Derek Jeter winning his fifth Gold Glove in recognition of his play at shortstop on Tuesday has caused quite the firestorm on both sides of the issue this week, with objective baseball fans lashing out at the notion that a bad defensive player would win a Gold Glove, and New York Yankees fans, predictably but understandably, fighting back in defense of their hero.
In response to some of my own smarmy comments on the subject, a commenter made the following astute comment (the proverbial "rare valid point"), and it stopped me in my tracks:
"It's also hard for me to believe that anyone can criticize Jeter."
The reason this comment stopped me dead in my tracks is that I realized that he had a point: I was, and am, criticizing a player who, in actuality, is one of the all-time greats, who is a no doubt Hall of Famer, and who frankly is a classy guy.
So I had to ask myself, "Why am I being so critical of an admittedly likable and commendable baseball player?"
Here is my response:
Let me be clear:
There is a phenomenon in this country, and that phenomenon is misconception by almost all baseball fans, Yankees fans and non-Yankees fans alike, of the career accomplishments of Derek Jeter.
Frankly, I like Derek Jeter as a player. I think he's had an incredible career, and while I wish he had moved to center field or second base or some other position a long time ago, because he is a bad fielder, whatever. Playing a less-than-stellar defender at a crucial defensive position is the Yankees' problem, not mine, and if they think the pros outweigh the cons on that one, that is for them to decide.
His performance in the postseason is, simply put, undeniable.
His abilities as a hitter are, simply put, undeniable.
And his image, frankly, is impeccable. It would take me an hour to list all of the professional athletes who have made me blush in my lifetime, but Jeter is not one of them.
Let me reiterate these points, because I want people to understand where I am coming from: I like and respect Derek Jeter, and I think he has been a no-doubt star in the postseason, he is a terrific hitter, and he is a classy professional athlete in an industry inundated by the exact opposite.
The problem people like me have with Derek Jeter, though, whether they realize it or not, is the need of the New York media and fans to make him out to be an even better player than he actually is, better even than his teammates who outperform him, and the more than a little obnoxious way they go about it.
There are three primary evils that the New York media and fans are guilty of that drive me and people like me insane:
a) Dismissing as egg-head stat-nerds who know nothing about baseball the people who say Jeter is a bad defensive player in order to create the myth that Jeter is an amazing defensive shortstop.
b) Overstating the value of Jeter's intangibles in order to explain away the gap between Jeter's offensive accomplishments and the offensive accomplishments of similar players around the league and even on his own team.
c) Ignoring or simply dismissing impact of the New York Yankees payroll on the success of the New York Yankees in order to overstate the importance of Jeter's contribution to the success of the Yankees over the last 15 years.
Let's focus on Jeter's defense for a moment. The proposition that Derek Jeter is a bad defensive player is not sensational. It is the conclusion that has been reached by every objective baseball mind that has attempted to rate players by their defense. This isn't an agenda thing.
Let me draw a comparison to the analysis of another New York Yankee legend: Babe Ruth.
We all know what Babe Ruth did during his career: he hit home runs. Tons of them. More of them than any other player. And there was a time when, based purely on the prodigious nature of his home runs, we judged Babe Ruth to be the greatest ballplayer of all time.
But then something funny happened. We started to develop other statistics to measure player performance, because frankly judging a player just on his home runs is absurd (a proposition few of us would argue with).
So we moved on, to RBI and runs scored, to batting average and total bases. Those statistics gave way to on-base percentage and slugging percentage, to OPS and OPS+. Then those statistics gave way to linear weights and adjusted batting runs and adjusted batting wins and so on and so forth. The latest stat du jour is WAR, and there are more, and others, will continue to be more, and others.
The statistics kept getting more and more complex, and more intricate and more idiosyncratic, until we got to a point where the common baseball fan really couldn't relate to what he was seeing or reading.
But do you know whose name kept coming out on top as the most valuable player of all time?
Somehow, as statistics evolved from their most simplistic to their most complex, Babe Ruth remained the standard by which all players would be compared.
And trust me: if the baseball statistical community was going to try to snuff out Babe Ruth, and make the case that some other player was actually the greatest player of all time, they would have been pleased as punch with the result. Swimming upstream, going against the grain, defying conventional wisdom is what baseball "stat-heads" do best, and they enjoy nothing more.
I promise you, the stat-geeks amongst us would like nothing more than to tell you that Willie Mays' defense, or Ted Williams' missed war years, or the value of Albert Pujols' competition, or Honus Wagner's position, or Ty Cobb's era actually makes one of them the greatest player of all-time.
But stat-geeks didn't make that argument. Why? Because they could not make that argument, because the stats didn't support it.
But this hasn't been the case with Derek Jeter and defensive statistics.
While we've all seen Jeter's jump-and-throw routine and been impressed, and we've all seen The Flip and the dive into the stands, the evolution of baseball's defensive statistics, still in its relative youth, has nevertheless demonstrated Jeter's defense to be lacking.
One after another, defensive statistics have been developed that consistently arrive at the same conclusion: The guy is just not a good defensive player.
And make no mistake about it: Jeter isn't the reason that stat-geeks come up with new stats.
John Dewan and Baseball Info Solutions didn't start watching every play in every baseball game five years ago (or whenever it was) to undermine the perception that Jeter is a good defensive player. Bill James didn't set out to undermine Jeter, and Sean Forman doesn't publish defensive stats on his website to draw out Derek Jeter's inadequacies. Rob Neyer doesn't write articles about baseball simply to undercut Derek Jeter's legacy.
Baseball minds develop baseball stats to try to learn more about baseball and, in an ideal world, try to make baseball better. They didn't set out to make people think that Adam Everett is twice the defensive player that Jeter is. That's just the conclusion they reached. Over and over. And over.
At the end of the day, trying to find new and better ways to value defense, every single one of these people, and other people like them, has reached the same conclusion.
Derek Jeter is a bad defensive player.
But I have a question for all you New York Yankees' fans:
We didn't need to pretend that Bo Jackson was a great pass catcher to acknowledge that he was a great running back. We didn't need to pretend that Dennis Rodman was a great shooter to acknowledge he was as tremendous a basketball player as he was. And we didn't need to pretend that Babe Ruth was a great fielder in order to acknowledge that he was the greatest player of all time.
And in the same vein, we don't need to pretend that Derek Jeter was an elite defensive shortstop in order to acknowledge that he has been a great shortstop.
And we don't need to pretend that Derek Jeter has had once-in-a-lifetime intangibles in order to appreciate his leadership.
And we certainly don't need to pretend that the New York Yankees were just another team playing on an even financial playing field in order to appreciate what Derek Jeter has accomplished during his career.
And yet, doing these things seem to be the raison d'etre of the New York media, specifically the New York Daily News and the New York Post, but even the New York Times to a lesser extent, and it infuriates people like me, who try to approach baseball from an objective and even-handed perspective in order to place players, managers, teams, leagues and eras into proper perspective.
That Derek Jeter will go down in history as one of the game's finest players does not bother me, and I am proud to have watched his career.
That Derek Jeter has won five Gold Gloves at shortstop and, as such, will go down in history as one of the game's finest defensive shortstops bothers me tremendously.
That Derek Jeter would go down in history as the greatest hitter, greatest Yankee, greatest clutch-hitter, greatest postseason performer, or, absurdly, the greatest player of all-time would simply be, in my mind, a baseball apocalypse, and an affront to every player to have ever played the game.
In my ideal world, we would all appreciate Derek Jeter for everything he has accomplished as a New York Yankee, as a shortstop, and as a World Champion. And that has been tremendous; in fact, as recently as 2009 I ranked him as the 75th greatest player of all time.
Nevertheless, this ideal world also requires us to not engage in the sort of myth-making that comes from the need to portray Jeter as a great defensive shortstop, a once-in-a-lifetime leader, or even the greatest player we've ever seen.
And yet for all that has been great about Derek Jeter, it is the tendency of the New York media and fan-base to do precisely that which is to blame for all of the venom that is directed towards this player, who frankly has done nothing to deserve the harsh treatment he receives from those of us who see him not for what the New York media and fan-base would have us believe him to be, but rather for what he is.
Merely one of the best baseball players of our lifetime.