In my last post I answered Bill Miller’s question concerning my evaluation of Derek Jeter as an all-time Yank. Bill actually asked two questions. The second asked my opinion as to Jeter’s position in the shortstop pantheon. So, as I said earlier, I’m not immune from putting my foot solidly in my mouth, so here’s a reply to that query.
First the evaluations of shortstops are more difficult than a lot of positions. By general consensus Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, and Barry Bonds (done in the order they arrived in the big leagues) are the top four left fielders. There record as left “fielders”, as opposed to hitters is a mixed bag. Let me ask this, do you seriously care? Probably not. All are in the lineup to hit and it they can catch and throw then you have gravy. But it doesn’t work that way with a shortstop. You can’t just concentrate on his hitting. Fielding matters and fielding stats are most nebulous and imprecise of baseball stats. So you can’t just look at Jeter and say, “Well, sure, he’s better than Ozzie Smith because Smith didn’t hit nearly as well” (Using Smith purely as an example). That may be true, but Smith was twice the fielder that Jeter is (and that’s true of Smith versus almost anyone at short) and so that must be taken into serious consideration. If you decide that Williams and Bonds are a dead tie as hitters, you can use fielding as a way of picking one over the other, but with shortstops you have to consider this stat from the start. So looking at shortstops requires going into the fielding stats minefield.
Secondly, an inordinate number of truly fine shortstops have spent a lot (and I mean a LOT) of time at other positions. Honus Wagner was up for several years before settling at short, Robin Yount and Ernie Banks were both hurt and transfered to other positions (Yount to the outfield and Banks to first base) for significant parts of their career. In fact Banks ended up with more games at first than short, and Yount ended up with more total games in the outfield (but not at any single position in the outfield) than at short. And to give you a contemporary player, Alex Rodriguez has now spent more time at thrid than at short. All this makes it difficult to view a player as a shortstop rather than as an overall players (although doing so year by year instead of via career numbers makes it easier). Besides what do you call Yount, a shortstop of an outfielder? To solve that I went to the Hall of Fame site and looked how they defined a player. They say Yount and Banks are both shortstops (and Willie Stargell a left fielder as opposed to a first baseman–just to give you some idea of what they do). So I decided to add both to my list. I left ARod off (which I know isn’t great for consistency) because he’s still playing and it is possible he will shift back to short and solve the question or will end up spending twice as many games at third and solve the problem that way. As I don’t know what will happen there (“It is always easier to prophesy after the event.”–Winston Churchill) I left him off.
So here’s my thought on the matter. I’ll list my one and two players, then the next three in alphabetical order. I’m certain who I think is first and who is second. Three through five tend to shift around depending on the day, the stats I’m looking at, the latest book I’ve read (the phases of the moon), but I’m reasonably confident which three go there.
1. Honus Wagner. There are a lot of really good shortstops, but Wagner is still head and shoulders above the rest. Personally, I think the drop from number one to number two is greater at shortstop than at any other position (no offense to number two, below).
2. Cal Ripken. He set the standard for a new kind of shortstop. He was mobile and he had power. He didn’t have the flash of Smith, but he was very adept at playing the hitter in such a way that he very seldom had to make a spectacular play.
3-5. Ernie Banks, Arky Vaughan, Robin Yount. Banks was the prototype for Ripken. It just didn’t take. All three of these are much alike. They are good enough shortstops (I’d rate Yount as the best) with a glove, but all hit very well; Banks for good power, Yount for occasional power. Both Yount and Banks win double MVPs and Vaughan could well have won one.
So where is Jeter? He’s in the next bunch. There are an entire pack of really good quality shortstops that can be rated 6-10. There’s Ozzie Smith, the underrated Alan Trammel, Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, both Lu Ap’s (Luis Aparicio, Luke Appling), Reese, Rizzuto, Omar Vizquel, and old-timer George Davis who could take the next five slots (and I’m sure I left off at least one deserving candidate). Jeter is one of those that fit right in with this group. Right now I’d certainly put him in the mix, probably very high in that mix. I’m reasonably sure he’s going to move up my food chain. I expect him to end up a top five, possibly as high as third or fourth. But I’m going to wait until the career ends to drop him into a definite hole.
Having said that, he ought to get at least an extra point or two for standing along the first base line, grabbing a badly thrown ball, and flipping to Posada to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate during the playoffs. Arguably the greatest play I ever saw. For all the overhyping of Derek Jeter (and I’ve been critical of it) he is the closest we’ve had to a baseball icon since the steroid scandal broke. Baseball could surely use one and Jeter has done a good job of filling that role.