I’ve already noted how strong the case is to proclaim Derek Jeter the greatest shortstop ever. On his 38th birthday, with Jeter having a bounce-back year, let’s examine where he stands among the all-time greats.
I’ve seen two different broadcast teams note that only Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb had more hits by their 38th birthdays than Jeter. That’s not to say he’s going to pass Pete Rose, who played too long in pursuit of Cobb’s all-time hit record. But he has a shot. And any way you compare Jeter to all-time greats, especially if winning counts, he’s moving into the elitest of baseball company.
We’ll start by noting that Cobb never won a championship and Aaron won only one, though we have to concede that Cobb’s base-stealing prowess and batting average and Aaron’s slugging probably still place them ahead of Jeter among the all-time greats. But let’s also note that neither played shortstop. If your achievements merit comparison with Cobb, Aaron and Rose, you’re already in rare company.
Of the 28 members of the 3,000-hit club, only Eddie Collins, with four World Series titles, approaches Jeter’s championship credentials. Rose, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker each won three. So Jeter stands alone for being prolific both in hitting and winning.
Jeter ranks 15th in hits all-time. Whether he plays long enough to catch Rose or not, if he stays healthy, he’s almost certain to reach the top 10 by next year.
Jeter is already 18th all-time in runs scored and could easily reach the top 10 by next year.
Even without counting his championships, a batter in the top 10 in two key categories is among the best ever.
Only eight other players have matched Jeter’s seven 200-hit seasons, and he’s on pace for his eighth. Only three other players match Jeter’s 13 seasons with 100 or more runs (Aaron has the record with 15, and Lou Gehrig and Alex Rodriguez also have 13).
Three of those batters had higher career batting averages than Jeter’s .313. But each had factors that kept him from reaching 3,000 hits: DiMaggio (three prime years lost to World War II, and he retired at age 36), Gehrig (disease), Ruth (spent his first five seasons as a pitcher). In addition, as sluggers, all three walked more often than Jeter. Mantle slipped below .300 toward the end of his career, but injuries and walks also kept him from reaching 3,000 hits.
Jeter has been criticized at times for his defense, but he does have five Gold Gloves (as a contemporary of 11-time winner Omar Vizquel. Dismiss that award as a popularity contest if you want, but the fact is that he plays a tougher, more important defensive position than most of the all-time great hitters. He’s already No. 4 all-time in games played at shortstop, likely to pass up Ozzie Smith this year and Luis Aparicio next year. While he doesn’t rank nearly that high in putouts (25th) or assists (18th), he’s much higher in both than he is in errors (107th).
No catcher has a similar standing among the leading offensive players of all-time, and only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount are shortstops among the career leaders. So by any measure, Jeter’s defensive value is higher than most of the leading all-time hitters. The fact that Ripken — certainly as iconic a player as Jeter — moved away from shortstop underscores that managers could have moved Jeter if he wasn’t helping them.
Of course, when you start counting post-season play, Jeter blows the other all-time hitters away. He’s first all-time in hits, runs, doubles, total bases, third in triples and homers, fourth in RBI, fifth in walks, sixth in stolen bases. Strip away all those extra rounds Jeter got that weren’t available to earlier players, and he’s still joining all-time lists for the World Series alone: fourth in runs scored, fifth in hits and third in doubles.
Jeter’s not a great base stealer or homerun hitter, but he’s been solid at both, 247 homers and 345 stolen bases. No one with as many hits as Jeter has reached those levels. Among hitters with 3,000 hits, only Craig Biggio and Rickey Henderson have more homers and stolen bases. Willie Mays and Robin Yount have also reached the levels of 3,000 hits and 250 homers and stolen bases, a group Jeter will join with three more homers.
He’s hit second or lead-off most of his career, but he still has more than 1,200 runs batted in and one 100-RBI season. With more than 1,000 walks, Jeter ranks 24th all-time in total times on base. He’s likely to reach the top 15 by next year.
Many of the all-time greats were one- or tw0-dimensional. Jeter has been great by multiple measures — hitting, scoring, winning — and good by many more — defense, power, speed, walks, RBI. I don’t know where he ranks among the best ever, but the list ahead of him is getting short, however you measure greatness.