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May 19, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Today was an experiment in superstition. It failed.

I have never been so disgusted by a three-game performance as I was by this series. To score only eight runs against the Texas Rangers, with the offensive talent this team has, is pathetic. The Yankees and Red Sox are now tied going into Fenway tomorrow, and I'm not feeling too good about things.

In May, the Yankees have several players who are performing below average--one who has been awful (Soriano), and nobody who's been great. Their best hitters this month are Robin Ventura and Nick Johnson--who's on the DL. The rotation has been mediocre, the bullpen has been awful. Yes, they've played the AL West this whole time--the best division in baseball--but they will need to beat these teams in October. They need bullpen help, but more than that, they need a kick in the ass. This team is better than they've played the past couple of weeks.

My friend Chrissy is finally home from school, which is awesome, because now there's another person around who loves the Yankees nearly as much as I do, along with Rob and Tyler.

Chrissy loves Derek Jeter. I think you know where I'm going here. If you're familiar with this topic, feel free to skip the rest of this post, I'm not going to say anything new.

Derek Jeter is a fine ballplayer. There is little doubt that he is the greatest Shortstop in Yankees history, and he'll likely have his number retired upon his retirement. Cooperstown is likely, and likely deserved. In 1999, he was possibly the best ballplayer in the game. No, he's not as good as A-Rod. He's not as good as Nomar. He might not be as good as Tejada. But he's still damn good. He can hit. He can run. He can field.

Wait, let's back up. Can he field?

This is a HUGE controversy between statheads and regular fans. The regular fans say "Of COURSE he's a great fielder! Look at him play!", while the statheads say, "Well, if you watch him play, of course you'll think he's a good fielder, because he looks great doing ordinary things. But the numbers show that he's not getting the job done."

Okay, for you regular fans, here's something to think about. Say there's a ball hit to a certain position on the field. In Situation A, the shortstop dives, gloves the ball, throws from his knees, and retires the batter by half a step. In Situation B, the shortstop gets behind the ball, fields it cleanly, and throws the runner out by two full steps.

Which was the better defensive play?

The answer is neither. Situation A was a better looking play, at least aesthetically, and will probably show up on Baseball Tonight as a "Web Gem". Situation B required more skill, as the defensive player had to show more range in getting to the ball. But the result of the play was an out, either way. They were both, in terms of their value, the same exact play.

That's where you need to start when you're evaluating a defensive player's skill, not by how good they look, but by how effective they are. How many balls they get to, not how they look getting to them.

And therin lies the problem with Derek Jeter. The numbers have shown that Jeter gets to fewer balls than other shortstops do. Partly this is because of the Yankees pitching, which strikes out a lot of batters. Partly it is because of positioning, which positions Jeter more towards the hole, making it more difficult for him to get to balls in the hole between short and third. Mostly it is because he has bad range.

Michael Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating for 2002 ranks Jeter's defense as being 24 runs below an average AL Shortstop, 43 runs worse than Mike Bordick, 32 runs than A-Rod, 28 runs worse than Nomar and Tejada. The second worst SS in the AL was Cristian Guzman (honest) who was 17 runs below average. Tony Womack was 22 runs below average in the NL.

Now, UZL has it's shortcomings, just like all defensive statistics. It doesn't take positioning into account. But what is clear is that Jeter is significantly worse than the other SS's in the "Big Four", and probably the worst defensive shortstop in the American League, if not baseball.

Even worse, his strength, offense, has been in decline ever since his spectacular 1999. His OPS from 1999 onward is: .989, .896, .858, .794

Now, his OPS in 1998 was .864, and he was bothered by injuries last year, so some may posit that he's not in decline, but that '99 was a fluke, and last year was really only an off year. Perhaps, and let's hope so. He should be peaking right now, not declining.

Ahh, but it's not all bad for our hero. He is one of, perhaps the, best baserunner in baseball. Since the start of the 1998 season to the end of last season, he's stolen 130 bases against only 24 caught stealings--nearly an 85% clip. And over the last two seasons he's stolen at a rate of 91%--59 swipes and 6 throwouts.

Of course, there's all those "intangibles". As far as I can see, those come down to being a Leader, Clutch Godâ„¢, and that play against Oakland in 2001. Yeah, that was a nice play, wasn't it?

Okay, as for being a Yes, he's the first out of the dugout to greet his teammates. Yes, he's really good with the press, and is never saying how great he is, and brushes off compliments with a modesty that makes you realize how great his parents must be. He's a great guy, no doubt about it. Kinda guy you'd bring home to Mom & Dad. But does that help the team win?

I doubt it. The Yankees are a veteran team, so it's unlikely that petty bullshit that goes on in the background would hurt them much, if at all. Maybe Jeter's leadership would help another team, but I doubt that also. It's really just something that you can't measure, because it's effect is so miniscule, if it exists at all, that it doesn't show up on the scoreboard.

Then there's the Clutch hitter reputation that everyone in New York gets eventually.

Derek Jeter's Career OPS: .852
Derek Jeter's Postseason OPS: .850
Derek Jeter's World Series OPS: .787

So much for that theory. The World Series numbers are hurt by a small sample size and a crappy 2001 Series (even with the homer), though.

As for the play against Oakland, 1) If Jeremy Giambi had slid, he would have been safe, and 2) Jeter shouldn't have been there. He had no business being there. He was out of position. Yes, it turned out well, but do you really want to credit a guy for being out of position. But let's just credit him anyway. That's one run. In one game. Period. Does that negate any of what we've said above?

Let me make it clear, I'm not a Jeter hater, as Rob Moses seems to think. I love Jeter. He's a great player. I have a Derek Jeter jersey that I wear proudly, and I root for him to do well every time he comes up. But he's not A-Rod. Or Nomar. Although he is still better than Tejada (slight tangent: Tejada's OPS last year was .861. A-Rod's was 1.015. Soriano's was .880, and Giambi's was 1.034. How was Tejada MVP? Oh yeah, Bonds was 1.381. That's comically good.). Anway, Jeter's a great ballplayer, but let's love him for what he is, not what we want him to be.

And what I want him to be is part of a team that wins six games against the Red Sox in the next two weeks.