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March 11, 2004

Blind Faith
by Larry Mahnken

I was flipping through some magazines at work, and I noticed the Sporting News Ultimate Baseball Scouting Guide, which gives reports on every Major League player by Major League Scout. Flipping through it, I came to this:
Derek Jeter, Yankees

Defense: Is one of the most underrated defensive players in the game. Plays hitters and has better range than most, if not all shortstops, especially to his right. Won't have to worry about covering the hole as much with Aaron Boone at third. Has a good, accurate arm, pretty good hands and excellent defensive instincts. A lot of his errors are "range" errors.
Apparently, a lot of Jeter's errors are because he gets to balls that other shortstops don't. And apparently, his range is so great that he actually overruns the ball, and so it goes into the outfield.

He positions himself great, he has better range than almost every shortstop in the game, has great instincts, a good arm, and good hands. So explain to me how 21% of the balls hit to him last season became hits? Even if one accepts that you can't appreciate a defensive player by looking at the numbers, I've never seen anyone explain why Jeter lets a higher percentage of balls past him every single year. This isn't stathead mumbo-jumbo, anyone can do it. You could sit there and count the number of singles through the shortstop area of the field, and divide it by itself plus the number of balls that he does field, and you'll find that every shortstop in baseball gets to the ball more often than he does. It's not voodoo sabermetrics, it's fact. Someone please explain why, if Jeter's so good, or just not bad, WHY?

Frankly, the only way that Derek Jeter could be underrated was if someone was saying that he has slightly less range than the pitchers' mound. If the mainstream is actually underrating Derek Jeter, he must be the greatest defensive player that there ever was, and that includes the guys you've created in your video games with the ratings maxed out.

Michael Kay had some pretty stupid comments about Jeter earlier this week in his Q & A at the YES Network site:
I've noticed a lot of anti-Jeter columns lately. There's one in referring to him as a "terrible defensive shortstop." We can all admit that A-Rod is a better defensive shortstop, but lately people have been implying that the Yankees have won the World Series despite Jeter, not because of him. The only real weakness I've noticed is that he doesn't rob that many hits up the middle. But he's great at the over-the-shoulder catches in short left field. He also robs hits on his right side and throws to first from the grass. What do you make of all this Jeter bashing?
Ryan - New Jersey

Kay: Ryan,
It's been prevalent the past couple of years and I don't quite get it. I think it stems from sabrematricians who have a fielding/range formula they work with that shows Jeter does not get to as many balls as other shortstops. I think those stats are nonsense because the best way to judge a player is to watch his play everyday and at no time since 1996 have I thought Jeter was a bad shortstop. In fact, I always felt he was above average. Is he Ozzie Smith? No, but he is more than adequate and people simply want to find something to criticize about Jeter, so they go for Jeter on D. Rely on your own eyes and not some fielding stats that don't incorporate pressure and game situation into their numbers.
As was pointed out on the Baseball Primer thread, there's a fatal flaw in Kay's logic, being that if you can only evaluate a player by watching him play everyday, then it's impossible to compare players. Is Derek Jeter a better shortstop than A-Rod? How can you know? A-Rod played in Texas, so you only saw him a few times every year. Maybe you taped all of Texas' games, and watched them after the Yankees game, but what about all the other shortstops? Good and bad is a comparative thing. Of course Derek Jeter's a good defensive shortstop, it's just that there's about 29 starting shortstops in the Majors who are better than him with the glove, and probably a few on the bench and a few in the minors. But in the whole scheme of things, sure, he's great. My Zone Rating would probably be about .050. But compared to the rest of the majors, he sucks.

Watching a player every day to judge their defense also has another flaw: selective memory. That's not a personal shortcoming, it's a natural tendency. The brain tends to remember the spectacular and ignore the mundane, and unfortunately, what makes good defense is mundane. Say two shortstops field a ball hit at the same speed to the same spot by the same batter. The first shortstop dives for the ball, throws from his knees and retires the runner by half a step, while the second shortstop gets behind the ball, fields it effortlessly, sets and throws the runner out by five feet. Both plays have exactly the same value, but the play of the first shortstop is what you're going to remember. But the ordinary, unexciting play by the second shortstop is indicative of far more skill. The second shortstop is more likely to field the ball, is more likely to throw accurately to first, and is more likely to retire the runner. By watching every day and evaluating without notes of where the balls were hit, how hard they were hit, or how many times the ball was fielded, you might ultimately rate the first, inferior shortstop as being the superior defensive player, because his limited range makes it more likely that he'll have to make spectacular plays to convert outs. And that's a large part of why Jeter is considered good: because he makes just as many, if not more spectacular looking plays than anyone else.

The last comment Kay makes--about fielding stats that don't incorporate pressure and game situations is simply idiotic. Clutch performance is just about the most controversial area of sabermetrics. Clutch situations exist of course, and there are clutch plays, but whether certain players actually get better in clutch situations is arguable, at best.

One theory about clutch performance is not that players get better in the clutch, but that they simply don't get worse. For example, if the average player's performance can be rated as a 1, but in clutch situations the average player's performance drops to, say, .7, and Player X's performance drops to .9, then in comparative terms, Player X is a clutch performer, because his relative performance is about 1.3. So while a Clutch Hitter doesn't get better, his stats get better in the clutch, because the pitcher he's hitting against gets worse.

But if that theory was true, then it couldn't apply to fielding. Fielding isn't batter vs. pitcher, it's fielder vs. ball. The ball is an inanimate object, it's performance is incapable of changing due to the situation. A ball hit up the middle in the ninth inning is exactly the same as a ball hit up the middle in the third. The only variable is the fielder.

So, to get better in the clutch, a player actually has to perform better in the clutch than in non-clutch situations. Conversely, that means he's worse in normal situations than he is in the clutch. If he can perform at a certain level in clutch situations, when the only variable is himself, then he has to be be capable of performing at that level at all times. So why doesn't he? If Jeter is truly much better in the clutch, why doesn't he play as well regularly? Doesn't his poor play in regular situations end up creating more clutch situations? Considering how bad his numbers are, and how relatively rare a clutch fielding situation is for an individual player, one has to believe that he must then be starting more fires for others to put out than putting out other peoples' fires. So, if he's a Clutch Fielder, then he's slacking off at other times, and making it tougher on the rest of the team. That doesn't sound like the Derek Jeter everyone writes about to me.

Sure, that's just Michael Kay being Michael Kay, but the first comments on defense were from an actual Major League Scout. His evaluation of Jeter's defense was just as accurate as an evaluation of his hitting would be if it read:
Truly the most dangerous power hitter in the game today. Jeter pulls almost everything, and his pregame batting practice routine is a sight to behold. When possible, it's best to put Jeter on first, where he's not a threat to steal.
Then again, maybe that wasn't a real scout. After all, he didn't say that Jeter has "the good face".

Or maybe these guys are reporting from Bizzaro World, where Jeter's defense is actually good.