Former Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who played shortstop in the Bronx from 1995 to 2014, had his number retired May 14 at Yankee Stadium. A future Hall of Famer, Jeter is considered one of the best shortstops in baseball history. But was he the best?
Here are three arguments that Jeter was the best shortstop of all time, and three arguments that he is not quite atop that list.
Jeter is the best shortstop of all time
His offensive numbers were a cut above
While much of the praise of Jeter understandably focuses on his clutch hitting, leadership, and intangibles, it is important not to overlook his unparalleled hitting statistics. Jeter’s 3,465 hits are the most ever by a shortstop, and sixth most of any player at any position. He also leads all shortstops in runs (Alex Rodriguez has him narrowly beat in this category but played less than half his games at the position), while his .310 career batting average is 35 points higher than Cal Ripken Jr. and Ernie Banks, two top contenders for the honor.
Jeter is not known as a power hitter, and he certainly never threatened either of Barry Bonds’ home run records. But his 260 career home runs are more than all but two Hall of Fame shortstops (Banks and Ripken), and blows away Honus Wagner’s 101. Though he never won an MVP, he finished in the top 10 in voting eight times (and the top three thrice).
He was a winner
Statistics, however, do not tell the whole story. Jeter had a record of rising to the moment. His five World Series championships are a rarity in the Wild Card era – no one who has played since 1968 has won more. He was certainly on some great teams, but his performance – he batted a stellar .308 in the postseason over his career and was named World Series MVP in 2000 – certainly played a role.
Longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner named him team captain in 2003, a title he held longer than any other Yankee. “I look at all the other leaders down through Yankee history, and Jeter is right there with them,” Steinbrenner noted.
As Michael Jordan said, “He has qualities that separate superstars from everyday people.” Perhaps that’s why his nicknames include “Captain Clutch” and “Mr. November” – and why he is the only player in major league history to play at least 20 years without a single losing season, with a .593 career winning percentage.
He was a strong fielder
Most of the criticism of Jeter centers around the claim that he was a liability on defense. That would be news to those who watched him play, as he was awarded five Gold Gloves, given to the best fielder at each position in the league.
Jeter was unparalleled in his ability to make plays to his backhand side, jump, and throw a strike towards first. His 2004 catch as he dove into the crowd in a July game against the Red Sox showcased both his ability to track fly balls and his toughness. And “The Flip” in 2001 highlighted his uncanny field awareness.
Jeter was great, but others were better
He wasn’t the best hitter
Jeter was a great offensive player, and will deservedly be elected to the Hall of Fame. But there have been other shortstops who were better with the bat than the Yankees captain.
Honus Wagner, who batted .328 and stole 723 bases over his career, was a more dominant force than Jeter ever was. Arky Vaughan, whose .318 average bests Jeter, would have comparable total had the prime of his career not been interrupted by World War II. Ernie Banks blasted 512 home runs, with his most productive years coming while playing the position.
Jeter was very good hitter for a tremendously long career but was never a dominant force offensively. He never won a batting title, never hit 25 home runs, only drove in 100 runs once, and is not among the 15 shortstops who have won the MVP award.
He was an awful fielder
While Jeter may have made some flashy plays with the glove, defensive metrics overwhelmingly suggest that the Gold Gloves he was awarded were undeserved. Jeter’s defense cost the Yankees 246 runs defensively compared to the average player at his position, according to Baseball-reference.com, the worst of any player in history. And Bill James, a baseball statistician, called Jeter “the most ineffective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position.”
While Jeter never made a ton of errors, he simply did not have the range of his fellow shortstops. Jeter was among the best in history with the bat – but in the field, he was at best below average.
He is no A-Rod
In his first 10 season in the league, Alex Rodriguez blasted 345 home runs, collected more than 1,500 hits, won two gold gloves, and finished in the top 3 in MVP voting four times, winning the award in 2003. Had A-Rod stayed at the position, there would be no conversation about who was the greatest shortstop in baseball history.
But in 2004 Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees and moved over to third base to allow Jeter to stay at his position. Even so, however, A-Rod played more career games at short than he did at the hot corner. When stacking Jeter up against the all-time greats, Rodriguez must be in the conversation, and with 696 career home runs and three MVP awards, he is on a different level than his longtime teammate.
Jeter is among a small handful of shortstops who is arguably the best to play the position. Whether he tops that list will be debated by baseball fans for years to come.