Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees hits a solo home run in the third inning for career hit 3000 while playing against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on July 9, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
Today, Derek Jeter isn't what he was. But for so long he was a pure hitter, and one of the best pure hitters in baseball's long history.
As Derek Jeter lurched towards his 3,000th career hit, he seemed to be followed by a surprising cloud of negativity. Jeter, of course, has always been a rather polarizing figure, but so much of the dialogue during his approach concerned his decline from his peak. So many people wanted to talk about how Derek Jeter is finished, and relatively few outside of New York showed much interest in his reaching the actual milestone itself.
But now that he's there, we've been given an opportunity to reflect. Jeter has become the 28th player in baseball history to amass 3,000 hits. From an analytical perspective, hits are just a counting stat, and not even a particularly insightful counting stat, but the 3,000 hits milestone is still meaningful. To reach this level requires of a player a certain amount of talent, consistency and durability, and now that we're done tracking the day-to-day stuff, we can look back on Jeter's impressive career and try to appreciate what he's been.
And what he's been is a hell of a pure hitter. He's also been so many other things. A shortstop. A captain. A hero. A celebrity. An icon. But for our purposes here, I'm most interested in talking about Jeter at the plate.
It's important to understand that, when I say Jeter's been a good pure hitter, I'm not saying that Jeter's been a great hitter, or one of the greatest hitters in history. "Pure" and "great" are different things. We're not talking about diamonds or gold.
But I'm not trying to take anything away from Jeter by applying this label. He was never a slugger. He was never Barry Bonds. So what? That wasn't his style, and when it came to his style, he's been one of the best.
When you hear "pure hitter," a certain image comes into your head. I don't think baseball's ever come up with a precise, agreed-upon definition, but all of our definitions are similar. Here, you can read Joe Posnanski write at length about the subject. In short, I think we can all agree that Tony Gwynn was a pure hitter. Rod Carew was a pure hitter. Roberto Clemente was a pure hitter. Juan Gonzalez was not a pure hitter. Mark McGwire was not a pure hitter.
Pure hitters make a lot of contact. They post high averages, and they hit the ball to all fields. They do or they do not hit for power, because power isn't a qualification. Gwynn only hit ten or more home runs in five of his 20 seasons, and it doesn't change anything. He was still a pure hitter, and probably the best ever.
And when you read that definition, it's easy to see how Jeter belongs. Jeter's never been a bat control wizard like a Gwynn or an Ichiro, but he's always been good about putting the ball in play. He has a lifetime average of .312, with seven seasons over .320. He's long been renowned for his ability to spray the ball all over the park, and when I project an image of Jeter on my eyelids, it's not one of him pulling the ball to left, but rather one of him knocking the ball to right. For so many years, there wasn't a pitch that Jeter couldn't return for a single.
How about a table? This is actually the table that convinced me that Jeter has been one of baseball's better pure hitters. I created a spreadsheet with all 2,130 players since the start of the 20th century to have batted at least 2,000 times. I then sorted those players by their career Batting Averages on Balls in Play, or BABIP. Here are the top ten:
Right there, tied for the sixth-highest BABIP in baseball history, we find Derek Jeter, at .354. He's higher than George Sisler. He's higher than Clemente. He's higher than Kirby Puckett, and Gwynn, and Eddie Collins, and practically everyone else. And one of the five guys in front of him is still a kid with a long way to go, and a long way to fall.
If you define a pure hitter as a guy who consistently hits the ball, and who consistently hits the ball hard, then Derek Jeter has to be in the conversation, because as his career BABIP shows, he's been a master of drilling line drives and putting the ball where the fielders aren't. He isn't that guy anymore, but he was that guy for so, so long.
Derek Jeter isn't the best pure hitter there ever was. He doesn't rank in the top five or the top ten, and there's an argument to be made over whether he belongs in the top 20. But baseball has seen an awful lot of hitters in its day, and so for someone to be that close to the top in any positive category speaks volumes about the player's career. Derek Jeter has been a lot of things, but more than anything else, he's been an outstanding pure bat, and when he was going right, few were ever better.