Yesterday I saw a tweet thread from Internet Prince @KenTremendous that kinda caught me on my backfoot.
I'll get killed for this, but the truth is, Jeter was a very good hitter, and a good-not-great defensive SS, whose career was buttressed by being surrounded by better players. He's a borderline Hall of Famer. He'll probably get in, but he shouldn't. At least not first ballot.— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) November 18, 2019
To be quite honest, I read this with a completely straight face and nodded in agreement. Then this really smart guy sucker-punched me in the breadbasket with this one here:
Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit a darn minute.
I was in the middle of a work thing so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think it over or get too far into it, but the thought occurred to me that Jeter is certainly no better than my personal childhood hero, Barry Larkin, and so I said as much.
Derek Jeter was not better than Barry Larkin— Charlie Scrabbles (@ChuckScrabbles) November 21, 2019
I didn’t really give it a second thought, as is my long-practiced course of action with regards to Derek Jeter Shit on the Internet. But then this incredible brand of special bespoke bullshit started to make the rounds.
Every year we go through this and every year I have to suppress the urge to engage with this Final Boss-Level soup-brainery, so I just took a breath and rolled my eyes and moved on with my day. Shit always gets weird around baseball this time of year and an unaccountable bloghole resident like myself with suspect mental health has to let a lot of this stuff go, even the especially flabbergasting crap like this. Every year at least one writer with a HOF ballot pulls some kind of navel-gazey stunt like this and you can’t take every one of them seriously. There is a lot of injustice in the world, you know. You gotta choose your battles.
Then I saw this:
Okay. Battle stations, idiots. We have a code blue red alert on our hands. One writer pulling a stunt like this is infuriating, but responding to it is below my esteemed station. Two is possibly a pattern and it’s prudent to begin marshalling our forces to attempt to head it off. I am, after all, an esteemed unaccountable bloghole resident, and I take very seriously the responsibility as an arbiter of sacred knowledge that the position entails.
So I guess I have to do this now. I don’t feel obligated to argue against the insipid notion that Jeter was the best shortstop ever, as it seems outrageous on its face (he played alongside the obviously superior Alex Rodriguez for a number of years, fer cryin’ out loud). I find the notion that Jeter was no better than Larkin to be fairly self-evident, but given the purple prose being calligraphed in his adulation right now, I suppose I need to show my work.
The first thing to do is to compare them using Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric. I won’t get into explaining it all for you here in any kind of depth, because it’s been done before and I’m assuming you are at least casually aware of it. It basically weights a player’s longevity and peak to try to produce a rough-and-ready apples-to-apples comparison in case somebody wants to make a case precisely like the one I’m aiming at here.
According to JAWS, here are the ten best shortstops in the history of Major League Baseball (and their JAWS numbers):
Honus Wagner 98.1
Alex Rodriguez 91.0
Cal Ripken Jr 76.1
George Davis 64.5
Robin Yount 62.3
Arky Vaughn 61.8
Ernie Banks 59.7
Ozzie Smith 59.7
Luke Appling 59.2
Bill Dahlen 57.8
Funny thing here: ain’t no Derek Jeter, huh? When I said I didn’t want to even bother arguing against the idea that Jeter is the best shortstop ever, this is why.
The next three on the list are:
Alan Trammell 57.8
Derek Jeter 57.4
Barry Larkin 56.9
AVG HOF SS 55.0
And here’s where we get to the pudding part of the meal. As you can see, Jeter and Larkin wash out as more-or-less identical according to JAWS. Jeter has a half-point advantage, but it would be unreasonable to lend that any kind of credence. JAWS isn’t precise enough to split that thin a hair. By a first approximation, the most reasonable conclusion is that Jeter and Larkin are at the same level, or to put it another way, Jeter was not better than Larkin.
But do you think I’m comfortable just leaving it at that? Damn no! I’ll take it a step further are argue that, actually
Barry Larkin was better than Derek Jeter
Now, I recognize that this is a controversial statement. Even on my home court in the Reds bloghole / twitterverse I would think a fair number of folks would consider this a bridge too far. But hear me out.
Some relevant numbers:
Barry Larkin won the MVP in ’95, made the All-Star team 12 times, and won nine Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves.
Derek Jeter won the Rookie of the Year in ’96, made 14 All Star teams, and won five Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves.
Adding up awards like this isn’t the most precise presentation of a player’s quality, but it gives some context for how the player was viewed by the writers, players, managers, coaches, and other contemporary baseball folks who played with or against, worked with or against, or regularly watched the player. Larkin won the MVP, which is something Jeter never did. Some argue that Jeets deserved it over Justin Morneau in 2006 (he finished second), and cases can be made for his 1998, ’99, and ’09 seasons. Basically, Jeter never actually won the MVP, but he put up an impressive number of MVP-caliber seasons. Honestly, you can’t fault a guy for losing out to the RBI machines of Justin Morneau and Juan Gonzalez.
Conversely, a case can be made that Larkin didn’t deserve the one he did win in ’95. He had an amazing season, of course, but I would argue it should have gone to Greg Maddux, who threw one of the greatest seasons of all time (1.63 ERA and a .367 OPS against (!!!!!!) in 209 innings). Larkin had a handful of other MVP-caliber seasons on top of that, but remember that he was a contemporary of Barry Bonds and Bonds probably deserved a good bit more than the seven (!!!!!) MVPs he did win.
The Gold Gloves are the biggest point of contention here, though. Larkin won three and Jeter won five, but once again Larkin was overshadowed by an otherworldly contemporary: Ozzie Smith won 12 straight, the back half of those during Larkin’s peak. And I don’t think we need to get into Jeter’s defensive reputation. He won some of his Gold Gloves in seasons in which he was among the worst defenders in baseball in some respectable metrics.
The safe conclusion we can take from this is that Gold Gloves, especially those granted before the advent of more advanced and freely-available defensive metrics, are suspect at best.
So to reiterate, I think there is a ton of evidence to support my claim that Jeter was no better than Larkin. But there’s one thing that pushes me to support the bolder claim that Larkin was actually better than Jeter: plate appearances.
Jeter was a phenomenally prolific, healthy, and durable player. He played in parts of 20 seasons and accumulated 12602 plate appearances. That puts him at tenth on the list all time and the most ever as a shortstop. This cannot be discounted. Jeter was a certifiable Iron Horse, among the steadiest and most undaunted to ever toss the old bean around the horn. He was a Compiler in the truest sense: his 3465 hits, 544 doubles, and 1923 runs are all among the most ever and are all in no small part a function of his ability to stay healthy and be in the lineup every single damn day.
But healthier =/= better.
One of the most illustrative elements of Barry Larkin’s career was his inability to stay healthy. He played in 145 or more games in just six of his 19 seasons. Like his teammate Eric Davis (though to a lesser degree), the legacy of his potential is nearly as important as the legacy of his actual output. While Jeter played in 20 seasons and had 12602 plate appearances, Larkin only had 9057 in his 19 seasons. That’s more than 3500 PAs, or about five full seasons’ worth of PAs. That’s a lot of down time.
But again, my assertion is that Jeter is not better than Larkin. Clearly, Jeter was more durable, better capable of maintaining through a long season, luckier in avoiding odd injuries. That don’t mean he’s better. In fact, given that their top-line value stats are so similar, it stands to reason that Larkin would have to be a significantly better player than Jeter to amass similar value in less time. Larkin achieved ~100% of Jeter’s production in just ~80% of his playing time.
So yeah, I think Barry Larkin was a better baseball player than Derek Jeter.
But whatever. Congratulations to Mr Jeter on his inevitable induction into the Hall of Fame. Larkin made it in his third year on the ballot. But yeah, whatever.