It’s always difficult to assess a player when his fame exceeds his ability.
Legends such as Reggie Jackson, Joe DiMaggio, and Pete Rose were great players, among the greatest of their times. But they weren’t quite as great as their fame would suggest, with their celebrity enhanced by playing in New York or postseason exploits or an endearing style of play.
Which brings us to one of the modern-day incarnations of such a player — Derek Jeter. Along with Ichiro, Jeter might be the most over-hyped player of his generation. Doesn’t mean he isn’t great; just means he’s not as great as the public consensus would suggest.
Now, Jeter is on the threshold of becoming the 28th player in history with 3,000 hits in his career. This is an impressive number. If you had one latte every day, it would take 8 years and 78 days to get to 3,000.
And the fact that Jeter will be the first Yankee to reach the milestone — a franchise with a wee bit of history — will increase the attention afforded the achievement.
Add in that Jeter has been the Yankees’ team captain, that he has been a focal point of five championship clubs, and that his dating history is rivaled only by John Mayer — and you have somebody who wears fame as easily as hair gel. And he wears it well, with nary a scandal or a less-than-classy moment.
That can make it difficult to delineate between the player and the legend.
For example, Jeter has been anointed with nicknames such as “Mr. November” and “Captain Clutch” in honor of his playoff performances.
Yet his postseason batting/on-base/slugging averages (.309/.377/.472) aren’t as impressive as those of Alex Rodriguez (.290/.396/.528). The perception is that Jeter is one of the great playoff players in history, while the perception of Rodriguez is that he crumbles in the clutch. The reality is much different.
For another example, people who study such things will tell you that Jeter has been a below-average fielder throughout his career, often well below average. Yet the reality is that he has won five Gold Gloves.
This isn’t meant as a knock on Jeter. I’m not a general manager; I just play one in the newspaper. And if I were a general manager, I would love to have Jeter on my team.
He’s a career .313 hitter, walks a decent amount, has 236 homers, and is as smart a player as you can find. Compared with Cal Ripken Jr., Jeter’s on-base percentage is 43 points higher, and his slugging percentage is three points higher.
Ripken is regarded as one of the great power-hitting shortstops, yet Jeter’s slugging percentage is higher.
Jeter has played 650 fewer games than Ripken did in his career, and because of that his career value isn’t quite as great. Which brings us to the point of this column — ranking the greatest shortstops in history. Because that’s what we do here at By the Numbers:
1, Honus Wagner
2, Alex Rodriguez
3, Arky Vaughan
4, Robin Yount
5, Cal Ripken
6, George Davis
7, Derek Jeter
8, Pee Wee Reese
9, Luke Appling
10, Barry Larkin
11, Joe Cronin
12, Ernie Banks
13, Ozzie Smith
14, Alan Trammell
15, Bill Dahlen
As you can tell, we lean toward offense among shortstops. That’s why Ozzie Smith ranks no higher than 13th.
Fielding is an important part of the position, but look at it this way: Each hitter in the lineup carries roughly 11 percent of the responsibility for the offense. On the other side, the pitcher accounts for most of the defense; even the shortstop is worth only a fraction of that.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that Derek Jeter is, indeed, one of the 10 greatest shortstops in the history of the game. That means he’s almost as good as he is famous.
Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne