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February 23, 2004

Slaying the Golden Calf
by Larry Mahnken

The first time you hear it, it sounds absolutely preposterous. It goes against everything you've heard, and everything you hear. After a while, if you start to look at it critically, it makes a little more sense, and then a lot more sense. Eventually, you accept it as fact, and ultimately it becomes dogma. And then other peoples' inability to see it seems absolutely preposterous.

It is, to put it simply, the litmus test of objective analysis. What do you think of Derek Jeter's defense?

The numbers are fairly unambiguous. In the past three seasons, Derek Jeter has had three of the seven worst defensive seasons at shortstop, including the two worst. He was 31 runs below average in 2002, and 28 runs below average in 2003--but in 36 fewer games. He's so bad, that his defense completely negates his offense, making him a shortstop of average value. Last season, he was worth .016 runs per game over the average shortstop, or about 2.5 runs over an entire season. He's not in the class of Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, he's in the class of David Eckstein and Jimmy Rollins. And he's still third in that class.

Those numbers are simply staggering, especially when you follow that up by saying that Jeter was robbed of the MVP in 1999.

When Jeter signed a ten-year $190 MM contract after the 2000 season, he was coming off of a year in which he was the All-Star Game MVP and World Series MVP. He had declined from his great 1999 season, but he was still 40 runs better than the average shortstop, which wasn't in the class of A-Rod and Nomar, but still very good. He was overpaid, but it was still better to overpay him than to not have him. But he was also a player who'd had an MVP-caliber season at 25. Nobody knew then that it was a fluke. Some people still haven't accepted it, but the fact is that Derek Jeter simply wasn't as good as he played in 1999. Like Davey Johnson in 1973, he simply had the perfect season.

But you'd think that he'd have stayed at his 2000 level for a few years, at least. Instead, in 2001, he hit worse and fielded worse, and his value dropped to about 20 runs above average. In 2002 the decline continued, and he was actually four runs below the average shortstop. While his hitting returned to it's 2001 levels this past year, his glove dragged him down.

Overpaid though he is, he is still an average player overall, and a very good hitter, and if sabermetrics has taught us anything, it's that you should look at what a player can do, rather than what they can't. For his bat alone, Derek Jeter deserves to be an everyday player, and to bat near the top of the lineup. Nobody is suggesting benching him. But Nick Johnson is a great hitter, too, and nobody suggested putting him at third base during the World Series. To put such an awful defensive player at the most important defensive position on the diamond, as the Yankees do with Jeter, borders on madness.

Before last week, the Yankees did it because they lacked a better option at short. When Jeter went down last season, Erick Almonte stepped in and made Jeter look good: His UZR was 17 runs below average in 31 games!!! But now the Yankees have Alex Rodriguez, whose defense was 47 runs better over 162 games than Jeter's last season.

So, how do the Yankees look at A-Rod, look at Jeter, and say, "Hey, we'll stick with what we've got"? I really don't know.

If the Yankees were to move Jeter to third, they might find out he's a lousy third baseman. But then, they might find out he's a great third baseman (though he probably wouldn't be). A-Rod might also be a lousy third baseman. It's an unknown. But what is know is that Jeter already is a lousy shortstop, and that Rodriguez is a good shortstop. By moving A-Rod, the Yankees are risking having two bad defensive players on the left side of the diamond, and ensuring they'll have at least one, instead of possibly having two good defensive players on the left side, and ensuring that they have at least one good one.

So, why are they moving A-Rod? Well, because he was so desperate to get out of Texas, he said he'd move. Nobody in the Yankees' organization has asked Jeter to move, and Joe Torre has said that he's not going to ask Jeter to move. And the reason for that decision is simple:

The Yankees don't think Derek Jeter is a bad defensive player.

I'm sure they don't think he's as good as A-Rod, but they think that he's average at worst, and probably pretty good. They think that they're not taking much of a risk by leaving Jeter at short. To someone who has long accepted and understood the horror that is Derek Jeter's defense, it's mind-boggling that the people who are paid to determine the value of a baseball player don't realize how bad his glove is. But if there was any doubt that they didn't know he stunk, Joe Torre's comments in this article last weekend sealed it:
"It's really tough to try to measure," Torre said of Jeter's defense. "There's something special about Derek Jeter. It's something that you can't put down on paper."
See, there you go. He's magic.

Oh, maybe Joe was just bullshitting, because he knows that Jeter stinks but the people upstairs won't let him move him, but I don't think so. Talk to almost any baseball fan, and you'll quickly realize that Derek Jeter is so ensconced in myth that nobody is willing to evaluate him for what he is. He's not just a baseball player, he's the savior of the Yankees. He's good looking, he's classy, he says all the right things. He's such a good guy that nobody wants there to be anything wrong with him as a player, and so, to most people, there's nothing wrong with him as a player. You can get a few fans to admit he wasn't a good defensive player last year, but they'll say it was because he had a down year, and that he wasn't really bad, just not very good. But when you try to explain to them that he's the worst defensive shortstop in baseball, they'll scoff at you. It can't possibly be true.

There's nothing special about Derek Jeter. Yeah, he's a great guy, and a good ballplayer, but he's still just a ballplayer. He should absolutely be the captain of the team, and he should absolutely be batting in one of their first two lineup slots. But he's not clutch, and he's not a good defensive player. The sooner the Yankees accept that, the better off they'll be.