Jeter's Legacy: Do the Stats Add Up?
Issue   |   Tue, 09/30/2014 - 22:01

As if the appraisals of Derek Jeter’s legacy hadn’t already reached a fever pitch, the Yankees’ shortstop ended his last game at Yankee stadium with a walk-off single, providing everyone with a new reason to discuss how good he really was. Jeter suffered the misfortune of playing in an era when the popular film Moneyball popularized sabermetrics. Pre-sabermetrics, players were generally judged on whether they hit round career numbers, (3,000 hits or 500 home runs) and anecdotally. When someone talks about Willie Mays’ defensive ability, they almost always bring up the over-the-shoulder catch he made September 29, 1954.

On those terms, Jeter is untouchable. His 3464 hits put him at sixth all-time, well ahead of any player currently active, or even recently active. He has compiled a highlight reel of iconic plays at the plate and in the field, from the flip that saved the Yankees in the 2001 ALDS to last week’s walk-off single. But in sabermetric terms, Jeter is just very good.

In particular, Jeter’s reputation in the field has been damaged by sabermetrics. Besides the flip play and his spectacular dive into the stands to catch Trot Nixon’s foul pop up, he has a signature play—the jump throw—that might have been the focus of glowing assessments of his defensive ability. Even from a statistical point of view, Jeter doesn’t make that many errors. In a time when errors and fielding percentage were basically the only statistical measures of fielding performance, Jeter’s defensive reputation would have been much better. But now, various advanced defensive metrics rate Jeter as the worst defensive shortstop ever, at least in the sense that they think he has done more damage in the fields over the course of his long career than other subpar fielder fielders did in their possibly shorter careers.

Regardless of the sabermetricians’ complaints, Jeter’s excellence by conventional measures has made him the most famous active player by a wide margin. So when he announced that he would retire after this season, the league, the Yankees, and the media naturally made the season a big going-away party for him. Besides last week’s festivities, Jeter started in the all-star game despite pedestrian numbers, and the Yankees wore a patch honoring Jeter on their jerseys throughout September. This has generated a backlash, either from statistically-minded people who argue that we shouldn’t be making such a big deal over the retirement of a player who was good but not great, or from people who think that Jeter’s decision to announce his retirement before the season was self-centered, because it was calculated to produce a big fuss. writer Tom Scocca falls into the former camp:

After tonight—or as of yesterday, depending on the rain—Derek Jeter will have played his final game in Yankee Stadium. It's as fine a time as any to note, for the record, that Derek Jeter was an OK ballplayer. He was pretty good at playing baseball, overall, and he did it for a pretty long time.

The Yankees and the mass media and the sports-marketing world are busy bidding farewell to Captain Clutch, Mr. November, an immortal champion who stood above all other immortals and champions, the embodiment of everything great and righteous in America's pastime. This is all horseshit and branding, and plenty of people are naturally reacting to it as such, and pointing out that Captain Clutch was a lazy and lousy defensive player, an aloof and selfish millionaire wrapped in a cocoon of banality woven by multiple advertising and publicity departments. And "Captain Clutch," the mythic figure, was all those terrible things. But Derek Jeter was OK.

Scocca’s complaints about the “branding” of “Captain Clutch” might well be valid: the people who think that Jeter’s performance in clutch situations somehow implies that he is a better person off the field than the chokers are probably misguided. But they reveal the effect of sabermetrics on the tone of baseball writing. The important point here is that, although Scocca’s explicit argument is that Jeter gets too much credit for his clutch performances, it can be generalized to baseball players in general. It would be next to impossible for a player to have more clutch moments than Jeter. So if Jeter cannot be mythologized as “Captain Clutch,” then any attempt to market a baseball player as anything more than sum of his advanced metrics deserves to be mocked. This is not a good development for baseball.

A few years ago, ESPN ran a "This is Sportscenter" commercial with Albert Pujols, who has probably been baseball’s best hitter since Barry Bonds retired. In the ad, Pujols is using a copier when anchors Steve Levy and John Anderson walk in and repeatedly call him “The Machine.” Then we see the scene from Pujols’ perspective, which looks like what I imagine a drone operator sees from the Pentagon before he presses the button. Pujols has two options: “eliminate” or “deny.”

He chooses “deny,” but at the end of the spot, the copier asks, “Why didn’t you eliminate them, Albert?” Besides being hilarious, the ad captures the way people tend to think about post-Jeter superstars in baseball: as run-producing machines. This transformation has been happening for a while, and players have always been evaluated based on numbers as well as more intangible qualities. Writers fawned over Joe DiMaggio’s grace and Mickey Mantle’s perfect swing, but DiMaggio recorded an untouchable 56-game hit streak, and Mantle hit over 500 home runs. Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were treated with less awe than those two, but their 1998 chase of Roger Maris’ home run record encapsulated the way baseball fans blend numbers and myth in their assessments of players.

However, the sabermetric community is convinced that a player's contributions can be reduced to a single number. And they think they’ve found that number, or at least come pretty close. Wins above replacement, or WAR, is designed to measure how many wins a player produces for his team compared to a mediocre player at the same position. The problem is not the idea that such a number exists, but the attitude that people take once they think they have found it. Sabermetricians believe, understandably, that if player A has a significantly better WAR than player B, the issue has been settled: player A is better than player B. To them, the opinion of anyone who thinks player B is better than player A is downright wrong.

From a purely financial perspective, baseball needs to “brand” its players, as Scocca would say. At some point in the last 30 years, football passed baseball as America’s favorite sport. It’s hard to imagine baseball closing that gap if it isn’t able to present its players as athletes, with varying styles and stories, rather than a series of numbers that are greater or less than each other. It’s more difficult to quantify performance in basketball and football, because they include more intangible elements. Writers can mythologize Kobe Bryant’s insane competitiveness or Tim Duncan’s leadership without being scolded for ignoring hard evidence, and the NBA and NFL are therefore able to market their players as legends.

This isn't to say that if baseball would only get rid of the advanced stats, it would suddenly regain its status as America's favorite sport. There are all sorts of other reasons, chief among them football’s TV-friendly nature, that account for baseball’s relative decline. But, if a sport wants to be successful in mainstream culture, it needs legends, and it needs arguments, and it even needs some myths. I think that if Jeter had started his career 15 years after he did, he would not have been as highly regarded as he is now. That lower appraisal might have been correct, but baseball as a sport, and ultimately the people who like to watch it, would have been worse for the change.