National Columnist

Where is Derek Jeter among all-time greats? Higher than I thought

Jeter's offensive statistics (.828 OPS) back up his status as one of the greatest shortstops ever. (USATSI)
Jeter's offensive statistics (.828 OPS) back up his status as one of the greatest shortstops ever. (USATSI)

Some of you, you're going to yawn. Or click to another link because you're not in the business of reading what you already know. But for the rest of us, this will be a shock. And yes, I said "us," because this was a shock to me when I looked at the numbers and thought about the facts and realized …

Derek Jeter is one of the top-five shortstops of all time.

Knock me over with a feather, because that's not what I thought as recently as a week ago. Jeter announced his retirement after the 2014 season and someone was asking me on the radio, I think it was this dude, where Jeter rates among the all-time greats at shortstop, and my answer -- off the top of my head, based on my feeling and not the facts -- was pretty much this:

"He doesn't. He's a Hall of Famer, so clearly he's one of the best ever, but the best of the best? Top 10 shortstops ever? Derek Jeter isn't one of those."

Oops.

Not only is Jeter a top-10 shortstop, he deserves a place in the top five. And again, I know! Some of you are like, "Duh," because you knew that. The rest of you are like, "Dummy," because that's stupid. Derek Jeter, a top-five shortstop?

Ever?

That's stupid. That's what some of you are thinking, to which I agreed last week. It is stupid, until you look at those pesky numbers and think about those gosh-darn facts. Think only with the facts currently in your brain, and listen to it whisper things about Jeter's good fortune to play with the richest organization in baseball and to play in the biggest media market in the country and to date all those beautiful women -- it's not germane to this discussions, but still … it's irksome right? -- and you can fool yourself into thinking Jeter was in the right place at the right time, a Hall of Famer by virtue of his 19 years and 3,316 hits and five World Series rings but definitely not among the all-time greats.

The numbers and the facts, however, are clearly in the other boat. The boat that says Derek Jeter wasn't just a top-five shortstop but arguably one of the best three or four shortstops ever.

Offensively, I mean. Defensively? Jeter isn't in the top five or top 10 or maybe even the top 25 in that category. And defense is part of baseball. A big part. Like, almost half the game. So if we're going to measure defense, then I can't sit here and tell you Jeter is a top-five shortstop all time, because how do you quantify what Ozzie Smith and Pee Wee Reese and Luis Aparicio and a whole host of other Hall of Fame shortstops gave on defense, compared to what they didn't give on offense, and make a reasonable comparison between them and Derek Jeter? You can't. Well, maybe you can. You can look at WAR and trust its accuracy as an end-all measurement, but I can't and wouldn't even try. Too muddled.

But offensively, the numbers are clear. Only two Hall of Fame shortstops have a higher career batting average than Jeter's .312, and both of them -- Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan -- played before integration. (Vaughan played 14 years in the big leagues, the final two coming in 1947 and '48.) That's not to say that any player, by definition, can't be considered an all-time great if he played before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. But come on. The competition increased when the pool of players was widened. Did it increase at the same level that expansion watered it down? Good question. Don't know. But don't ask me to ignore that Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughn put up the numbers they put up against mostly white, Anglo competition. That happened. It matters. How much does it matter? Don't know. Neither do you.

Jeter's career .381 on-base percentage is the best by any shortstop (minimum: 3,000 plate appearances) in the last 50 years except for Alex Rodriguez, who cheated to get to .384 and therefore doesn't make my list of shortstops who arguably were better offensively than Jeter:

Honus Wagner. Ernie Banks. Cal Ripken. And, um, that's it.

And I'm not sold on Ripken. Fun fact: His .447 slugging was exactly .001 better than Jeter (.446), and his OPS (.788) was 40 points below Jeter's .828. But he had a lot more home runs and RBI, and a lot less strikeouts, so OK. I'll put Ripken ahead of Jeter. Same with Wagner and Banks. But not Robin Yount, who spent barely half his career at shortstop. (Same goes for Ernie Banks, but his greatness happened primarily at short; Yount's was spread between SS and CF.)

Wagner. Banks. Ripken. Jeter. Those are the top four offensive shortstops of all time.

Odd, right?

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