Famer – or at least they would if Pete Rose hadn’t tarted betting on baseball games.
Jeter’s career batting average is .312 to Rose’s .303, and even if Derek played another five seasons to match Pete’s 24 years, and his skills declined over that time as Rose’s did late in his career, Jeter would still end up with a higher batting average.
Jeter has a higher on-base percentage than Rose, .381 to .375, and had a considerably better slugging percentage, .446 to .409. When you combine these two numbers into the stat beloved by so many analysts, on-base plus slugging, Jeter has an even bigger edge, .828 to .784.
He has been a better power hitter than Rose with 256 home runs, 90 more than the Hit King, in around 3,600 fewer at-bats. And Derek is a far better base runner and stealer, 348 of 448 bases for a success rate of nearly 79 percent, while Pete was a base-stealing liability with 189 steals in 347 attempts for just 54.5 percent. And, if you want to throw in fielding, whatever shortcomings Jeter has had with a glove, he was better than Rose, who was never more than adequate at any of the several positions he played.
But has Jeter been overrated by fans and an adoring press? If you check my Wikipedia page – and I’m not advising you to since just about everything on it is wrong – you’ll find reference to a Deadspin story back in 2009 titled “Jesus Is the Derek Jeter of Christianity.” The author (unnamed) says that I “think Derek Jeter should win the MVP despite the pesky fact that Joe Mauer is a better candidate …”
Five years after the fact is probably a little late to say this, but lighten up, Deadspin. I never said Joe Mauer was a better MVP candidate than Jeter. What I said was that most of Mauer’s statistics were better and that “the case for Mr. Jeter” – the Wall Street Journal makes you refer to men who are living as "Mr." – “as American League MVP is made by more subjective arguments.” Come on, are you going to tell me that Derek Jeter wasn’t a great teammate and that he didn’t contribute to his team in ways that don’t necessarily show up in a box score? Except maybe in the “win” category?
After all, the Yankees did win the American League pennant and the World Series that year. And really, why would Jeter need special arguments to be an MVP in a year when he hit .334 with 18 home runs, 212 hits, 107 runs scored, 30 stolen bases and an OBA of .406?
Have some of us overrated him a bit? A bit, maybe, but we’ll happily bear that cross. See you in Cooperstown in 2020.