As Derek Jeter takes his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the New York Yankees captain will be etched into history as an all-time great shortstop and perhaps an even better cipher.
Jeter was the most central figure in the Yankees’ run of success in the late 1990s and early 2000s — unparalleled in modern baseball. And for a while, he was so unimpeachably good that he took on a God-like quality. That eventually gave way to reality and the internet — who’s to say which was the more forceful phenomenon — as the shape of Jeter’s greatness became the only subject of conversation around him. He was overrated, and underrated, and rated so often by so many people with so many different motivations that the entire enterprise ceased to make sense.
When it finally came time to evaluate his case for the Hall of Fame, the answer was obvious even without the inseparable ties to the Yankees’ dynasty. He collected the sixth-most hits of all time. He’s one of seven players ever to hit 250 homers and steal 350 bases. He batted .310 and logged a .377 on-base percentage over 20 seasons and 2,747 games in the majors.
Derek Jeter is a generational talent and a Hall of Famer. And all of that still doesn’t count his most impressive, most impactful season: The fall.
A full extra season’s worth of greatness
What doesn’t factor into those statistics that are headed for a plaque is how much and how well Jeter played in the postseason's heightened moments. You know the highlights — from the flip against the Oakland A’s to the Mr. November homer against the Arizona Diamondbacks — but the consistency is perhaps even more of a marvel.
Jeter played in 158 postseason games, by far the most of all time, and roughly equivalent to a full extra season in the big leagues, where he was already notable for his longevity. He put together a .308/.374/.465 line in 734 plate appearances of playoff competition, mirroring his .310/.377/.440 career regular-season line in much tougher conditions. He homered 20 times and stole 18 bases.
If his Octobers were combined into an actual season, it would have been his eighth with 200 or more hits.
The difficulty of maintaining that level of production in high leverage, against the best pitchers the game had to offer at every stop along the way, is almost impossible to overstate (though this being Jeter, someone may find a way).
Trying to appreciate Jeter’s career — even with years of remove — can feel like stepping into a house of mirrors. He was great for 20 years, but never won an MVP award in any of them. He eclipsed 3,000 hits, but compiled many while in decline. He played an incomprehensible number of games at shortstop, but was rated poorly defensively. Every fact that points to his historic greatness, like the October production that played a huge role in winning five World Series and reaching even more, can be distorted or redirected toward a less becoming one. Everything big becomes small, and vice versa.
Evaluation vs. appreciation
Even as delectable tales of Jeter’s greatness are trotted out with Hall of Fame induction on deck, there tends to be a sour note of defensiveness in every serving — often countered with extra (and sometimes nonsensical) sugary praise.
Jeter’s 20 years in the majors roughly coincided with the game’s most rapid acceleration of understanding. The more scientific, data-based queries of Bill James infiltrated front offices during Jeter’s peak, reshaping the sport and the conversations surrounding it as he aged into a veteran and then a legend whose legacy was up for discussion.
Over those two decades, the captain famous for his impeccable record of never stirring up tabloid controversy in New York nevertheless became a flashpoint on multiple fronts of the war over evaluating baseball players. As defensive metrics and then all-encompassing ones like wins above replacement (WAR) worked their way into the picture alongside batting average and homers and steals, Jeter fans bristled at the negative numbers attached to his fielding prowess.
Any scout or particularly observant uncle could have told you he lacked the range to make plays to his left, but the metrics confronted fans by quantifying the stark difference between Jeter and other shortstops. Being strings of data that lacked the capacity for sentiment, they could not and did not overlook flaws.
As the years went on and the reality of his below-average shortstop defense solidified, the question of whether he should try a different position for the good of the team escalated into a full-blown talk radio misunderstanding where many Jeter defenders fretted over the numbers as a fly in the ointment and equally biased detractors used them as a weapon to take an outsized star down a notch. In 2005, the Baseball Prospectus Annual noted the difficulty of reaching a reasonable understanding on the topic, writing that “Jeter is a difficult problem because any realistic evaluation of his skills, no matter how flattering, seems like a slight when compared to his reputation.”
Jeter’s defense, of course, was just the relative weakness in an all-time great career. He simply came along at a time when our thinking was forced to evolve in real time. The bigger, more important numbers paint Jeter — defense and all — as one of the most accomplished and most talented shortstops to play the game.
Viewed another way, his bat was so great that it overcame mediocre defense and placed him in Cooperstown’s inner circle. If you break Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculation down into just offensive production, Jeter ranks ninth among hitters since integration in 1947.
How Jeter's October success encapsulates his career
There’s a simple reason we don’t splice and dice postseason numbers in the same way we analyze the stats from baseball’s 162-game talent sifter: Almost no one has enough of them for it to matter.
Jeter, of course, does. He racked up 189 more plate appearances than the next closest competition — teammate Bernie Williams — and no active player stands much of a chance of approaching him.
What we are to learn from the phantom 21st season of Jeter’s career is not that he was superhuman or a product of the Yankees’ success or a compiler. It’s that he was exactly what he looks like.
The player whose numbers at one time made us the most uncomfortable has a record down on paper that should reassure us of what we saw on the field. That is what statistics were always designed to do, and in the end they bear out the consistency that we still strain to believe. Ultimately, that is the root of his individual greatness, and of his cultural status as the main character on the most inevitable baseball team in recent memory. When the lights turned on, no matter how bright, it was always the same Jeter.