Derek Jeter: Great Shortstop, Or Greatest Shortstop?

NEW YORK, NY: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees watches his deep fly ball go back to the wall but was caught for the final out of the bottom of the eighth inning by Don Kelly #32 of the Detroit Tigers during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

So, by way of Forbes via BTF's Newsstand, I read something about an ESPN New York tournament pitting New York sports figures against one another for the title of Most Beloved ... at this point, it's down to Mariano Rivera vs ... Jeremy Lin, who reached the final by beating out ... Derek Jeter.

Which seems a little silly. Okay, it seems a lot silly. But we already knew that people don't actually think much before pulling that lever in the voting booth. Anyway, here is Forbes' Chris Smith:

This is where a statistical comparison would normally be included, but it feels silly comparing the two athletes. One is a promising young point guard who has 12 wins as a starter. The other is one of the all-time greatest Yankees and possibly the best shortstop to ever play the game of baseball. Jeter owns five World Series rings, five Gold Gloves and is a 12-time All-Star. To say that he’s an accomplished athlete is akin to saying that Babe Ruth had a few home runs in his day.

Okay, it's now 13 wins for Jeremy Lin; Wednesday night the Knicks beat the 76ers. But I digress.

possibly the best shortstop to ever play the game of baseball

Anything is possible. Mario Mendoza was possibly the best shortstop to ever play the game of baseball in the 1970s. But I wouldn't bet on it. Usually we're more interested in what's probable.

So was Derek Jeter probably the best shortstop to ever play the game of the base-ball?

Well, let's work through the candidates for that lofty title. Don't worry -- it's a fairly short list.

Honus Wagner
Arky Vaughan
Cal Ripken
Derek Jeter

Where's Alex Rodriguez? Right now he's at third base, and by some point in 2013 he'll have played more games at third base than shortstop. Robin Yount? He played a goodly chunk of his career in the outfield. Ernie Banks? He was a shortstop for less than half his career. Again, we're looking for the greatest shortstop, which would seem, by definition, to rule out players who spent big huge chunks of their careers at non-shortstop positions.

Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell? I love both of them. But neither has the juice to get past anybody on our list. Or anyway, enough to reach the top of the list. Luke Appling collected nearly 3,000 hits and played until he was 43, but he fails the top-of-the-list test, too.

Ozzie Smith? I've run into people who don't think he even belongs in the Hall of Fame. Sure, those people are crazy. But Ozzie usually doesn't get a single supporter in this conversation. Let's add him to the list, though. On principle. To carry the banner in the parade. So now we've got this, and I think it's good:

Honus Wagner
Arky Vaughan
Ozzie Smith
Cal Ripken
Derek Jeter

Let's take those super stars in reverse order ...

As you know, there are (at least) two competing versions of Wins Above Replacement: the version (rWAR) at Baseball-Reference.com, and the version (fWAR) featured at FanGraphs. Most of the differences in the results are because of different methods used to measure defense, and (for recent players) FanGraphs' measure of baserunning.

As it happens, Jeter's different WAR match up pretty well: 74 fWAR and 70 rWar. So let's call it 72 Wins Above Replacement and (for a moment) forget about it. And I will make the obligatory concession that WAR isn't the only thing worth counting, etc. I know. We'll get to other things worth counting later.

Cal Ripken's got 90 rWAR and 100 fWAR. We'll call it 95 and it's significantly higher than Jeter's figure. Now, it should be said that Ripken spent the last five seasons of his career as a third baseman rather than a shortstop. Those were not Ripken's good years -- well, unless you count his 86 games in 1999, when somehow he batted .340 with great power -- but Ripken did add roughly 7 Wins Above Replacement in those third-base seasons.

If you want to remove those 7 WAR from Ripken's total, he's still got 88.

Ozzie Smith: 65 rWAR, 70 fWAR. Let's say 68, with an extra half-point for those cool mid-air flips.

Arky Vaughan's an interesting one. He played his last game in 1948, and wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame until 1985. Thanks to World War II, his last full season as an every-day player came when he was 31. But to that point, he was so fantastic that he ultimately piled up 76 rWAR and 74 fWAR. So that's an easy one: 75 Wins Above Replacement for Vaughan. (And only a couple of those WAR came in his last two seasons -- in which he was a part-timer and didn't play shortstop -- so we won't make a further adjustment.)

Based purely on peak value -- taking, say, his best 12 seasons and ignoring the other two -- Vaughan takes a back seat to nobody who played after him. Especially if you give him some credit for the war years he missed. Because of, you know, the war (in which Vaughan didn't fight, if that matters to you).

Arky Vaughan was and remains criminally overlooked, but it's simply impossible to argue that he's the greatest shortstop who ever played the game, because of Honus Wagner.

Now, I am not saying right now that Honus Wagner was the greatest shortstop. What I will say right now is that most of the arguments you might make against Wagner would also apply to Vaughan -- especially the argument that the game was a lot easier before they let Jackie Robinson play -- and Wagner's numbers simply destroy Vaughan's.

It's difficult to understand just how good Honus Wagner was, from this historical distance. There's this, though: For 13 straight seasons, finished in the top three in the National League in Wins Above Replacement as a hitter ... and in 10 of those seasons, he actually led the league ... and he was a shortstop ... and by nearly all accounts he was an outstanding shortstop. I think he was probably overrated, at least a little, by his contemporaries. Because of the halo effect. But for more than a dozen years, Wagner was Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or Mike Schmidt or Alex Rodriguez.

Whatever you might think of Derek Jeter -- with 72 career Wins Above Replacement, averaging the two sources -- he's rarely been the best player in his league for even one season. In 1998 and '99, perhaps. And if you're really careful, you might find another season in which he deserved the MVP Award. But even in his best seasons, he's always had some competition, while Wagner usually didn't. Strictly by the numbers, Wagner wasn't just the greatest shortstop who ever played the game; he was one of the five greatest players, period. You can look it up.

We do have one small problem with Honus Wagner, though. Going strictly by the numbers, nearly all of the greatest players played a long time ago.

Greatest first baseman? Lou Gehrig.

Greatest second baseman? Rogers Hornsby.

Greatest shortstop? Honus Wagner.

Greatest outfielders? Well, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb are definitely in the mix. And Ted Williams, too.

Strictly by the numbers, the only "modern" players who get any real attention are Mike Schmidt and Johnny Bench and Barry Bonds. Which seems strange, doesn't it? That most of the greatest baseball players would have started their careers before World War II, more than 70 years ago?

And I bring this up without even considering the manifest nature of this contention: Baseball players today are generally a great deal more talented than their ancient forebears. I don't believe that Honus Wagner could win a job in the majors leagues today. I'm not sure he could play in the Texas League.

But if we head down that rabbit hole, Babe Ruth's not a major leaguer. Ted Williams might not be. And our discussion becomes a lot less interesting, I think, if we're restricted to players from the 1960s or '70s and later.

So Honus Wagner gets to stay. And I will argue that his numbers are so much better than any other shortstop's that he remains atop the class, even if he compiled those numbers roughly a century ago.

Still not ready to give up on Derek Jeter? Well, here's how you get him past Cal Ripken and perhaps even Honus Wagner ...

First, you give him a big dollop of extra credit for the Yankees' success since he arrived in the majors back in 1996. And he deserves some extra credit. There's an intangible benefit to his steadiness over all those years, and his postseason numbers are right in line with his regular-season numbers ... which of course is impressive because he's typically faced better pitching in the postseason.

Second, you assume that every single sophisticated defensive metric is just flat-wrong; that he's been not a poor defensive shortstop for most of his career, but that instead he's been average, at least.

If you want to award Jeter 10 extra Wins Above Replacement for his intangibles and his postseason play, and make him an average defensive shortstop, you've got him at roughly Cal Ripken's level. And if you want to assume that the roughly 90 years separating Jeter from Wagner practically invalidates Wagner's performance, then ... Well, then you can make the argument that Derek Jeter really is the best shortstop ever to play baseball.

I can't make that argument. But to a lot of people you and I know, maybe even some of our friends, it's not crazy.

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