In Appreciation of Derek Jeter
And so it’s official: Derek Jeter is now a Hall of Famer. I know that Jeter’s induction was a mere formality, but this is an important capstone on what was truly a historic career. For those of you that have read my bio on the Authors page of SSTN, you know that I name Derek Jeter as my favorite player. There are many players who came before and after Jeter who have caught my attention and stretched my imagination, but none have struck a chord with me quite like Derek Jeter. Most of my articles have a hard analytical bent, but I don’t think this occasion really calls for that kind of analysis.
You all know the hard facts. Jeter was a 14-time All-Star. He never played a single game at a defensive position other than SS, despite playing until he was 40 years old. He was the MVP of the 2000 World Series against the cross-town Mets. He was better offensively in the playoffs than he was in the regular season, even considering the fact that he is one of the best offensive shortstops in the history of the game. And lastly, but most importantly, Jeter played every game of his career with the most iconic baseball franchise in the world, the New York Yankees.
There is a lot that the hard facts cannot fully capture, though. It is true that the defensive metrics that we have available rate Derek Jeter as a well below-average defensive shortstop for his career. What that does not show is the sheer beauty baseball fans witnessed as Jeter moved to the hole between SS and 3B to get a ground ball, only to leap and make a rocket throw on the money to the waiting first baseman for an out. The defensive metrics also do not account for the fact that not only did the Yankees not tell Jeter that he had a defensive problem, but they did not position in him in the field in a way that optimized his chances for success. When both of these factors were finally brought to Jeter’s attention, he put up a season in 2009 that was one of his best defensively by any publicly available metric. Jeter had plenty of talent defensively had the Yankees utilized it properly, and positioned Jeter to cover for his flaws, specifically by shading him closer to the 2B bag, as he had range issues when moving to his left.
The hard facts also miss the fact that Jeter was likely cheated out of at least 1, possibly more MVP awards during his career. I can very easily make an argument for Jeter in 1998 and 1999, when he was pretty clearly one of the top-5 players in the game, but far less discussed is his 2006 season. Justin Morneau won the AL MVP that season, but Jeter was a well-rounded offensive juggernaut at the toughest defensive position on the diamond, stealing 34 bases, stroking doubles and homers to all fields, and displaying his typically superb plate discipline. Neither Jeter nor his teammates ever made a public stink about the times Jeter was snubbed in MVP voting, because the goals of the team were always ahead of personal goals as long as Jeter was a Yankee. No matter what Jeter has been as a person in his post-playing days, he was selfless as a player.
What always struck me were Jeter’s instincts. We all have seen the truly famous instinct plays that Jeter made – I embedded the “Flip Play” at the top of the screen, because that will always be the first play that comes to mind when I think of Derek Jeter. In the years since that play, I have heard many people inside of baseball, Buck Showalter among them, that claim that versions of the flip play are rehearsed during Spring Training. I’m not going to say that is an outright lie, but I will tell you that I have never seen that play executed in a game situation at any level, not to mention in the ALDS with the Yankees facing elimination. Beyond the seemingly impossible, instinct-based plays, Derek Jeter very rarely had a day where he made mental errors. His baseball IQ was so high that I hardly ever remember watching a game thinking that Jeter really messed up. I very much wonder what Jeter’s advanced stats would look like if he played in today’s era, where the Yankees would have altered his positioning relative to 2B, and we would have better accounting for the instincts Jeter showed, particularly in the field and on the basepaths. Jeter’s instincts were worth something on the field that historical statistics fail to capture.
At the end of the day, I was always drawn to the way that Jeter carried himself. I realize that this has become something of a cliche, but watching his career unfold, there was always the sense that Jeter went about his business the right way. He put his team first, playing hurt, focusing on team goals above personal accomplishments, and sacrificing his body to make plays for the team. Jeter never once said anything controversial to the media in nearly 20 years of MLB play, something that seems nearly impossible playing in New York, particularly for a player of Jeter’s stature. Jeter was a superstar in every sense of the world, yet he managed to play the game in a low-key, unassuming fashion. Jeter was the most popular guy on the field, yet he carried himself with a hard-working, blue collar mentality that never waned even in the twilight of his career.
Really, the only thing that helped Yankee fans move on from Jeter was the fact that fans were treated to yet another excellent player who carried himself the right way at SS in the form of Didi Gregorius right after Jeter retired. I am 30 years old. When people in my generation think of the New York Yankees, they think of Derek Jeter. When I walk into Yankee Stadium, I still can hear the DER-EK JE-TER (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) chants in my subconscious. Derek Jeter is baseball; Derek Jeter is the Yankees.
I consider myself very lucky to have witnessed Derek Jeter’s career. As a little kid, I always loved baseball. My Yankee fandom was solidified for life when Derek Jeter broke into the league. Without Derek Jeter and the 1996 Yankees, I know that I would still eat, sleep, and breathe baseball, but I don’t know that I would adore the Yankees or write for a Yankee blog. In that way, I really owe Derek Jeter a lot. The least I can do is say thank you.
So, this is my chance: thanks, Derek. I feel privileged to have watched you play, and I owe much of my love of the Yankees to watching you play. Congratulations for your enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. You deserve it as much as anyone who has ever been elected.