Is it possible to say a player is arguably the most overrated athlete ever to play professional sports and yet still believe his accomplishments make him a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer? Yes it is, and that player is Yankees legend Derek Jeter.
It seems every day Jeter is amassing some new milestone, passing another all-time great on some statistical chart and picking up yet another postseason honor. He’s already the Yankees' career leader in hits, and ranks highly on a number of other offensive charts. By the time he retires, Derek Jeter will likely have compiled more than 3,000 hits, 250 home runs, 350 stolen bases and scored better than 2,000 runs.
The back of his baseball card is littered with statistics that spell out his address in Cooperstown. Add in his multiple Gold Glove awards (whether or not you feel he deserved them), numerous All-Star appearances and the fact that he’s looking to begin filling his second hand with World Championship rings, and it appears that No. 2 might be one of the best players to ever grace the fields of Major League Baseball.
But he’s not.
Derek Jeter is merely a very good player who benefited greatly from being drafted by the right team, at the right time, playing in the right city. Had he been drafted by any other team his legacy would be vastly different. For starters, he would not be as recognizable, nor as well-paid—both on and off the field—as he is. And he likely would not have spent the majority of his career surrounded and protected in a lineup filled with the game’s best and highest paid player. Derek Jeter’s greatness is more a matter of happenstance.
To be fair, Jeter is a great player. He plays the game's second most difficult position and plays it well. He’s a .314 career hitter with some power and speed, and seems to come up big when it matters most. Most Yankee fans will argue that it’s what he does outside of statistics that makes Derek Jeter great. He’s a leader; a team player more concerned with winning than anything else. He will do whatever it takes to win, giving up his body and anything else for that "W."
His defensive play in Oakland a decade ago is legendary. There is no defensible (pun intended) reason for a shortstop to be at that position on the field other than genius anticipation. His diving play into the stands at newer-old Yankee Stadium in a mid-season game against the hated Red Sox, shows his guts and determination. The home run he launched against Arizona on November 1, 2001 earned him the nickname "Mr. November." And he’s one of baseball’s good guys.
However, Jeter has never had to be "they guy"; he’s always been surrounded by players and pitchers better than him who have carried the majority of the load. He’s never been the best player at his position, on his team or in the game. He’s been given the benefit of the doubt all throughout his career by umpires, managers, players and fans. Buck Showalter was correct to call him out.
Jeter has never been best at anything baseball-wise except extracting the most dollars out of the least ability and production. (Compare Jeter’s earnings with his contemporaries. Who in his pay-class have produced less?) And when his team acquired a better player, both offensively and defensively at his position, Jeter showed no signs of being willing to give up his sacred shortstop spot. (At 36-years-old and a few steps slower, he seems insulted the Yankees would suggest he’d ever have to give up a position meant for players a decade younger.)
Who is the most important Yankee over the last 15 years?
If I were building a team from the ground up and had a chance to have Derek Jeter, I wouldn’t hesitate to gobble him up. He’s a very good player who produces when needed. He’s a clutch hitter who averages 120 runs per year (although getting more than 600 plate appearances in the lineups Jeter’s played in, he better score that many runs), and at one point was a solid defensive shortstop.
Where would Jeter’s career be if he was drafted by the Mariners? Or the Cardinals? Would he be as successful or revered as Rodriguez and Pujols are? No, because he’s not as good. Where would Jeter be if he weren’t surrounded in a lineup with great hitters and players? Without the likes of Mariano Rivera, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Jimmy Key and CC Sabathia, would he have five World Series rings? Not likely.
Derek Jeter is and was a great player. He’s got a spot reserved for him in Cooperstown; a day at Yankee Stadium to have his jersey retired and a monument erected in left-center field. However he’s not Babe Ruth. He’s not even Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez (and we cannot be completely sure who did and did not use performance enhancing drugs; we know Bonds and Rodriguez did, but cannot be one hundred percent sure Jeter didn’t).
Derek Jeter is, simply put, slightly better than Ryne Sandberg, which is not a bad thing. A very good, even great, player who winds up in Cooperstown one day. But he’s not an all-time great, not one of the game’s legends, and for that he’s overrated.