On August 8, Derek Jeter banged out the 2874th hit of his MLB career, vaulting him past the legendary Babe Ruth on the all-time hits list. Fans clapped and cheered while pundits declared him a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame. It’s all very exciting, and the fact that he now has more hits than the famous Babe Ruth makes this a Big Big Deal, right?
Well, maybe, and maybe not. Babe Ruth was undoubtedly one of the greatest ever to play the game, but let’s not forget that most of his contributions to baseball were spent obliterating home run records rather than hitting infield singles. Ruth’s 2873 hits put him at 40th place on the list, just three hits behind Mel Ott. When Jeter hits number 2877, I somehow doubt anyone will make much fanfare over him passing Ott.
So yes, Jeter is mostly getting attention for passing Ruth. But there’s no denying that racking up nearly 2900 hits is impressive, especially considering 3000 is usually regarded as Hall of Fame territory. What strikes me as impressive is the number of games it’s taken him to earn those hits, though. As of August 11, 2010, Jeter will have played in 2249 games (essentially 15 seasons, not including the 1995 season when he only appeared in 15 games). Meanwhile, guess how many games on average the top 100 on the all-time hit list appeared in?
2671, or about 16.5 full seasons.
Jeter appears to still have plenty left in him, so it’s safe to say he’ll probably be playing for more than just one more season. Assuming he plays as many calendar years as the top 100 hitters did on average, he’s got about three more seasons left in him. Further assuming he keeps hitting at the same clip he has for his whole career (he’s a lifetime .315 hitter, remember), he’d be sitting at 3417 hits by the time those three seasons are up.
That would put him at 8th all time, just ahead of Honus Wagner and only two hits behind Carl Yastrzemski. He’d also be about 100 hits behind Tris Speaker (about half an average season’s work for him) for 5th place. Hard not to think someone with those kinds of numbers wouldn’t be a lock for the Hall of Fame, right?
Obviously, this is overlooking a couple of factors. Jeter just turned 36, so it’s hard to think that he’ll be able to sustain his current rate of nearly 200 hits per year until he’s 40. (He’s hit 129 hits through 110 games so far this season.) And as he gets older, his fielding skills are likely to decline as well, meaning the Yankees may have to find a new position for him.
Except that, you know, Jeter hasn’t been a good fielder for a while. In fact, excluding last season’s defensive renaissance, you have to go back to 2002 to find a season in which he wasn’t a reprehensible fielder.
This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which suggests that part of what makes Jeter such a great and enduring player is his outstanding defensive ability. The trouble with that is that we’ve never really had a good way to measure defensive ability other than watching Web Gems and seeing players lay themselves out for catches.
Of course, now that we live in the era of sabermetrics, we have ways to definitively measure almost everything. Zone Rating (and particularly Ultimate Zone Rating) are ways to measure, essentially, how many runs a player prevents from scoring as compared to an average, replacement-level player. In short, you want to have a high UZR, because it means you’re preventing your opponents from scoring, whether that’s by turning double plays, making routine catches, or picking off potential base stealers.
So if we’re convinced Jeter is a great defensive player, he ought to have a high UZR score. And he did, last year, posting an 8.0. Again, that means that he prevented 8 more runs from scoring than a replacement-level shortstop would have. As I’ve written elsewhere, every 5 more runs you score than your opponent is good for another game above .500. So that means that last season, Jeter produced nearly 2 more games above .500 for the Yankees purely with his defensive ability. That’s pretty impressive, right?
It sure is, but there’s one problem with that. Jeter’s UZR in 2009 was by far his highest score in his career. It’s not even close. His next highest score came in 2002, when he posted an 0.9. In fact, his average UZR from 2002-2010 has been -5.1, meaning Jeter’s defensive play actually cost the Yankees a win each season. In fact, in 2007, his score of -17.9 means he nearly cost his team four wins.
That’s not at all what I would have expected, having seen countless highlight reels of Jeter turning incredible double plays.
So on the one hand, Jeter is an offensive machine, racking up hit after hit en route to what will likely be a top 5 or 10 all-time finish. 3400 is a lot of hits. Yet on the other hand, he’s a defensive nightmare, routinely performing worse than a replacement-level player. So which is more important?
As far as the Hall of Fame goes, the answer has to be offense. Players who are tremendous on offense and not so great on defense usually find their way into the Hall of Fame, particularly with stats like Jeter’s. The difference, of course, is that those players tend to play positions where their defensive shortcomings are limited, like right field or first base. The only example we have of someone like Jeter who played a high-impact defensive position is Cal Ripken, Jr., but he set the all-time consecutive games played mark.
Frankly, I expect to see Jeter make the Hall of Fame, particularly since he and Ken Griffey, Jr. have been perceived as the poster boys for staying clean during the steroid era. But don’t try to convince me he’s an all-time great Yankee on the par of guys like Mantle, DiMaggio, and Ruth. Not with numbers like that.