Yes, I’ve been hibernating. It’s good to be back.
The prod that got me out of the cave wasn’t the stupid money thrown at Robinson Cano, or the Royals signing Omar Infante without ever giving my man Tony Seratelli a shot. No, it was a short article on the Five Best Shortstops in History.
The author decided that the five best were Honus Wagner, followed by Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith and Ernie Banks. Did you start to hack at number two? I did. Jeter the second best shortstop in baseball history? We’re going to be hearing this sort of thing all summer as Jeter repeats the Year of Mariano Rivera Saying Goodbye. (And if your knees still hurt by all the genuflecting at the Yankee altar, I’m guessing you ain’t seen nothing yet. Jeter’s long goodbye will be slower than Lincoln’s funeral train.) Now I know like you do that Jeter has been a fixture on the Yankees for, what, three hundred years and is their Captain and all that but the maddening thing about this ranking is that the author had nothing statistical to base it on.
Is Jeter a great player? Absolutely. He was extraordinarily durable and productive. He had some power, got on base and knew how and when to steal a base. And of course, he ripped over 3,000 hits. I’d want him on my team. And he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But one of the very best shortstops? Hmm. To be considered as such, a player would need to be both a top tier fielder and hitter for the most number of seasons. The dWAR and oWAR stats are very useful here. (dWAR is defensive Wins Above Replacement, oWAR just measures a player’s offensive performance. They are complicated stats—you can learn the methodology via an internet search.)
So I made a list of all the Hall of Fame shortstops as well as many that played a long time at the position. 31 players in total. I am sure that there are some that I should have included but this wasn’t an attempt to do an exhaustive study, just to examine the idea of Jeter being top five material. I wish I could have included two Hall of Famer’s from the Negro Leagues—Pop Lloyd and Willie Wells. Lloyd was called the “Black Wagner” and Honus reportedly took the comparison as a tremendous complement. So I would guess that one would have to rank Pop Lloyd in the vicinity of Honus. There is just no way to tell where. I didn’t include Monte Ward either since he played almost entirely before 1894 when Major League baseball was different enough to what we watch today to, in my opinion, make it necessary to consider it a different game altogether. One can compare Ward to the other shortstops of his day, but the rules in place cause the stats to be different and so comparisons between eras get to be meaningless. (Pitching stats are particularly skewed by the pre-1894 rules.)
For this list of 31 players, I tallied how many seasons each player was in his league’s top 10 for dWAR and oWAR. Then I added the two numbers to see which shortstop had the most seasons of being one of the top defensive and offensive players in his league. The top five, in order, are Luke Appling, Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Pee Wee Reese and Bobby Wallace. They are followed by Joe Cronin, Cal Ripken Jr., George Davis, Rabbit Maranville and Handsome Lou Boudreau. Derek Jeter is in 16th place, tied with Joe Sewell, Bert Campaneris and Phil Rizzuto, just below Alan Trammell and just above Robin Yount, Ernie Banks, Travis Jackson and Marty Marion.
But the WAR stats also make one understand that offense is more valuable in baseball than defense. We Royals’ fans know this well. Having a great defense is nice, but it just doesn’t feed the bulldog enough. I decided that it made sense to consider offense to be twice as important as defense based on this article http://www.sabermetrica.com/research/relative-importance-of-hitting-pitching-and-defense. So if we run the numbers again, double counting the seasons of being in the top 10 of oWAR, Jeter rises , but only to ninth place. The top five become Luke Appling, Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Joe Cronin and Pee Wee Reese.
I know. Luke Appling right? Who’d a thunk it? But there it is. Now it should be noted that I only counted the seasons in which the guy played shortstop. This distinction is important. It hurts Ernie Banks and Alex Rodriguez a great deal as they each only played eight years at short. Wagner was affected too as he spent several years at the beginning of his career playing all over the place. (He was the best wherever they needed him.) Bobby Wallace was also impacted as he pitched (and did pretty well by the way) at the beginning of his career.
One of the big reasons that the author of the article in question was so enamored with Jeter was his post season performance. I agree that it is very impressive. Jeter has basically played an entire season of post-season games. 33 series. 158 games. Slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) of .308/.374/.465. Wow. But to me, it is completely irrelevant to the question at hand. A player can’t control whether or not he gets to play in a bunting draped stadium. Just ask Ernie Banks. Granted, it’s a nice extra, and will be noted on his plaque in Cooperstown, but it just doesn’t matter in this analysis.
So the answer to the question of whether Derek Jeter is one of the top five shortstops in history is “no.” One of the greatest hitters to play shortstop? Sure. But not top five overall.