Derek Jeter has career hit number 3,000, just one more entry on his résumé for eventual Hall of Fame acceptance. While there's never been a doubt that Jeter was a special baseball player, there was a time where he was, in a relative sense, something of an afterthought in terms of his place in history. That is because the Yankee captain began his career around the same time as two other potential greats, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. As odd as it seems today, he was at one point the least likely of the trio to first reach this point.
That isn't a knock against Jeter so much as it is a reminder of just how fantastic Rodriguez and Garciaparra were. This group of three had their careers linked well before they were all involved in the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, and were so fantastic that Miguel Tejada, sometimes considered a late-arriving fourth member of the group, just couldn't do enough to keep pace. (A fact exacerbated by his being two years older than he originally claimed to be -- his age "23" and "24" seasons aren't as impressive when you consider he was actually 25 and 26.)
Jeter and Nomar started as full-time players at ages 22 and 23 in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Rodriguez's first full year was also 1996, but he was a spry 20. By the time he was 23 in 1999, he already had 106 career homers, while Jeter and Nomar were just getting into their peak years.
Jeter won the Rookie of the Year award in 1996 basically on a technicality, as Rodriguez had spent his rookie eligibility in two previous partial seasons. While there was nothing wrong with Jeter's .314/.370/.430 line -- a fantastic showing from a shortstop, then and now -- Rodriguez hit .358/.414/.631 with 91 extra-base hits. Garciaparra would come up a year later and win his own Jackie Robinson Award, backed by a .306/.342/.534 campaign with 34 homers, 209 hits, 22 steals, and 85 extra-base hits. The league had quickly gone from having an aging Cal Ripken and the oft-injured Barry Larkin leading at short to three players who looked like they were destined to be all-time greats.
Garciaparra hit .337/.386/.577 from 1997 through 2000, a line that included 113 homers, an average of 78 extra-base hits per year, and a .357 batting average in '00 that was topped only by the .372 mark he put up the following season. He also played solid defense, earning between two and three wins over four years with his glove, depending on if you ask Baseball Reference or Baseball Prospectus. Rodriguez hit .304/.372/.560 with 148 homers and 73 extra-base hits a year in the same stretch, and was about a win above average with the glove during that time -- numbers all the more impressive when you consider age.
Jeter was also great from 1997-2000, but arguably not at the same level as Nomar or A-Rod. He hit .325/.402/.479, averaging 55 extra-base hits a year, though with more plate discipline than the others. He didn't hit for as high of an average as Garciaparra, and didn't hit for as much power as either of them, leaving him a bit behind in the other two departments.
There is also the whole Jeter defense thing. Despite his reputation, Jeter was (and is) a terrible defensive shortstop. He cost himself nearly four wins with the glove, according to Baseball Reference, from 1997-2000, and seven wins according to Baseball Prospectus. If not for his glove, his on-base percentage may have pushed him past Rodriguez and Nomar in total value during those years. Jeter's defense has been so bad over the years that Nomar, despite nearly 4,800 fewer plate appearances (essentially eight seasons' worth), is just 15 wins behind Jeter in career value. (Admittedly, the difference is less when using Baseball Reference's numbers, as they subtract 14 wins from Jeter for defense, rather than 24.)
Jeter got the last laugh, of course, both then and now. Not only is he the first to collect 3,000 hits, but Garciaparra is working in a television booth. Even before Garciaparra retired because of injuries, though, all Jeter had to do was flash his hand and say, "Count the rings," as he helped the Yankees earn four of them in those four seasons. Rodriguez's first was Jeter's fifth, and Garciaparra, while the owner of a ring, was a Cub watching the World Series at home with the rest of us when the Red Sox ended their 86-year stretch of futility.
That problem with not keeping up completely offensively also disappeared, as this comparison chart from Fangraphs details (click to embiggen):
Rodriguez remains head and shoulders above them all in terms of total offensive production, but Jeter and Nomar were much closer post-2000 - that is just in terms of rate, as well, as Garciaparra's injuries kept him much further from Jeter in terms of offensive value. Health is something of a skill, and Jeter's nearly flawless track record over 17 seasons is the unsung reason why he is where he is today.
Jeter isn't the same player he used to be -- that is something else the chart tells us. But you can't take away what he has done in a lengthy and impressive career. There are a lot of things Jeter has not been and now never will be, despite what his most ardent supporters say, but he doesn't need to be those things. His career speaks for itself, and it speaks loudly of a player who merits the kind of attention we're paying to him today.