On these pages, I recently discussed how overrated I felt Yankee shortstop and New York City nightlife icon Derek Jeter was on the playing field (the one with a pitcher’s mound, not the Manhattan bar scene which is another kind of playing field).
I have thought for a long time that Jeter, the player (not the “playa”) had the fortunate stroke of luck to be a good all-around shortstop playing in the world’s largest media market for the most famous team in the world. Jeter was a singles hitter in an era when the sports’ best shortstops were guys like Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciapiarra, and Hanley Ramirez. These were players who could steal bases, field the position, had better throwing arms, hit for higher averages and last but not least, hit for power in ways Jeter could only dream. Along with Cal Ripken, the Baltimore Oriole shortstop from an earlier era, these were the shortstops who re-defined the position whereas Jeter, in my view, remained a very good player who knew how to play the game, fundamentally, better than most and play within his own talents, which were not as vast as the aforementioned players. He possessed and continues to have great instincts for the game, was an excellent base-runner who could steal a base for you when it was needed, could bunt with the best of them and hit the ball to the right side of the field to move the man on second over to third. He performed and continues to perform almost all aspects of the game very solidly day in and day out.
But, Jeter never re-defined the position of shortstop. He’s been more of a guy who continues to carry the torch for solid, winning baseball. Call him the Larry Bird of shortstops, as opposed to Michael Jordan. He’s never led the league in any significant statistic. He has only been a serious contender for an MVP award once in his career, 2006 when he batted .343. In my view, Jeter has been a career compiler, statistically-speaking who has been surrounded most of his career by the best team money can buy. And, his particular skill-sets have worked perfectly on those Yankee teams of the nineties and into the new millennium.
But, I’m starting to reevaluate Jeter. Maybe, he isn’t quite as overrated as I suspected. He is playing right now, on the team with the best record in the game, at a level that screams for national attention. In any comparison with the guys who play his position, maybe he is starting to look more like the kind of player you would prefer having on your team to those other power-hitting, athletically-superior shortstops.
Let’s take a look at the aforementioned top-rated shortstops of this era. We discovered in Rodriguez, possibly the most talented player in the game, a man who tends to shrink at the most pressured moments. His performance during playoff games, in comparison to Jeter leaves no doubt that Jeter is the money player when the games are more important. It also remains to be seen what impact, statistically, Rodriguez’ use of steroids has had on his career accomplishments. He does seem to have a slower bat this year, less power, less running speed. Time will tell on the questions surrounding A-Rod.
Garciapiarra, a great offensive star with the Red Sox in the nineties, has been derailed by injuries and has not had a productive full year since 2001. He’s barely hanging on as DH/pinch-hitter with the terrible Oakland Athletics, who the Yankees just defeated two out of three games in Oakland.
Ramirez, the young phenom with the Florida Marlins, is probably one of the top five players in the game today. Most general managers in baseball have gone on record saying if they were starting a team today, Ramirez would be their first choice to build with. But, he is only 25 years old and he needs to be a consistent performer on a year-in, year-out basis to be considered for greatness.
There have been other youngsters over the past 14 years since Jeter came up to the big leagues who have arrived on the major league scene with huge press notices, guys who were destined to usurp Jeter’s position as an All-Star-caliber shortstop. Whatever did happen to Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, Stephen Drew, J.J. Hardy, Miguel Tejada, Troy Tulowitzki, the famous Bobby Crosby and the equally-famous Khalil Greene? All of these young shortstops were the next wave of great and talented shortstops who were going to wave goodbye to the aging Jeter as they left him in their dust.
Instead, Jeter, now 35, is having a phenomenal year. A season that Jeter observers, based on his somewhat declining skills of the past couple of seasons, would never have predicted. Offensively and defensively, he is playing as well as any player in the sport. He is exhibiting the same sorts of skills he always has possessed but given his age and the fact he’s playing in his 14th big league season with lots of mileage (including more post-season games than any player in baseball history) on his body, his performance this season has been incredible. For a few years now, Yankee observers have been whispering every time Jeter goes into a batting or fielding slump that we are now watching the beginning of the inevitable descent of Derek Jeter into mediocrity or worse, average-ness. Those press box whispers, however, have been few and far between this season.
Jeter is hitting .331, fifth in the American League. He’s in the top ten in the A.L. in at-bats, runs scored, hits, stolen bases, and on-base percentage. The man doesn’t like to sit down to rest despite the fact he is playing a position requiring more athleticism and movement than any other position on the baseball diamond. He is leading a Yankee team of much younger players by example. The thinking permeating the Yankee clubhouse this season has been, “if the old man can do it every day, why can’t I?”
In the past nine games, including the seven played on the current Yankee road trip on the West Coast, Jeter is 20 for 36, including five games with at least three hits. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 20 hits were the most for Jeter over any stretch of 36 at-bats since 2003.
He is getting multiple hits in almost every game and spraying the ball all over the field. The Yankees, now leading their rival Boston Red Sox by seven games in the East Division of the American League, are beginning to turn the pennant race into a non-event. Jeter has been the key, along with stronger pitching, particularly in the bullpen.
He still doesn’t lead the Yankees in runs scored, he still doesn’t put up power numbers (homers, doubles, triples), and he still will probably not get as many MVP votes as new Yankee first baseman, Mark Teixeira. The voters like those power numbers and Teixeira is going to be close to a forty homer, 125 r.b.i. kind of guy this year. As one wag recently wrote in Sports Illustrated, “I’ve always thought he was a terrific player. And I’ve always thought he was overrated, too. That’s a hard double to pull off.” That seems to be the dilemma in looking at Jeter’s career. How much of this has been based, solely, on Jeter’s skills on the field and how much of his reputation has been built by the media machine of New York City? It’s been a fair question to ask.
But, Jeter has re-opened many eyes on the importance of being a solid, reliable, highly-skilled shortstop in the pantheon of playing winning baseball, championship-level baseball. Sometimes, before you decide on a players’ ranking among his peers, you just need to take a second look.
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