Posts Tagged ‘Robin Yount’

The Derek Jeter Aura

March 3, 2014

So I see that Derek Jeter is hanging it up at the end of this season. That’s both good and bad. It’s, frankly, time for him to go, but it will cost MLB its face (which isn’t really David Wright, despite the recent poll) and the most recognizable player of his generation. He’ll get to make a grand tour, get lots of gifts (but try to top Rivera’s broken bat rocking chair), a ton of applause and adulation. Then he’ll ride off toward Cooperstown, making it in five years. It’s really a fitting way for him to leave us.

Ever notice how some players just have an aura about them? Ruth had one, so did Mantle. Koufax has it to a lesser degree. Well, Jeter has one too. He is “The Captain” the rock around which the Yankees built their latest dynasty. He’s the man with “The Flip” (which is still probably the best fielding play I ever saw). He is “one of the five greatest Yankees ever.” You hear all that don’t you?

Well, hang on a minute. Without trying to diminish Jeter’s legacy, which is formidable, let’s not get too carried away here. It’s not like he’s the first captain the team ever had. Gehrig was team captain too and Gehrig was a better player. If Jeter was the rock on which the latest Yankees dynasty was built, then he had a lot of other rocks around to hold up part of that foundation. There was Pettitte, Rivera, Posada (the so-called “Core Four”), and there was Clemens, and O’Neill, and Knoblauch, and Martinez too.

Jeter reminds me of Joe DiMaggio. He has the same aura about him. Both are great players, but both seem to be remembered as being somehow greater than they were in actuality. It took twenty-five years for fans to realize that Mantle was a greater player than DiMaggio and Jeter has that kind of aura too. I don’t mean to imply that somehow the Yanks have a greater shortstop in their history, only to point out that Jeter is revered in much the same way as DiMaggio. There’s a reverence about them that is different from the awe that surrounds either Mantle or Gehrig, or for that matter, Ruth. For the latter three it seems that “awe” is more appropriate and with Jeter and DiMaggio the word is “reverence.”

As for being “one of the five greatest Yankees ever” I suppose you could make that case for Jeter, although I’d rank him in the six through eight range, behind Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Berra and in line with Ford and Rivera. That’s not a bad place to be, all things considered. He’s probably a top five to ten shortstop (certainly behind Wagner and Ripken) depending on how you categorize Banks and Yount. He was never Ozzie Smith in the field, but then neither was much of anyone else.

Then it’s good-bye to Derek Jeter. The Yankees will miss him. I think a greater tribute is that baseball will miss him.

Tall at Short

July 13, 2011

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.

A Problem at Short

April 6, 2011

Back a few days ago I did a post on my choice for the top 10 Center Fielders ever. In a comment about it, Bill Miller jokingly asked if shortstop was next. Frankly, I wasn’t planning on doing another one of those top ten lists, but the question of shortstop got me to thinking about the position. In doing so, I noticed an interesting problem in making a decision like who are the top 10 shortstops.

A lot of players, a lot of truly great players, have been known to change position during their career. Stan Musial rotated between left field and first base for a time. Of course Babe Ruth went from pitching to right field (and a number of games in left field too). And Willie Stargell is listed at the Hall of Fame site under left fielders, but played a significant number of games at first, the position where he won his MVP. Dave Winfield floated between left field and right field.  But shortstop seems to have an inordinate number of really good players who shifted away from the position and spent truly significant time in another position. I’m not talking about guys like Pee Wee Reese or Cal Ripken or Arky Vaughan who moved from short to third at the end of their career because they no longer had the range to play short. I’m also not refering to players such as Honus Wagner who came up in 1897 and didn’t move to short until 1901. He stayed there (with the exception of a handful of games) for the rest of his career. I mean here guys that came up as shortstops and had to move away from the position at mid-career. There are several of them. Three are, by most estimates, men who would make a top 10 list.

Ernie Banks got to the Major Leagues in 1953 and played shortstop through 1961. There were a handful of games at third and in the outfield, but Banks was the Cubs’ everyday shortstop for nine years, winning dual MVPs. Then he developed leg problems and moved to first base. He spent 1962 through 1969 (eight years) as the normal first baseman, then played two final years as a backup player, also making all his games in the field at first. After 1961 he played not one game at shortstop. He ended up playing 1125 games at short and 1259 games at first (and about 100 at third or in the outfield).

Robin Yount was in the Major Leagues as a shortstop for Milwaukee at age 18. He won an MVP at short, playing there 11 years from 1974 through 1984. Then he hurt his arm and shifted to the outfield. He spent some time as a designated hitter and a left fielder, but by 1987 had settled in as the Brewers’ everyday center fielder, a position he held through his retirement in 1993, a total of seven years. Again there are a  handful of  games at first and  DH, but Yount spends the last half of his career as an outfielder, where he wins another MVP award. For his career he ends up with 1479 games at short (none after 1984) and 1218 games in the outfield (most in center).

Alex Rodriguez joined the Mariners in 1994, becoming the primary shortstop in 1996. Through 2003 (10 years) and a change of team he had four games as a DH, 1267 at short, a batting title, and RBI title, three home run titles, and an MVP. Then came the move to New York, which already had a shortstop. Since 2004, Rodriguez has played 1269 games at third base, five at short, and 36 as the DH (through the end of the 2010 season). Unless something happens to Derek Jeter, Rodriguez will, by the end of 2011, have spent more time at third than at short.

It should be obvious what problem is raised. These three guys are truly fine players, two Hall of Famers and a potential, and all are recognized as shortstops. Two of them are going to end up playing more than half their games at another position and the third is close. It brings up the obvious question: how much should these guys be rated as a shortstop?  Are they to be recognized as greater players than shortstops? Should we view them as multi-poitional players?  At this point I’m not sure of the answer, but at some point I’ll figure it out for my purposes. Then I’ll let you know what I’ve decided.

Getting to Cooperstown without Winning

May 19, 2010

For the second time in recent posting, I’m going to shamelessly borrow an idea from SportsPhd. He posted a comment on the absurdity of equating greatness as a player with winning a championship in a team sport. I agree entirely with him. I sat down following his post and began seeing if I could put together a team of players who never won and yet made it to Cooperstown. It was actually pretty easy, so I went a step farther.

Consider this team:

Infield from first to third: George Sisler, Rod Carew, Ernie Banks, and George Kell.

Outfield: Billy Williams, Harry Heilman, Ralph Kiner

Catcher: Rick Ferrell

Pitchers: Fergie Jenkins and Ted Lyons

Know what they have in common besides being Hall of Famers and not having won a World Series? They also never even got into a World Series. Yep, that’s right, team. This is a list of Hall of Fame quality players who failed to find a team good enough to earn a trip to the World Series. I’ll admit to having some problems with a couple of them getting into the Hall, but they are there and we have to deal with it.

This list points out two things to me. First, that you can be genuinely good and not win. Second, the truly great names, the ones we really expect to see in Cooperstown, do make it to a championship, at least occasionally. Here’s a look at a team that got to a World Series, but didn’t win. Notice that most of us would consider it a better team (at most positions).

Infield: Willie McCovey, Nellie Fox, Robin Yount, Fred Lindstrom

Outfield: Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Tony Gwynn

Catcher: Carlton Fisk

Pitchers: Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry

So if winning it all is the best measure of greatness, all these guys fall short (and Scott Brosius is a great, great, great–he won three–player).

There are other players that can be added. Feel free to put together  your own and post it here.