Argh, Matey!
September 19, 2006

Avast, me hearties - today be National Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Noboby knows the exact date when people started talking like Robert Newton, but there be the possibility that it were a September 19th of yore.  Or maybe the holiday it be like Christmas, a date chosen for political purposes.  Regardless, there be far sillier things afoot and if ye don't mind me gettin' outta me pirate gear, I'll parley a dubloon for yer time.

In baseball, the silliest thing going is Derek Jeter's candidacy for the AL MVP.  It's pretty funny that when the sportswriters can't show that a player is good with his numbers, they resort to talking about how much he drives the team in the clubhouse.  And that might very well be true with Jeter.  But even if the Yankees were lackidaisical, does anyone actually believe that a team of All-Stars (former and present) with a team salary of over $200 million, who added another $16 million outfielder at the trade deadline, that that team wouldn't win 90 games?  So how much of their success is due to Jeter and how much is due to the Yankees paying for a top 5 player at every position? 

OK, let's look at the numbers.  I know numbers don't tell the whole story, but they at least have to tell some of it, don't they?  Jeter currently has the fourth highest OPS... on the Yankees, behind Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Bobby Abreu.  He's not even the MVP on his own team.  If we exclude all Yankee players, he has the second highest OPS... among AL shortstops, behind Carlos Guillen.  He's 16th overall in the AL.  Every single player considered his competition for the award is more productive at the plate: David Ortiz (3rd in OPS), Jermaine Dye (4th), Jim Thome (5th), Justin Morneau (7th), Frank Thomas (8th), Joe Mauer (10th), Grady Sizemore (12th) and Carlos Guillen (14th).  One really has to stretch the statistics to find meaningful foundation for an MVP candidacy. 

VORP (value over replacement player) is often cited as his strongest argument but given that the Yanks removed his biggest competition at short by putting ARod at third, comparing Jeter to the rest of the field is selling the field short.  Jeter's VORP rating would take a huge hit if ARod were on a different team.  At best, Jeter is an average fielding shortstop and by many accounts he's one of the worst range-wise.  There aren't any defensive metrics that reveal how many runs a player actually saves with his glove so it's not like we can do simple math to determine what his actual runs value is.  And since shortstop is one of the weaker hitting positions, any shortstop who is remotely productive offensively gains a huge advantage in VORP.  What would Justin Morneau's VORP be if the Twins moved him to short?  His defensive value couldn't be much more limited than Jeter's.  It's obvious that Jeter's VORP is artificially high. 

When it comes to the argument concerning which guy has done the most to help his team, Jeter's candidacy utterly fails the smell test here.  The science is in: the Yankees have a TON of very good players and Jeter, although he's the acknowledged leader of the team, is less valuable than most of them.  ARod, Giambi, Abreu are all better at the plate than Jeter and only Giambi is worse in the field.  Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano are all much better in the field than Jeter and pretty close to being as productive at the plate.  In a healthy year, one could add Hideki Matsui to that list of players who are arguably more valuable.  Lest we forget, Mariano Rivera, Chien-MingWang and Mike Mussina have been very good as well.  And Randy Johnson is a pretty decent throw-in to the argument that Jeter has lots and lots of help this year. 

The Yankees are 42-24 (.636) since the All-Star Break, after starting the year 50-36 (.581).  Their pitching has actually been worse as the year has progressed (4.30 ERA before, 4.53 ERA after the Break).  Jeter has been slightly better, increasing his OPS from .888 to .906 despite an drop in on base of almost 30 points.  But the biggest reason the Yankees are where they are right now is the addition of Bobby Abreu, whose .921 OPS replaced the .557 of Bubba Crosby in the line-up.  He's the MVP of the Yankees in the second half.  Jeter's performance has had little impact on the improved fortunes of the Yankees yet he's getting all the credit.

Carlos Guillen's Tigers have no players with 30 or more home runs (the Yanks have 2), only one player with a realistic chance at 100 RBI (Magglio Ordonez) while the Yanks will finish with four, and Detroit's closer is Todd Jones.  No one picked the Tigers to make the playoffs this year and certainly no one thought they would have the best record in baseball for nearly 90% of the season, yet there they are.   If the question is which shortstop is making his team a contender despite getting little help, then the answer is obviously Carlos Guillen, NOT Derek Jeter.  And Guillen is a better gloveman than Jeter to boot.

The Twins also have a pretty solid team.  Nick Punto has been an important part of their resurgence, getting on base and playing solid defense at third, but he's hardly Alex Rodriguez.  The big guns on the Twins have been Mauer, Morneau, Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but that also looks like a much shorter list than what has helped Jeter this year. 

Joe Mauer has a higher batting average, on base and slugging than Jeter, he carried the Twins in May and early June before Morneau, Santana and Cuddyer caught fire and has a very good chance to become the first AL catcher to win a batting title.  He also plays a more physically demanding and strategically more important position.  His VORP is dragged down because of the presence of Victor Martinez, Jorge Posada and Ramon Hernandez.  Only one regular AL catcher has an OPS below .740 (Jason Kendall), while four AL shortstops do.  Using VORP to assess MVP value is not any more useful than using the triple crown categories and in this case is probably less useful.

Justin Morneau might be an even better candidate than Mauer.  He's hit .375 over the last four months and no one in the AL has more RBI over that span.  Regardless, he's just 5 back of David Ortiz for the AL overall lead.  He's had two months where he's batted over .400 and two in which he's slugged better than .700.   He has a decent chance to finish in the top 5 in the triple-crown categories and has a better than good chance to lead the Twins into the playoffs as the AL Central champ despite being more than 10 games back a couple of months ago.  Arrr, matey, that be looking like yer true MVP.

If the voters are not going to give the MVP award to some guy with 40 homers, there just isn't any reasonable justification to give it to Derek Jeter.  There are two superior candidates at key defensive positions on winning teams who are putting up better individual numbers than Jeter and there are several power hitters - Morneau, David Ortiz, Jermaine Dye, Frank Thomas - who are having MVP worthy campaigns.  Jeter's MVP credentials this season, arrr, they be nothing but blarney. 

But let me take it a step further.  I believe Derek Jeter is perhaps the single most over-rated player in the history of baseball.  I do think he's a very good player but he has an awful lot of hype surrounding his performance and the numbers indicate that I'm not just having an allergic reaction to his media machine.  He is the only player in history to force two 40 homer/40 steal players (both shortstops, no less) to switch positions entirely due to pride and self-centeredness.  Alfonso Soriano played shortstop in the minors but was moved to second to accomdate Jeter and of course ARod's switch.  There's little question that with his limited range and strong arm Jeter would be fine at third base, while ARod's superior range would help the team's groundballers considerably.  Jeter is far better moving forward and back than he is laterally which makes moving him to third all the more obvious.  It's hilarious to listen to people prattle on about how Mike Piazza should be moved from catcher because of defensive shortcomings yet insist that Jeter be kept at short despite his.  With Piazza, we're talking about the best hitting catcher in history.  With Jeter, we're talking about a guy who has averaged 2.44 home runs per 100 plate appearances, which among shortstops ranks - are you ready for this? - 26th all time, just ahead of Orlando Miller and Roy Smalley but just behind Tom Tresh and Dale Sveum.

Even though defensive metrics still have a long way to go, most of them point to the fact that Jeter has subpar range.  I think the Dewan Fielding Bible comes closest to reconciling pure numbers with what the scouts see (although there's still a way to go before the two meet) and according to it Jeter is well below average with the glove.  If I remember correctly, it was pretty much unanimous that when ARod arrived in New York that he was the better defensive player, and that the only reason Jeter wasn't moved was because of his own obstinance to recognize ARod as the better player.  The press came to Jeter's defense by stating that the Yankees had won four World Championships with Jeter at short so how bad could he be?  But the fact is that as long as the Yankees had Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, David Cone, David Wells, Andy Pettitte, Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines and a host above average regulars, relievers and bench players, they probably could have won at least two championships with a glove at the shortstop position.  Not an actual player, just his glove.

Nevertheless, let's look at where Jeter is right now. He's 32 years old and entering this season he had 1936 hits, 169 homers, 215 steals and a .314/.386/.461 batting line.  Miguel Tejada, by comparison, is two years younger, had 1370 hits entering this season, 216 homers, 58 steals and a .280/.338/.477 line.  No one will debate that he's the much better gloveman.  I would compare ARod to Jeter but a) he hasn't been a shortstop for the last two years and b) there is no comparison because Rodriguez exceeded Jeter in every facet of the game when he was playing there.

It's interesting to note that only Cal Ripken had more hits as a shortstop at this point in his career than Jeter.  Of course, that's still no guarantee that he'll finish with at least 3000 hits.  For example, even though he was a second baseman, Roberto Alomar had more hits than any middle infielder in history at age 32 with 2196, along with
151 homers, 377 steals and a .304/.375/.446 batting line.  He was almost a certain lock for more than 3000 career hits, yet he fell short by 276.  Steve Sax had roughly the same number of hits (1915) that Jeter did at this point in his career; he finished with 1949.  Alan Trammell had 1929 hits at this point and he might not nake the Hall of Fame with his career total of 2365 hits.  Dick Bartell and Garry Templeton are also in the top 10 shortstops at this point in their careers with regard to hits yet they are in no danger of making the Hall.

Taking this point one step further, there are a number of guys with more hits that Jeter to this point in their careers who didn't finish with 3000 hits: Rogers Hornsby, Vada Pinson, Willie Keeler, Joe Medwick, Jimmie Foxx, Sam Crawford, Jesse Burkett, Richie Ashburn, Frankie Frisch, Al Simmons, Ed Delahanty, Harry Heilmann, Lloyd Waner, Goose Goslin, Stuffy McInnis, Lou Gehrig, Heinie Manush, Nellie Fox, Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda, Arky Vaughn, Pie Traynor, Ron Santo, George Davis, Rusty Staub, Mickey Mantle, Sherry Magee, Billy Herman, Joe Torre, Jake Beckley, Kirby Puckett, Buddy Bell, Joe Kelly, Jim Rice, Del Ennis, Eddie Matthews, Joe Sewell and Ryne Sandberg.   If you're counting, that's nearly 40 guys who had more hits at the same age as Jeter entering this year yet still didn't top 3000 hits.  And many of those guys were much better hitters than Jeter.  There are nearly 60 guys in history who had more hits.  Doing the math, Jeter has roughly a 33% chance of topping 3000.  I'd call that far from a lock.  Five or six years ago there were a lot of people telling me that Bernie Williams had a really good chance for 3000 hits.  Maybe I'm wrong here but unless he has a couple of 300-hit seasons in his bat, I think he's going to fall well short. 

If we use OPS as a measure, Jeter ranks 82nd at this age.  Of the guys who aren't currently playing, only a few aren't in the Hall of Fame and most of those have legitimate claims for enshrinement.  Using runs created, Jeter ranks 8th among shortstops to this point in his career.  Of course, four of the guys ahead of him - Ed McKean, Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock and Herman Long - are guys few people have heard of.  And the guy who has the highest runs created for a shortstop for a career before age 32?  That would be Alex Rodriguez.  But let's pull out all the stops.  Among shortstops (and only shortstops) with at least 1000 plate appearances, he ranks 32nd all-time in isolated power behind Kevin Elster, Wil Cordero and Chris Woodward.  He ranks 29th in secondary average, 19th in total bases and 16th in runs created per game.  Again, this is just among shortstops all-time, a position that has notoriously been the refuge of all-glove, no-hit type players.  For a guy who's calling card is supposed to be offense (because it sure ain't his glove) those numbers are pretty underwhelming.  And as he gets older, the rate numbers are unlikely to get any better.  He's essentially Tony Gwynn with less average and fewer steals.  Gwynn had 8 batting titles; Jeter has zero.  So again tell me why he's supposed to be so great?

For every player there are two sides of his story: what he does on offense, which is reasonably well related in the numbers, and what he does on defense which, until someone starts using computerized video analysis to reveal exactly how quickly and how far players travel to get to a ball in play, will be under the perview of personal observation with some kibutzing from a few stats.  In Jeter's case, he's a very good hitter and at best adequate in the field.  So how does someone do the math and get "great" from that?

Jeter will probably end up in the Hall of Fame regardless of what happens from here on out largely because the New York media push for him is so strong.  I mean, Phil Rizzuto is in the Hall as a player for heaven's sake. Whether or not he will actually deserve it is a different matter.  There is plenty left to be decided about his career and what he's done so far, while very good, is far from assurance that he will end up among the pantheon of baseball's greatest players.  An MVP will help, although I'm not sure stealing one is the way to go about it... but then again, maybe the people pushing for Jeter are less Yankee fans than they are pirates at heart.