The managers and coaches say Derek Jeter is the best defensive shortstop in the American League. The stat guys say Derek Jeter is the worst defensive shortstop in the American League.
They're both wrong.
|With errors, fielding percentage flawed, Derek Jeter's fifth Gold Glove becomes questionable. (US Presswire)|
Too bad there aren't any reliable numbers to back that up. Too bad there aren't any reliable numbers to back up any defensive rankings.
For all the talk about how next week's AL Cy Young announcement could ignite a new school vs. old school debate over Felix Hernandez (who should be the winner, despite his 13-12 record), it's the Gold Glove announcement that really shows the divide.
And unlike in the Cy Young debate, the problem with arguing defense is that the numbers guys haven't yet been able to come up with any good numbers.
The old ones (errors, fielding percentage) are obviously flawed. The new ones (UZR, Rtot, etc.) are just as flawed.
A couple of months back, one club official told me he believes every publicly available defensive metric is useless. And what about the numbers the clubs use themselves? A little better, but still not great, he said.
Since then, I've asked other executives the same question, and got the same answer.
The only way to truly judge defense is to watch a player play, day after day.
It's not that surprising that coaches and managers could get the Gold Glove wrong, because they see only three-game snippets. It's not surprising stat guys could get their Gold Glove reaction wrong, because they see only those "useless" metrics.
One AL manager said today that Jeter is "still a great shortstop."
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But a group of scouts who watched the Yankees more regularly this season disagreed.
"Middle of the pack," one said. "He's steady, but he has lost arm strength and range. But he's still a good player. This [Gold Glove] isn't outrageous. It's not like the year that [Rafael] Palmeiro won it when he only played 28 games at first base."
It's only outrageous if you believe Jeter is the worst shortstop in the big leagues. When Jeter's latest Gold Glove was announced Wednesday, baseball-reference.com responded by posting a note that read, "We can't believe it either."
And the New York Times this morning ran a headline that read, "Jeter's Gold Glove an error, metric indicates."
The Times, which has given more and more credence to the stat guys (suggesting before the World Series that Matt Cain is just a league-average pitcher, and running a chart this week projecting a $15 million salary for Lance Berkman and a $14 million salary for Manny Ramirez, based on WAR), pointed out that Jeter ranked 59th out of 59 shortstops this year in Rtot, which baseball-reference.com describes as "The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made."
Another stat-based website, fangraphs.com, ranked Jeter seventh of the nine AL shortstop with enough innings (based on UZR, or ultimate zone rating), ahead of only Yuniesky Betancourt and Jason Bartlett.
Here's what's funny: One AL East scout I talked to today listed Bartlett as one of the shortstops who is better than Jeter.
"My ultimate choice is Andrus," the scout said. "Jeter shouldn't be anywhere in the discussion. For me, it's Andrus, Bartlett and [J.J.] Hardy. But I was glad to see [Yankees second baseman Robinson] Cano win. Cano deserves 1½ [Gold Gloves], for how many times he bails out Jeter."
Other scouts are kinder to Jeter, based mostly on his reliability.
"There's no question his range is not as good as it was, but he still makes the routine plays as well as anyone," one of those scouts said. "You take Alexei Ramirez. He's an exciting shortstop, but he's still a little careless. Jeter's a conservative player now, but he doesn't make the errors to beat you."
And maybe that's why the managers and coaches like him so much. If there's one thing about a shortstop that can drive a manager crazy, it's the inability to regularly turn routine plays into outs.
Jeter still does that. If you judge shortstops by who you want out there to catch the final out of the World Series, Jeter ranks near the top, or maybe even at the top.
But if that ball is hit too far to his right, or especially too far to his left, maybe Jeter isn't the guy you want.
Ask me, and I'll take Andrus. Ask me, and I'll say he should have won the Gold Glove this year.
But Jeter wasn't the anti-Gold Glove.
Too bad I don't trust any of the numbers that might prove it.