Derek Jeter: secure among Yankee legends, strong case as best shortstop ever

9 07 2011

Derek Jeter’s place in Yankee history is secure. He has reached the upper echelon where you really don’t rank the players. They are just the Yankee immortals: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Jeter, Rivera. Those seven are clearly the top tier: each holding amazing records, each winning multiple world championships, each a Yankee legend, each playing all or most of his career as a Yankee, each one of the best ever at his position.

All the other Yankee greats — Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Lefty Gomez and so on — start a rung below those seven.

And it’s pointless trying to rank those top seven: How do you rank DiMaggio’s hitting streak or Mantle’s World Series homers or Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak behind anyone? But Babe has to be first, doesn’t he? And you can’t compare Rivera’s late-inning dominance with all these hitters. And no one won more World Series than Berra, whose masterful handling of the pitching staff again defies comparison. No, it’s a seven-way tie for first place as the greatest Yankee ever. No one gets dethroned at the top of this list, they just make room for another legend.

If you want to figure where Jeter ranks all-time, consider his standing among all the great shortstops of baseball history. More specifically, is he the greatest shortshop ever? Now, that’s a debate worth having, especially the day that he topped 3,000 hits with an amazing 5-for-5 day.

Three possible contenders in this discussion need to be eliminated pretty early: Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount and Ernie Banks are certainly in your top 10 best shortstops ever. But you can’t be the best shortstop ever if you played eight years and counting at third base (A-Rod), nine years in the outfield (Yount) or a decade at first base (Banks).

Cal Ripken Jr. played five years at third base late in his career. But he played 14 full seasons and most of another at shortstop, 2,302 games. Jeter just passed him this year in games played at shortstop. Ripken certainly is a contender.

Honus Wagner is the only other member of the 3,000-hit club who played substantial time at shortstop. He played 1,887 games at shortshop and nearly 900 games at the other infield positions and the outfield. Though he’s nearly 500 shortstop games behind Jeter, he played there hundreds more games than Rodriguez, Yount and Banks. Wagner merits consideration.

Luke Appling, Dave Bancroft, Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin, George Davis, Travis Jackson, Hughie Jennings, Rabbit Maranville, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Sewell, Joe Tinker, Arky Vaughn, Bobby Wallace and John Ward were Hall of Fame shortstops who played fewer games at shortstop than Jeter and came up significantly short of Jeter’s offensive achievements. They don’t belong in this discussion of who’s the greatest shortstop ever. Barry Larkin probably will join them in Cooperstown, but didn’t play as many games at shortstop as Jeter and also ranks behind him in most offensive categories.

Five shortstops deserve consideration as the greatest shortstop ever: Jeter, Ripken, Wagner, Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. The case for each:

Luis Aparicio: If Ozzie Smith had never played, you could make a case for Aparicio being the best defensive shortstop ever: 2,581 games at shortstop (second all-time, behind Omar Vizquel), nine Gold Gloves, second all-time in assists for a shortsop, six times leading the league in assists, six in fielding percentage and four in putouts. His value as a base stealer (nine straight seasons leading the American League, 506 for the career) is the only basis for arguing that he would be better than Smith. But Aparicio was a mediocre hitter: .262 batting average with little power and few walks. He belongs in the conversation, but he doesn’t hold up long in the conversation.

Ozzie Smith. The Wizard of Oz was the greatest fielding shortstop ever by any measure: far and away the career leader with 8,375 assists, 13 Gold Gloves, eight times each leading the league in assists and fielding percentage. And he was a better offensive player than Aparicio. Though Smith never led the league in steals, he actually stole more bases, 580, than Aparicio. He was a weak hitter, having only one .300 season and one season with more than 100 runs. If you value defense more than offense, you can choose Ozzie as the best shortstop ever. But you almost have to discount offense entirely.

Honus Wagner. You really can’t compare defensive stats from Wagner’s area of short gloves. He committed 676 errors at shortstop, more than three times as many as Jeter in fewer games. So the case for Wagner is entirely an offensive case, and it’s a heck of a case: eight batting championships, five RBI titles, two 200-hit seasons, seven 100-run seasons, led the league seven times in doubles, three times in triples, five times in stolen bases, twice each in hits and runs. With 723 stolen bases, a .328 batting average, .391 on-base percentage, .467 slugging percentage, 3,420 hits, 1,733 RBI and 1,739 runs scored, he was one of the best hitters in major league history. His 101 homers don’t compare with Ripken or Jeter, but remember, he played in the dead-ball era. He played before baseball chose most valuable players, or he would have been a multiple winner. You’ll get no argument from me if you call Honus Wagner still the best shortstop ever.

Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken was a good defensive shortstop, winning two Gold Gloves and leading the league four times in fielding percentage, seven times in assists (eighth all-time with 6,977) and six times in putouts. Offensively, he was even more impressive: 3,184 hits, 431 homers, 1,695 RBI, 1,647 runs, .276 batting average, .340 OBP, .447 slugging, two 200-hit seasons, three 100-run seasons, four 100-RBI seasons. He led the league in hits, runs and doubles in 1983, one of his two MVP seasons (and the year after he was Rookie of the Year). And, oh yeah, he showed up to play every day. Not only did he play every day, he played shortstop every day, leading the league in games played at shortstop 12 seasons. Again, I have no problem if you call Ripken the best shortstop ever.

Derek Jeter. Joe Posnanski doesn’t make the claim that Jeter is the best shortstop ever (read his piece, it’s much better than this), but he does say this:

Jeter, more than anyone else, is the personification of 3,000 hits. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. How do you get to 3,000 hits? Line drive after bloop after scorcher down the line. Seven times Derek Jeter got 200 hits in a season. No other shortstop has done that more than four. Eleven times he hit .300 or better … that’s as often as Clemente. Jeter hit double digit homers 15 times, most ever for a shortstop. Jeter stole double digit bases 15 times, most ever for a shortstop (tied with Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio). Jeter scored 100 runs 13 times, most ever for a shortstop. He has been unrelenting and undeniable.

Here’s where Jeter blows the other shortstops away: He has played 147 post-season games, hitting .309, with 185 hits, 20 homers, 57 RBI, 101 runs scored, 63 walks and 17 stolen bases. He has hit over .400 in a post-season series 10 times. Post-season play was only one round during Wagner’s and Aparicio’s careers and two rounds for most of Smith’s and Ripken’s careers. So just compare Jeter’s World Series play to the other contenders: .321, 50 hits in 38 games, 32 runs, nine doubles, three homers, nine RBI, four stolen bases, 13 walks. Jeter played in seven World Series to one for Ripken, three for Smith, and two each for Aparicio and Wagner. Combined, they played in more World Series games, 51 to 38. But Jeter had 50 hits to their combined 42, 32 runs to their 16. None of them ever homered. They did combine for 15 RBI, more than his nine.

Jeter’s defense is a subject of some debate and criticism. I’ll grant that his five Gold Gloves may be more than he deserved. But he did lead the league in assists and putouts once each (different years) and fielding percentage twice. And none of the other contenders can claim a clutch fielding play as big as his highlight-reel play to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate and save the 2001 playoff series with the Oakland A’s. Granting that Jeter is not the defensive shortstop that Smith and Aparicio were, the gap between his offense and theirs is way bigger than the gap between their defense and his.

And Jeter isn’t finished yet. He is easily one of the four best shortstops ever based on regular-season performance. But baseball is about winning, and when you count Jeter’s championship play, you can make a strong case that he is the best shortstop ever.



8 responses

9 07 2011
Deron R. Pope

Good Job Jeter, and he did it in style. Has any player ever had 5 hits in his 3000th hit game? Hopefully he’ll have a great second half now that 3K is behind him.


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