NEW YORK: Yankee legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra presents Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees with his World Series ring for the 2009 season prior to playing against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the Yankees home opener at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Even with 3,000 hits, Derek Jeter is neither The Greatest Yankee nor The Greatest Shortstop ... But at the same time, he has clearly reached lofty heights among Yankees and among shortstops.
Let's start with the New York Yankees, the greatest franchise in the history of American professional sports.
Casual fans might be surprised to learn that Jeter's the first Yankee with 3,000 hits. Or that he became the franchise's all-time hits leader some time ago, surpassing Lou Gehrig's 2,721 safeties. Of course, Gehrig would have reached 3,000 if not for his sickness, Babe Ruth perhaps if he'd joined the Yankees before he was 25, Mickey Mantle if he hadn't drawn so many walks and played in a pitcher's era, Joe DiMaggio if not for World War II and injuries ... but really, it's just an odd little bit of history.
Of course there's more to baseball than hits. Babe Ruth wasn't a great player because of hits; the Babe was a great player because of hits, but also because of home runs and walks. In fact, Babe Ruth was the greatest Yankee because he was an offensive juggernaut, a force of nature who terrorized American League pitchers for roughly 15 seasons.
And roughly the same things might be said of Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle, both of whom spent more time with the Yankees than Ruth, both of whom left the game when still only 36 - Gehrig because of the disease that soon killed him, Mantle because of his aching body.
Try as we might, we simply can't get Jeter past Ruth and Gehrig and Mantle in the Yankees' pecking order. Each of those players was, for a number of years, among the very best players in the American League. While Jeter's obviously been an outstanding player for a number of years, and has perhaps deserved one or two Most Valuable Player Awards, he's typically been a Top 10 player rather than a Top 3 player.
Once you get past those two three Yankees, though, the discussion gets a little more interesting. Ruth's obviously The Greatest Yankee, followed by Mantle and Gehrig (or Gehrig and Mantle). Then comes another group of three: Jeter, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra.
Here's how they rate, according to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (fWar):
DiMaggio - 92
Jeter - 73
Berra - 71
And here's how they rate, according to Baseball-Reference.com's WAR (rWar):
DiMaggio - 84
Jeter - 70
Berra - 62
When you account for the three full seasons DiMaggio lost to World War II, it seems fairly obvious that he's in a class by himself among these three. At which point it would seem to simply be a matter of distinguishing between Derek Jeter and Yogi Berra.
Wins Above Replacement is incredibly useful in discussions like this one, but of course there are things we don't know. Jeter's been a good baserunner, and fWar gives him credit for that in about half his career. Nobody's done any work on Yogi Berra's baserunning, though. We don't know a great deal about Yogi's defensive contributions, either. Just what his pitchers and his manager said about him (and his pitchers and his manager were, for the most part, complimentary). Both of them played in a great number of postseason games, and both performed well ... though Jeter raised his game a little, while Berra's numbers were slightly lower than his career regular-season numbers.
We should probably give Jeter a slight edge for the postseason and a big edge for his baserunning, while Berra scores points for being a catcher (with seven Top 3 MVP finishes, no less). And while Berra didn't miss any whole major-league seasons because of his wartime service, his career with the Yankees might have started a bit earlier, if not for all that wanton aggression across the seas.
Considering Jeter's and Berra's Mutual Admiration Society, I'm inclined to throw up my hands and just call this a tie ... but that would be a cop-out. I'm also inclined, because the game's more difficult today and because Yogi Berra's American League was largely bereft of the great black players of the era, to give Jeter the slight nod.
Okay, so what about the shortstops?
Well, first we have to define shortstop. Is Ernie Banks a shortstop, even though he spent more time at other positions than at shortstop? I don't think that he is. Is Alex Rodriguez a shortstop, even though he'll soon have more time at third base in his career than shortstop? I don't think that he is. Is Robin Yount a shortstop, even though he spent only 52 percent of his career playing shortstop? I don't think that he is.
All of which narrows the field quite a bit.
Just not enough. Because once you get past Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken, there's a whole passel of shortstops who could grab the No. 3 slot ... or the No. 10 slot. This group essentially consists of Jeter, Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Barry Larkin, Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese and Alan Trammell.
We know what Yankees fans think about that list, but the numbers aren't nearly so conclusive. Jeter's got durability and hitting on his side, but defense against (granted, if you believe he deserved those five Gold Gloves, this conversation was probably over three minutes ago). Appling benefited from wartime competition, but Vaughan and Reese lost years to the war. Ozzie couldn't hit (but Jeter couldn't field). Trammell's time as a great player was short, but sweet.
Ultimately, I'll give Jeter the nod because of his steady presence with the Yankees, and also because he's been highly effective in nearly a full season's worth of postseason games. No, it's not Luke Appling's fault that his White Sox never got into a World Series. But should we just ignore Jeter's 850 career OPS in postseason games? Or this play.
I don't think we should, or can.
Which is why I say Derek Jeter is the third-greatest shortstop, and the fifth-greatest Yankee.
It might be less than what his fans believe he deserves. But it's pretty good.