Good-bye, Mr. November: Taking Stock of Derek Jeter’s Divisive Legacy

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The most famous hit of Derek Jeter’s career sparked a legendary nickname.

Entering the 2001 playoffs, the Yankees’ shortstop had built a reputation as a high-stakes performer, but he’d yet to earn a postseason moniker. While Reggie Jackson had become “Mr. October” after blasting three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series to lead New York to victory, Jeter was still Jeter after six-plus seasons.

That changed in Game 4 of the ’01 title bout. When Jeter came to bat against Diamondbacks reliever Byung-Hyun Kim with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, the clock struck midnight, flipping the calendar from Halloween to November 1 — the latest date an MLB game had been played.1 After battling for eight pitches, Jeter got a hanger belt-high and over the plate, and he smacked a low line drive that carried toward the foul pole in right and snuck over the wall.

The homer knotted the series at two games apiece. Given both the magnitude of the moment and the timing, Jeter’s new title was obvious: Reggie might be Mr. October, but Jeter would be Mr. November.

All this time later, as Jeter plays the final week of a 20-year career that saw him make 14 All-Star Games and win five World Series, what resonates most about that homer is what a fitting snapshot it turned out to be. While Jeter became known over his two decades for rising to the occasion and delighting fans with his heroics, he was above all a technician, slashing at pitches with his trademark inside-out swing. When Gatorade feted Jeter’s legacy in a recent ad, it fittingly used Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” for background music. For Jeter, doing things his way primarily meant replicating that swing, which the New York Times recently reckoned he’d repeated 342,000 times as a professional.

Against Arizona, he unleashed a swing that generated enough backspin to send the ball over the wall, and while the end result might not have been the same on most other nights, the stroke would have been. That consistent approach and often positive outcome defined Jeter’s career and helped make him one of the greatest players in baseball history.

That’s also where understanding his career begins. Of course, it’s not where it ends. No discussion of Jeter’s career is complete without a thorough accounting of his swing, durability, defense, and all-time status. And when examined in concert, those elements reveal one common and career-defining thread: Jeter’s polarizing nature.

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Mr. Oppo

Four years ago, ESPN’s Lisa Fenn interviewed Jeter for a Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter feature called “I Hit a Walk-Off Home Run.” Asked about the Mr. November moment, Jeter gave a seemingly clichéd ballplayer answer:

“My at-bat in the 10th inning was, was basically just (to) try to get on base,” Jeter said. “That’s what my job is, to try to get on base and hopefully get something started, and I was fortunate to get a pitch that I hit over the fence.”

The thing is, the numbers offer a convincing case that Jeter wasn’t merely being humble or refusing to admit that he’d been trying to win the game with one swing. He really was trying to slap a single to right field, because he’s always been so damn good at it.

Since his first full season in 1996, Jeter has amassed 845 hits to the opposite field, 267 more than the next right-handed hitter in that span (Michael Young, 578) and 211 more than the next left-handed hitter (Ichiro Suzuki, 634).

Most Opposite-Field Hits Since 1996
1. Derek Jeter 845
2. Ichiro Suzuki 634
3. Michael Young 578
4. Craig Biggio 416
5. Alex Rodriguez 371

Even though Jeter has racked up 12,538 plate appearances since Opening Day 1996, more than anyone else in baseball, that 845 figure is still jarring. As a point of comparison: Jeter’s longtime teammate Rodriguez amassed 11,136 plate appearances from 1996 through 2013, yet managed less than half the amount of opposite-field hits.

Jeter hit his oppo peak in 2005 and 2006, banging out 66 and 64 opposite-field hits, respectively, the most and second-most ever by a right-handed batter. In 2006, he posted the highest ever opposite-field batting average (.533) by a righty.2

Since PITCHf/x numbers became widely accessible in 2009, allowing us to access pitch data and balls-in-play data, Jeter has recorded 127 hits to the opposite field on pitches on the inner half of the plate, the third-highest total in MLB over that span and a testament to his inside-out swing even in his waning years. And remember, he missed almost all of 2013 because of injury. Overall, he’s averaged an opposite-field hit once every 9.6 at-bats since 2009, the highest rate among the 44 players with at least 3,000 at-bats over that span.

And since 2009, 40 percent of Jeter’s runs batted in have come on balls in play to the opposite field, also the highest rate in the majors over that span among players with a minimum of 100 total RBIs.

Highest Percentage of RBIs on Balls in Play to Opposite Field
1. Derek Jeter 40.0%
2. Joe Mauer 39.1%
3. Matt Diaz 39.0%
4. Jose Tabata 38.5%

During that same time, Jeter has produced 122 RBIs on hits to the opposite field, and just 72 RBIs on hits to his pull side (with the rest coming on balls up the middle), by far the biggest gap for any hitter since 2009.

Rank Player Oppo RBIs Pull RBIs Difference
1. Derek Jeter 122 72 50
2. Joe Mauer 148 121 27
3. Howie Kendrick 132 108 24
4. Matt Diaz 48 34 14
5. Michael Young 135 122 13
6. Chris Carter 28 15 13
7. Chris B. Young 14 3 11

Writing for the Star-Ledger in 2012, Jeff Bradley summed up Jeter’s approach to hitting:

With bench coach Tony Pena throwing, Jeter begins his session with one bunt down the first-base line, and one down the third-base line. Then, with his first eight swings, he does nothing but hit balls to right field. This usually includes a few line drives that slice foul down the right-field line. What is he doing? He is preparing to get base hits.

Mr. Durable

For years, Jeter’s consistent approach was matched only by his consistent presence in the lineup. During his first seven full big league seasons, Jeter went on the disabled list only three times and he never played in fewer than 148 games a year. Manager Joe Torre knew he could put Jeter’s name in the lineup just about every day without worrying about injury and wear and tear from overuse. Jeter is a career .304/.373/.435 hitter in the first half and .315/.383/.445 hitter in the second half, and achieving that kind of consistency is no small feat, particularly while playing one of the most physically demanding positions on the diamond.

While sustained health always entails a dose of good luck, Jeter deserves credit for staying within a few pounds of his rookie playing weight throughout his career. And while it’s admittedly easier for a guy who’s made more than a quarter-billion dollars in salary to stay in shape while splurging on armies of personal trainers and personal chefs, Jeter deserves to be commended for making his conditioning a priority. As detailed in a recent New York magazine profile, Jeter has long woken up at 6 a.m. every day during the offseason to do yoga or another activity from his exercise regime.

Jeter’s health record hasn’t been perfect, especially in recent seasons, as his age has increased and his ability to bounce back from the formerly routine grind of playing shortstop has decreased. Still, after recovering from a notable and controversial shoulder injury in 2003, Jeter went on to play 150 games or more in every season from 2004 through 2010, never once hitting the DL from his early-to-mid-thirties.

derek-jeter-injury-triRick Stewart/Getty Images Sport

The injuries that cost him all but 17 games last year were so jarring because we’d grown so accustomed to seeing him healthy and active. He was never quite Cal Ripken Jr. in terms of his Iron Man status, but Jeter wasn’t that far off.

Mr. Polarizing

He’s always been far off, however, from attaining consensus among the masses regarding his defense. If we ranked the baseball topics that have divided statheads and traditional fans the most over the last 20 years, Jeter’s glove work would sit very near the top of the list. And as with most arguments, both sides have a point.

One man who wasn’t conflicted about Jeter’s defense was Yankees scout Dick Groch, who was so impressed with the high school kid he saw in Michigan in 1991 that he ordered his bosses to blow up their plans to draft Jeffrey Hammonds in the first round of the 1992 draft and to take Jeter instead. Groch had no knowledge of Jeter before showing up on a whim to the “talent identification camp” in Mount Morris, but that’s where he saw a skinny Jeter range far to his right, backhand the ball, and fire a strike to the first baseman in one motion. It was the professional baseball world’s first encounter with Jeter’s now trademark jump throw, one of the most iconic defensive moves of all time, perfected (if not necessarily invented) by the kid who would launch a new dynasty in the Bronx.

Though he’d unveiled the jump throw as a teenager, Jeter was still an incredibly rough defender early in his professional career. Recently, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Barbarisi described the defensive boot camp Jeter went through in 1993 after making a ludicrous 56 errors in 126 games at the Single-A level. Yankees instructor Brian Butterfield worked with Jeter for 35 consecutive days, pelting him with grounders that bounced to Jeter’s chest, working on his throwing mechanics, urging him to charge slow hoppers, and adjusting his footwork. Before those drill sessions, the organization had considered moving Jeter off shortstop; when he got back on the field in 1994, that speculation ended. The smooth version of Jeter — the one who would very rarely botch routine plays and who would frequently make throws that looked like perfect Michael Jordan fadeaway jumpers — was born.

Jeter ultimately earned five Gold Glove Awards, but he also earned his share of skeptics, and the volume of doubters only increased as baseball’s analytical revolution began producing more advanced defensive metrics. Though Jeter’s arm and athleticism allowed him to make some fancy plays to his right, the critics’ consensus was that his lack of range to his left cost the Yankees boatloads of outs that other shortstops would have saved. The snarkiest of his detractors devised a shorthand expression to summarize his defensive shortcomings: “Past a Diving Jeter.”

Data-mindful observers couldn’t figure out why the decorated Yankee kept winning those Gold Gloves and garnering raves for his defense. Stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved didn’t merely suggest that Jeter was overrated; they pegged him as downright terrible. Even the best glovemen lose range as they age, which means Jeter actually hurt himself by playing past his 40th birthday and seeing his career defensive totals dip as a result, but the figures are unnerving regardless. Based on Baseball-Reference’s Runs From Fielding, which is based on DRS, Jeter’s combination of subpar defense and exceptional longevity don’t merely make him a defensive liability; they make him the worst defensive player relative to others at his position in baseball history.

That ranking is incredibly hard to fathom because of a very human weakness: selection bias. People remember a few extraordinary events, then ignore or even repress the information that might contradict that initial impression. With Jeter in particular, it’s nearly impossible to make the visceral reactions agree with the data, because Jeter has pulled off some of the most incredible defensive plays we’ve ever seen.

There was the full sprint and dive into the stands against the Red Sox:

There was the extremely underrated (but still tremendous) relay throw to nail Timo Perez during the 2000 World Series with an on-the-move, across-the-body throw that few shortstops could manage:

And, most famously, “The Flip,” a pivotal play during Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS in which Jeter fielded an atrocious overthrow from outfielder Shane Spencer and made a running, backhand flip throw to nail Jeremy Giambi at home plate.

The Flip might have saved the series for the Yankees. And while it’s possible to argue that third-base coach Ron Washington shouldn’t have sent Giambi or that the umpire blew the call, it’s impossible to debate that this play was also a perfect combination of the things Jeter did well defensively. He’d worked on the play beforehand with Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, showing their uncommon preparation skill. He showed off his speed and anticipation by tracking down the errant throw. And he flashed his sharp instincts and creativity.

So really, it’s OK to agree in part with both sides of the argument. Even if we acknowledge the flaws of advanced defensive stats that aren’t yet based on play-by-play data or dispute the claim that Jeter was the worst ever, we can comfortably say he was overrated defensively by many people for many years, and cost the Yankees their share of outs. But we can also say that every huge-leverage play like The Flip negated a handful of squibbers through the infield during random April games in Cleveland, even if they left him as a net-negative defender on the leaderboards. Jeter might not have deserved five Gold Gloves, but he does deserve credit for crafting memorable plays that can’t simply be chalked up to coincidence or luck.

Mr. All Time

If the Jeter arguments began and ended with defense, though, we probably wouldn’t be perched between a river of hate and an ocean of hagiography on the brink of his retirement. We wouldn’t have classic Fire Joe Morgan posts or vintage Olbermann rants. Fortunately, we have something more than the bickering. We have a way to objectively measure what happens on the baseball diamond: stats!

Whether you’re a traditionalist who values RBIs and fielding percentage or a sabermetric type who cares about wRC+ and DRS, you probably care deeply about statistics for two simple reasons: They provide a better feel for what happened on the field and they help us contextualize the best of the best. We know that given the rings on his fingers and the impact in the hearts of Yankees fans, Jeter is one of the best of all time — one of the best shortstops, one of the best Yankees, and one of the best players, period. But where exactly do the numbers say he should rank?

The best player of all time whose primary position was shortstop was probably Honus Wagner. Admittedly, it’s tricky to compare a player who retired 97 years ago to another player who will retire after the gods gifted us with the iPhone 6. Wagner called it quits 30 years before black players were allowed to take the field and three years before the end of the dead ball era. But if we’re willing to evaluate players based on how they compared to their peers, we can confidently say Wagner was the best offensive player in the league for more than a decade despite playing the second-toughest position on the diamond. The only other player in baseball history who can make a similar claim is Rodriguez, which makes sense, since Wagner and A-Rod are the two best offensive shortstops of all time, by a huge margin.3

By most similar measures, Jeter ranks in the top five. He’s fourth among all shortstops according to FanGraphs’s Offensive Runs stat, and third per Baseball-Reference, though he’s well behind Wagner and A-Rod in both. If we want to dock Wagner for the 900-plus games he played at positions other than shortstop and Rodriguez for playing more than half of his games elsewhere, the rankings get more interesting. But it’s also probably not fair to reward Jeter because the Yankees kept him at short long after they should have moved him.

And speaking of: The tricky part comes when we add defense into the equation. If we’re really going to subtract some 243 runs based on DRS, Jeter goes from being one of the top five shortstops of all time to being borderline for the Hall of Fame. If we do acknowledge his defense as some kind of negative — while also admitting that finding accurate retroactive defensive metrics for players from 30, 50, and 70 years ago is nearly impossible — then we have to drop Jeter a few slots. You can easily argue that Ripken, Arky Vaughan, and Luke Appling were better all-around shortstops, and you can extend the argument to George Davis and maybe even Ozzie Smith. Put on the spot, I’d probably rate Jeter somewhere in the middle, as the fifth-best overall shortstop of all time, behind Wagner, A-Rod, Ripken, and Vaughan.

derek-jeter-day-triElsa/Getty Images

If we’re ranking the greatest Yankees, there’s just no way we can justifiably put Jeter above the big four: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio, in that order. Yes, that happens to dovetail with the four players who top the Yankees’ Wins Above Replacement list, and it’s best to avoid WAR because of the defensive issues it presents. But based on offensive numbers, longevity, and at least a cursory attempt at defensive quantification, Jeter can’t quite stack up to those legends. The no. 5 spot comes down to either Jeter or Yogi Berra, with Berra getting a major boost for tough-to-quantify catching contributions.

Finally, there’s the question of where Jeter ranks all time, among all players, from all teams. If we look at WAR, Jeter is 88th according to Baseball-Reference’s aggregate rankings, which include both position players and pitchers. Again, this is problematic: Baseball-Reference’s WAR factors in Jeter’s abominable DRS total, which means it considers Jeter to be less valuable than, say, Pud Galvin, a very good 19th-century pitcher (and Hall of Famer) whose claim to fame might be that he was baseball’s first known PED user, but who’s not someone most baseball fans and analysts would take over Jeter if building an all-time dream team. If we decide to cut Jeter some slack by trimming his defense penalty in half (per DRS), he’s somewhere around 50th all time, in line with greats like Chipper Jones and Ferguson Jenkins and a bit short of guys like Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, and George Brett. And honestly, that feels about right.

But hey, maybe you want to give Jeter extra credit for being clutch, with slightly better numbers during the postseason than in the regular season, an impressive feat given October’s tougher competition. Maybe you want to reward him for tell-your-grandkids moments like The Flip, the Jeffrey Maier home run, his two big homers in the 2000 World Series, and his Mr. November blast. Hell, maybe he deserves bonus points for pulling off the best sports crossover moment in TV history.

The beauty of baseball is that even when we have the numbers in front of us, two reasonable people can disagree. Derek Jeter is one of the greatest players any of us has ever seen, and also the one who spawned the most on-field debate. That might not be totally in line with the legend of Mr. November, but it’s a pretty remarkable legacy to leave behind.

Michael Bonzagni of ESPN Stats & Info and Ryan Spaeder of @AceballStats provided research assistance for this article.

Filed Under: MLB, Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter Retirement, The Captain, New York Yankees, MLB Stats, Baseball, Sabermetrics, Past a Diving Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr., Yankee Stadium, Shortstops, Babe Ruth, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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