To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, Derek Jeter has come unstuck in time. Now that his retirement is one likely indifferent season away, we can stop worrying about what he is -- a consideration that usually involves trying to weigh his offense against his defense -- and start focusing on what he was. With nearly the whole career in the books, we can try to see where he ranks among the great shortstops in history.
Note the tacit admittance to the club of greats. The argument isn't, or shouldn't be, whether Jeter was one of the greatest ever to play the position; he was. He was not a perfect player, but nor were any of the shortstops we will encounter as we follow Jeter through a series of head-to-head encounters with the Hall of Famers and other standouts (sorry to say that's not always the same thing; apologies, Alan Trammell) who preceded him.
The question we'll attempt to get at here is, given a choice between Jeter and some other, equally or almost equally talented player, would you take him or the other guy? Some might look solely to advanced statistics such as wins above replacement to make that determination for them, but numbers only tell some of the story. We have to know who these shortstops were and the state of the game they played to make determinations across time and rescue Jeter from the inchoate realm of "great" and place him with specificity.
It should be taken for granted that these are all extraordinary players, and in abstract no team of their day would have gone wrong listing them in the lineup. However, the arrow of quality, of greater professionalization, embodying training, nutrition and conditioning, only points in one direction.
Bobby Wallace (1894-1918)
One of the more obscure players in the Hall of Fame, Wallace was one of the best players in St. Louis Browns history. Given that the Browns themselves have been gone for over 60 years, that Wallace’s Browns never won anything, and that his whole career was witnessed by fewer spectators than watched a typical Jeter Thursday night game against the Indians, it’s not surprising that Wallace isn’t a vivid figure even for baseball aficionados. It’s a bit like he was a really outstanding stegosaurus or triceratops -- at this great remove it’s difficult to distinguish one triceratops from another, and for most people it’s more than sufficient to say, "Man, there sure were some interesting critters back then. Like, this one, it had a bunch of horns and plates and stuff," without getting further into the details. Similarly, we might say, "There used to be a team called the Browns, and a hundred years ago they had a shortstop who was pretty good, with a strong glove for the day and he was a pretty good hitter for the position, too. Today he might have been almost as good as Omar Vizquel."
Jeter or Wallace? Jeter, for all the same reasons you’d pick him over Wagner -- or Vizquel.
Honus Wagner (1897-1917)
Wagner was born 140 years ago this month, was 5’11, and shaped like Gumby; the game he played only superficially resembled ours. He was a .328/.391/.467 hitter, but that doesn’t do him justice -- relative to his leagues he was Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Mike Trout. Yes, it was a primitive league, but he towered so far above it that he likely would have been a great player in any era. What shape that greatness would have taken is almost impossible to say.
Jeter or Wagner? Jeter. Wagner was a wonderful player, apparently a good guy as well, a captivating storyteller and ambassador for the game into the 1950s. Still, it’s impossible to separate him from the fact that he played during the Theodore Roosevelt administration against mediocre, white-only players who swung table legs instead of bats. Jeter wasn’t as dominant on either side of the ball, but we have to give some deference to the uplift in American nutrition that in a few generations greatly altered the look of the American alpha-male athlete: Derek Jeter is 6’3. In Wagner’s day there was exactly one established position player of that height, the catcher Larry McLean. McLean played 862 games; no one else played as many as 400. During Jeter’s career, 80 players 6’3 or taller have exceeded McLean’s total. To put it another way, many of the great players of yesteryear must have suffered at some point in their lives from what we would characterize as malnourishment.
Rabbit Maranville (1912-1935)
Luis Aparicio without the stolen bases, Omar Vizquel without the sobriety.
Jeter or Maranville? Jeter, though Maranville probably shouldn’t be dismissed too lightly. He hit .308 in two World Series. That was only in eight games so it doesn’t really mean anything except as a symbol of the fact that at his peak (up until he was 33 or so), he wasn’t any worse with the bat than Vizquel or Aparicio. He was also a tremendous glove who played until he was 43 purely on the basis of his fielding. All the caveats that apply to the pre-integration players apply to him as well, but he was probably still a better player than his career line at first suggests.
Joe Cronin (1926-1945)
Cronin was an excellent hitter for the position, but went through an OCD phase when he had to go down on his knees to field a grounder, and as you might imagine that could cut down on a shortstop’s range a bit. He also made sure Pee Wee Reese, property of the Red Sox, wound up a Dodger to protect his own job, and oh, yeah, was a spectacular racist who was convinced that no worthy African American players were available to Boston during his long association with that team despite Jackie Robinson coming to Fenway Park for an on-field audition before he was signed by Brooklyn. Hey, Joe Cronin: F--k you.
Jeter or Cronin? You’ve got to be kidding.
Luke Appling (1930-1950)
It’s hard to know how to place Appling, a right-handed hitter with extraordinary bat control who slap-hit .310 annually, peaking at .388 in 1936 while also picking up a lot of walks. The quintessential Appling story revolves around the White Sox denying him some number of baseballs -- let’s say 20 -- to give to his guests at a game, so he went to the plate and fouled 20 straight balls into the stands. There were never a lot of players who fit this description; we’re talking Appling, Stan Hack, Richie Ashburn, and closer to our own time, Brett Butler and even Pete Rose. The line is pretty much extinct now, as even baseball’s smallest players can knock the ball over the fences these days. Appling was 5’10 and hit 45 career home runs; Dustin Pedroia is two inches shorter than that and has more than twice as many homers. The deep outfield gaps that fueled Appling’s batting averages are gone now, and even if a player with his bat-handling skills came along, he might not be able to hit more than .290 or so.
Jeter or Appling? Jeter; Appling was the finest of a particular kind, but that kind is gone.
Arky Vaughan (1932-1948)
An odd career. At his best, Vaughan could hit with any shortstop in history, or maybe just anyone in history -- when you hit .385/.491/.607, as Vaughan did in 1935, there isn’t a lot of room between you and the best offensive seasons ever. He wasn’t always that good, of course, though he did lead the NL in on-base percentage three times, not that anyone noticed at the time. Then there was the tiff he got into with Leo Durocher which caused him to walk out on the Dodgers in 1943 and stay home for three years. Bonus points for being called "Arky," which simply reflected his place of birth, even though he spent all but the first seven months of his childhood in California. By the same naming convention, this piece would have been about Jersey Jeter, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Jeter or Vaughan? Jeter, of course; he never quit.
Cecil Travis (1933-1941, 1945-1947)
Travis doesn’t show up on the career lists because his career came to a dead stop due to World War II. Having become a regular at age 20 in 1934, he had piled up a .327 average and 1,370 hits through 1941, his age-27 season. Jeter hit .320 with 171 fewer hits. Travis had about a 40 percent chance of reaching 3,000 hits, but at that point the war came. He disappeared into the Army for almost four years, playing some baseball but also seeing action in Europe. By the time he was able to get back to the majors for real, he was 32 and the magic was gone.
Jeter or Travis? Jeter; we’ll never know what the rest of Travis’s career might have looked like if not for the rise of fascism (which is hardly the most tragic thing outcome of World War II, but for the purposes of this exercise only it’s pretty close).
Lou Boudreau (1938-1952)
One of the enduring mysteries of baseball is how a shortstop could be as slow as Boudreau -- and by reputation he was, and yet was still such a good defensive player. His MVP-winning season of 1948, in which he hit .355/.453/.534 while managing his team to a World Series championship, still stands up as one of the best by any shortstop. It was a short career, however -- 1948 was not only his best season, but also his last good one outside of the broadcast booth -- and some of his other big years came against reduced wartime competition.
Jeter or Boudreau? Jeter. We’ll never know if Boudreau could have played shortstop in the sped-up modern game, but chances are he would have wound up at second base or third.
Pee Wee Reese (1940-1958)
Credit Reese for the three prime seasons he lost to World War II and he probably would have finished his career as a slightly above-average hitter to go with what was reputed to be superb defense. Reese was a patient hitter at a time when even good pitchers walked four batters a game and had some pop despite his nickname -- if he played today he might have been Dustin Pedroia with a little more speed. He was also the Kentuckian who got over his upbringing and embraced Jackie Robinson.
Jeter or Reese? Jeter. At his best, Reese was capable of a .400 on-base percentage with double figures in home runs, but he wasn’t consistent at that level.
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Ernie Banks (1953-1971)
Played more games at first base, where he was just a guy. Until then, though, he had everything except speed. He had Jeter on peak value, but Jeter had the better career.
Jeter or Banks? Banks. He was at the top of his game for only a half-dozen years, but what a half-dozen years they were.
Luis Aparicio (1956-1973)
Great speed on the bases and in the field, but not very much happening with the bat.
Jeter or Aparicio? Jeter; Aparicio may have picked up a great many outs in the field, but, miscast as a leadoff man for most of his career, he ate up many more outs at the plate.
Robin Yount (1974-1993)
Very few shortstops, heck, very few players have had an all-around season as good as Yount’s AL MVP-winning 1982, but Yount only maintained that level for about two seasons. Yount came up young, at 18, and spent a half-dozen seasons growing up in public before hitting his stride in 1980. In the decade that followed he hit .305/.365/.485, numbers that are even better than they seem given the relatively conservative offensive levels of the time. Midway through that period he shifted to the outfield due to a shoulder injury. He was good enough there to win a second MVP in 1989, but that was center field, not shortstop.
Jeter or Yount? Jeter. The years in which Yount was a Jeter-level player comes down to 1980-1984. It’s not enough.
Alan Trammell (1977-1996)
Trammell was easily one of the best shortstops in history, and it’s one of the oddities of history that his teammate Jack Morris is the subject of an intense Hall of Fame debate while he languishes. As I wrote in a recent piece on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, Trammell should have won at least one MVP award in his career and you can make a decent argument for a second. Thus his lack of Hall of Fame support is a case of double jeopardy: he isn’t respected now because he didn't get his due respect then. At his 1980-1993 peak, he was nearly as good a hitter as Jeter was at his best, Trammell’s .291/.359/.433 (118 OPS+) being not terribly far off from the .318/.388/.459 (121 OPS+) Jeter compiled at the same ages. Jeter was the more consistent player on offense, Trammell the far superior fielder. This also seems like a good place to mention Jeter’s postseason heroics: Jeter was a great postseason player, hitting .308/.374/.465 in 158 games despite the heightened level of competition and making famously heady plays. Trammell was a great postseason player as well, hitting .333/.404/.588, albeit in only 13 games. We can only give Jeter so much credit for the expanded playoff structure during his career or his fine taste in teammates -- it’s impossible to know what any of these players would have done given as many opportunities.
Jeter or Trammell? You couldn’t go wrong with either one of them. Jeter, but it’s closer than Hall of Fame voters five years from now will be willing to acknowledge.
Ozzie Smith (1978-1996)
Remembered as a lightweight with the stick, Smith was just fine as a hitter with the Cardinals, hitting .272 with enough walks and stolen bases to be a solid contributor even before his extraordinary defense is taken into account. In 1980, he set a single-season record with 621 assists (Mr. Ripken holds the AL record at 583). In our more strikeout-heavy times, 15 shortstops have crossed the 500-mark, but Jeter topped out at 457 in 1997.
Jeter or Smith? Smith. Take greatest defensive infielder of all time, add 70 walks and 40 stolen bases a season, and you have a killer player who made any pitcher in front of him look better.
Cal Ripken, Jr. (1981-2001)
It has often been said that Ripken redefined shortstop away from the position of the little guys. From 1901 through 1980, there were 52 position players taller than 6’2 to have a career of 1,000 or more games. Just two of them, Ron Hansen and Tony Kubek, were primarily shortstops. As discussed in Wagner, above, players have gotten taller in general over time with better nutrition and conditioning -- none of today’s athletes starved their way through the Great Depression -- so that 104 position players over 6’2 have played 1,000 games just from 1981 through 2013. You know how many of them have been shortstops, excluding Ripken? Two: Jeter and Hanley Ramirez, with Troy Tulowitzki likely to join them this year. So, whereas Earl Weaver moving Ripken from third base to shortstop did represent a bold choice, it’s not like there have been a parade of imitators. Ripken did show that there was more than one way to play the position well -- you didn’t have to be a rangy speedster like Ozzie Smith if you had a good enough arm that you could set up in short left field. Mostly, though, it’s still the speedy little guys at the position, as if Ripken didn’t happen.
Jeter or Ripken? Ripken. Jeter was the more consistent offensive player, but Ripken’s peak was much higher, plus he was a great defender, whereas at best Jeter played shortstop to a draw.
Barry Larkin (1986-2004)
Larkin was a tremendous all-around player, at least Jeter’s equal as a hitter, but faster and the better fielder. The only problem was he couldn’t stay healthy. You literally had to drop a catcher in full gear onto Jeter before he came out of the lineup.
Jeter or Larkin? Jeter. Put the two players in the same park and league for 162 games and Larkin may well have come out looking better – if he played.
Time and Space not Visited by Jeter
Joe Tinker, Dave Bancroft, Joe Sewell, Travis Jackson, Phil Rizzuto: The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee traditionally alternated its meeting places between Oz and Wonderland and we needn’t be too concerned with the results of their deliberations here.
Vern Stephens, Rico Petrocelli, Nomar Garciaparra: Red Sox shortstops who had some of the biggest offensive seasons ever at the position, but career value wasn’t quite there. Let’s also throw in a shortstop the Red Sox traded, Hanley Ramirez, the NL version of Jeter (at least on a statistical basis), with a great bat for the position and questionable defense. He will need a sustained run of durability and strong seasons to recover the momentum of his early career.
Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez: Thank you for using your Walgreen’s 24-hour prescription refill service with convenient drive-through service. We hope you choke on it.
The Final Verdict
Sixteen shortstops rated, Jeter wins 13-3, with only Banks, Smith and Ripken coming out ahead. Given Jeter’s extraordinary consistency at bat and career accomplishments, that seems fair. While a few shortstops exceeded him at their peak moment, and many were fairly rated as superior on defense, the totality of his contributions, combined with when he made them, at a time when baseball was at its most cosmopolitan and competitive, means he cleared a higher bar than most of his predecessors. He might not have been the best shortstop ever, but he wasn’t far off.