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September 22, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Yesterday, I wrote about the Yankees' starters at the corners: Aaron Boone, Jason Giambi and Nick Johnson. In those three players the Yankees have two elite hitters and one painfully average one. However, on the Yankees, having an average player at third base is more than acceptable, because they've been able to count on offensive support elsewhere.

Namely, the middle infield. The Yankees have a second baseman and shortstop that hit like left fielders, which has allowed them to succeed in the past two seasons despite having some outfielders that hit like middle infielders.

I give Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano a lot of criticism on this site, because they have serious flaws in their games, but particularly because those flaws are not emphasized by those who cover the Yankees on a daily basis. But the fact is, that on whole, these are two very good players, and together are one of the keys to the Yankees' success. I've said before, Derek Jeter is vastly overpaid, and Alfonso Soriano is about to be--but the Yankees are much better off overpaying them than having someone else overpay them.

Derek Jeter was one of the keys to the Yankees' great run in the 90's. From their last World Series appearance in 1981 until Jeter's arrival as a full-time player in '96, the Yankees had played Bucky Dent, Roy Smalley, Andre Robertson, Larry Milbourne, Rodney Scott, Barry Evans, Bobby Meacham, Tim Foli, Keith Smith, Dale Berra, Rex Hudler, Wayne Tolleson, Mike Fischlin, Paul Zuvella, Ivan DeJesus, Mike Pagliarulo, Randy Velarde, Jeff Moronko, Jerry Royster, Rafael Santana, Luis Aguayo, Alvaro Espinoza, Tom Brookens, Jamie Quirk, Jim Walewander, Carlos Rodriguez, Andy Stankiewicz, Mike Gallego, Dave Silvestri, Spike Owen, Kevin Elster, Robert Eenhoorn and Tony Fernandez at shortstop. Jeter not only gave the Yankees an everyday shortstop, he gave them an All-Star caliber shortstop. Alex Rodriguez exploded into the spotlight that year, and Nomar Garciaparra arrived the next, so except for a fluky 1999, Jeter has been the third best shortstop in baseball since then. He's not really in the class of A-Rod and Nomar, but that tends to undersell his place all-time, where he is certainly one of the top 15 shortstops ever, probably better.

What separates Garciaparra and Rodriguez from Jeter is their power. It took Jeter nearly three seasons to hit as many home runs as Nomar and A-Rod did in their first full seasons, but that’s not his game. It’s really pointless to compare the three, because if you try to say that Jeter is as good as those two, you’ll look myopic and biased, and if you show how he’s inferior (which he is), he looks inadequate (which he isn’t). So forget about the Big Two, and let’s judge Jeter based on his own merits.

What makes Derek Jeter a great offensive player is that he gets on base. He doesn’t walk a lot, but he walks enough, and he hits the ball hard to the opposite field, which gives him a high Batting Average. This season his OBP is hovering around .400, and is around .390 for his career, which is good for an outfielder, great for a shortstop. At the top of the Yankees’ lineup, in front of Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada, he’s tremendously valuable. But OBP is not all he can do. He has some pop, but he’ll never be a big HR hitter. What he’s best at is baserunning. He’s fast, has good instincts, and is almost always aware of what’s going on with the defense. His baserunning has suffered this season, though, largely due to the shoulder injury he sustained on Opening Day.

His Achilles’ Heel is, of course, his defense. Jeter got a reputation as a good defensive player largely by a failure on the part of baseball insiders to understand what makes a good defensive player, but possibly as part of an effort to make him look as good as the Big Two. Sure, Nomar and A-Rod can hit better than Jeter, the thinking went, but Jeter is a better defensive player. It of course wasn’t true--Nomar wasn’t a great defensive player, but A-Rod might be the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and Jeter…well, he might be the worst one.

To some degree, the media is starting to accept that Jeter’s not a good defensive shortstop, but it seems the furthest they’re willing to go with that is by saying he’s “average”, or slightly below average. He’s not. He’s just bad. He has poor range, and anything hit a few feet to his left or right will likely go into the outfield for a single. When he does get to the ball, he makes more than his fair share of errors, and he has difficulty turning the double play. He does have a strong arm, but that really strengthens the case of those that say he should be an outfielder, where he wouldn’t be an All-Star, but he’d probably be in the top five in right or center, or third base, where he’d be one of the top five in the league.

But even with his defense factored in, it doesn’t hurt him so much that it makes him an average shortstop (as some would try to claim). It perhaps drops him behind Miguel Tejada, but he’s still top five at his position. While shortstop is possibly the highest impact defensive position, defense is still not nearly as important as offense, and over the course of the season, Jeter’s bat far outweighs his glove. But in a short series, where things don’t even out, his glove might seriously hurt the Yankees--which is why so many people think that the Yankees should look to move him. But you don’t know how the dice are going to fall, his glove could kill you, his bat could carry you. If he was running the bases like he has in years past, I’d rate him an A-, but right now, I’ll give him a B+.

Now, while Jeter is flawed, Alfonso Soriano’s flaws make Jeter look like the Virgin Mary. He rarely walks, he strikes out often, he plays poor defense, he’s streaky, and at times he plays less than conscientiously. But it can’t be denied that he’s as talented as anyone on the field, and that talent has made him, despite his flaws, one of the elite second basemen in the game.

Soriano’s value is almost entirely tied up in his getting base hits and home runs. He rarely walks, and his batting average is not high enough to give him a respectable On-Base Percentage. Joe Torre’s insistence on batting him leadoff is a product of decades of traditional lineup construction, where you put your speedsters at the top of the lineup. But it makes little sense to me. When your best hitters are power hitters, what base the runner is standing on is of little importance: they have a good chance to score on a double, and a 100% chance of scoring on a home run. The chances of getting thrown out trying to steal are not worth the benefit of getting to second base, because these days, your best hitters aren’t singles hitters. Because they hit the ball so hard, it’s far more important to have a runner of ANY kind on base, and while you’d ideally like a guy with some footspeed to stay out of a double play, it shouldn’t be a first priority, or even a mandatory requirement. Earl Weaver summed it up pretty well when he said:
Team Speed? For Christ’s sake, you get fucking goddamn little fleas on the fucking bases getting fucking picked off trying to steal, getting thrown out, taking runs away from you. Get them big cocksuckers who can hit the fucking ball out of the ballpark you can’t make any goddamn mistakes.
For Alfonso Soriano, batting leadoff is even more bizarre, because not only does he not get on base, he hits for tremendous power. He is, it seems to me, the ideal #6 hitter, who can clear away the big hitters left on base in front of him with a home run, and give the singles hitters behind him more RBI opportunities by stealing his way into scoring position, when their singles would likely not have scored him otherwise. Making the situation even worse is his streakiness. Like most hackers, Soriano goes through streaks where he’s hitting everything, and others where he can’t hit anything, as shown by this graph of hit OPS over every 11-game stretch (the current game, and the five before and after) during the season:

At the top of the lineup, his hot streaks are being wasted, and his cold streaks are doing the maximum damage. You can make a dozen arguments why Soriano shouldn’t be at the top of the lineup, but the only one I can think of for why he should be isn’t a very good one: he’s fast.

He is, of course, very fast, and he’s becoming nearly as good a base stealer as Jeter has been in past seasons. His high success rate on the basepaths increases his value to the team, but at the top of the lineup, where it often doesn’t matter what base you’re standing on, the value of that is minimized.

With the glove, Soriano is not quite as bad as Jeter, but he’s not good, either. He’s okay at going to his left, but when the ball is hit up the middle, he has difficulty backhanding it and making a play. Combined with Jeter’s inability to range very far to either side, it’s no surprise that the most oft heard phrase by Yankees’ announcers is “through to center field for a base hit!”

But just like Jeter, Soriano’s glove is outweighed by his bat. Only Bret Boone and Marcus Giles have hit better as second basemen than Soriano, and both are excellent defensively. How you rate Soriano is really dependant on what week it is--if it’s the week in which he’s hitting 1.100, then he’s an A+, but if it’s the week he’s hitting .450, then it’s an F. He’s red hot right now, which has me worried about which hitter we’re going to see in the playoffs, but right now, I’d have to rate him a B.

Are Jeter and Soriano overrated? Vastly. Are they deeply flawed? Absolutely. Could Soriano, if he worked harder, be one of the elite hitters in baseball, not just at second base? Probably. But they are very, very good players, and the overall production the Yankees get out of their middle infielders is as good as any other team in baseball. It is, without a doubt, a strength.