There’s a rather troublesome trend brewing among Hall of Fame voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America. Since the group now allows public Hall vote disclosure, some early voters are disclosing, all right. They’re disclosing one-vote ballots and the votes are going to Derek Jeter.
Jeter’s Cooperstown enshrinement was a given from the moment he doffed his Yankee pinstripes for the last time. There’s a swelling sense that, as Newsday writer/voter Anthony Rieber puts it, Jeter “deserves to stand alone at the podium as the entire Hall of Fame Class of 2020 on July 26 in Cooperstown.”
And, a parallel sense enunciated by another Newsday writer, Steve Marcus, that the Hall of Fame is getting a little too crowded, which he emphasises with his #keeptheHallsmall hashtag. Marcus also declared, a la the headline attached to a 2019 column in question, “Legends are my baseline for baseball Hall of Fame ballot.”
I’ll take the first argument first. It’s a relative to the old discredited argument that, if so-and-sos didn’t get elected on their first tries, then so-and-sos to come shouldn’t be elected first ballot, either.
Try this one on for size: How would you like someone arguing that if Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner didn’t get to stand alone when inducted into Cooperstown, then nobody else should, either? Didn’t think so.
As it happens, only 22 players in the history of the Hall of Fame were the only ones to be elected by the BBWAA in the years they got the call. That’s less than ten percent of all major league players in the Hall, whether elected by the writers or the assorted Veterans Committees:
Rogers Hornsby (1942)
Charlie Gehringer (1949)
Luke Appling (1964)
Ted Williams (1966)
Red Ruffing (1967)
Joe Medwick (1968)
Lou Boudreau (1970)
Ralph Kiner (1975)
Ernie Banks (1977)
Eddie Mathews (1978)
Willie Mays (1979)
Bob Gibson (1981)
Willie McCovey (1986)
Willie Stargell (1988)
Reggie Jackson (1993)
Steve Carlton (1994)
Mike Schmidt (1995)
Phil Niekro (1997)
Ozzie Smith (2002)
Bruce Sutter (2006)
Goose Gossage (2008)
Barry Larkin (2012)
You might have thought a few of those men deserved to stand alone among BBWAA choices, of course. Who’d argue against Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, and Ozzie Smith? Not I, said the fly. Maybe Reggie Jackson, too. The man was one of a kind, even if some of his critics might follow saying so with “Thank God!”
Now, would you like to know whom among those BBWAA winners really stood alone? As in, standing at the induction podium with nobody else—not a Veterans Committee selection, not an executive, not a pioneer, not a Negro Leagues inductee, nobody—on their big day? Four—Hornsby, Stargell, Jackson, and Smith.
Rieber and Marcus and probably a few more writers, not necessarily confined to the BBWAA’s New York contingent, think Jeter belongs to that set and maybe even subset. Set aside for the moment that he was actually an overrated shortstop, overall, and you can still find the plausible argument that Jeter wasn’t quite in league with such position players as Williams, Mays, Schmidt, and Smith.
Come to think of it, there’s a better case that Jeter’s longtime “Core Five” Yankee teammate, Mariano Rivera, deserved the stand-alone BBWAA vote more if the circumstances granted it. Rivera was the absolute best in the business at what he did. Jeter wasn’t, quite.
Don’t go there about the postseasons just yet. Yes, like The Mariano, Jeter and the postseason were a long, happy marriage. His postseason OPS is comparable to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson’s lifetime OPS per 162 games. Think about that for a moment: Jeter as a number two hitter in the postseason was equal to a Hall of Fame leadoff hitter on the regular season, even if the Man of Steal could beat Captain Clutch in a footrace with one leg amputated.
The player who makes the absolute difference between his team getting to or missing the postseason is extremely rare. Jeter’s Yankees getting there in the first place, never mind winning five rings, were total team efforts. (Jeter did win one World Series MVP, in 2000.) Just as Williams’s Red Sox getting to only one World Series, Mays’s Giants getting to only three (winning one), Schmidt’s Phillies getting to only two (and winning one), and Smith’s Cardinals getting to three (winning once) were total team shortfalls.
But Jeter did shine in the postseason. And made it look so simple a child of five could have done it. (Thanks, Groucho.) If you thought he was already built to act as though the New York heat met its match in his charisma and his ability to duck every controversy that swarmed his Yankees, come the postseason Jeter played as if the big moment was just another day on the job, just another chance to play the game he loved.
(Just for the record: Lifetime, Jeter’s best performance was in medium-leverage situations, with a .321/.380/.464 slash line. His high-leverage performance was almost even with it: .311/.391/.418. Medium-leverage OPS: .844; high-leverage OPS: .809. When the stakes were lowest, so was Jeter: .299/.371/.426, with a Boeing OPS: .797. It’s no crime that a man saves his best for when it matters just that much more toward winning.)
Reggie Jackson once talked about “the magnitude of being me,” and for all his once-outsized ego he didn’t necessarily mean it as self-congratulation. Jeter lived the magnitude of being him as though it was as natural as coffee at the breakfast table and worth just as much discussion—none.
Jeter’s Hall of Fame election would make him the tenth Hall of Fame shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball era. The longer I watched him, especially in all those postseasons, the more I now wanted to see how he stacks against the nine others according to my real batting average concept.
In traditional BA terms, the terms I prefer to call the hitting average, he’s a lifetime .310 hitter. And he does have those 3,465 career hits. But there’s a problem there: the hitting average is an incomplete picture of a man at the plate, and 3,000+ lifetime hits by themselves tell you nothing about what they were actually worth.
Stop snarling, grumpy old giddoff-mah-lawners. Ask yourself how proper it is to declare all hits are created equal and divide them purely by official at-bats. And ask yourself whether 3,465 career hits are really better than 3,184 hits. Yes, that’s a ringer. The 3,184 belong to Cal Ripken, Jr., whose lifetime hitting average (sorry, I’m sticking with the program again) was .276. And as I’m about to show you, Ripken was actually a better man at the plate than Jeter was, without once suggesting that it means Jeter doesn’t belong in Cooperstown.
We should ask why we don’t account for everything a man does at the plate. We should ask why we don’t add his total bases (which do treat all hits the way they should be treated: unequal, unless you really think a single’s equal to a double’s equal to a triple’s equal to a home run), his walks, his intentional walks (why aren’t we crediting a guy when the other team would rather he take his base than their pitchers’ heads off?), his sacrifices, and the times he got plunked? (They want to put you on the hard way, let it be on their heads.) And, we should ask why we don’t divide that total by his total plate appearances.
And then, we should do just that. TB + BB + IBB + SAC + HBP / PA. That’s your real batting average. And this is how Derek Jeter stacks up with the nine incumbent postwar/post-integration/night ball Hall of Fame shortstops:
|Pee Wee Reese||9470||3038||1210||67||176||26||.477|
|HOF SS AVG||.486|
Jeter’s .505 is the fourth best among the group. It’s nineteen points above the average for the Hall of Fame shortstops, and only Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks are ahead of him. He’s third in walks behind Ripken and Reese; he’s second only to Ripken for total bases; he’s third to last (ahead of only Rizzuto and Aparicio) for intentional walks; he’s fourth to last in sacrifices (Larkin, Ripken, and Banks are behind him), but boy did he take more for the team getting plunked. (Nobody else among the shortstops has more than 70.)
In other words, Jeter’s a bona fide, above the average, Hall of Fame shortstop, and collecting more hits than any Hall of Fame infielder counts even if the total picture offensive picture lines him up fourth among postwar/post-integration/night-ball shortstops.
It’s his defense that leaves Jeter a little overrated. He was Ozzie Smith-acrobatic at his best. His gymnastics happened often enough, even if the Wizard of Oz makes The Captain resemble an aspirant. Maybe the signature defensive play of Jeter’s career, among several highlight-filmers, was that barehand grab of a throw home from right that missed two cutoff men, Jeter running down the infield from shortstop, hitting the middle of the first base line as he grabbed the ball, and the backward shovel pass home as he stepped into foul ground, to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 American League division series.
But Jeter did have more limited range at the position than you remember, and he wasn’t as good at saving runs as you expected him to be when you remembered all the dazzlers he performed, despite having a strong throwing arm and steady hands. Lifetime, Jeter at shortstop was 155 defensive runs saved below average, and he was 13 runs saved below average a year.
There’s the difference. Watching Jeter and Smith their entire careers was as entertaining as it got. They were both shortstop acrobats. But that’s where the comparison ends. The Wizard of Oz was a Flying Wallenda and the greatest defender at the position. Jeter’s no less a Hall of Famer because for all his own flying he wasn’t even close to Ozzie Smith-great at shortstop. Nobody else really was, either.
Which returns me to Steve Marcus and his legend measurement. Jeter is one of eighteen Hall of Fame ballot premieres, with fourteen more making return engagements. Never mind the controversies attached to the following players, for now (including the one his one-time general manager described as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four”), but the ballot includes a few other legends: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa.
Of course, not every legend is a Hall of Famer (hello, Roger Maris, for openers) and not every Hall of Famer is a legend, either. (Nice to meet you, Bobby Wallace.) If Marcus and others of his like think only bona fide legends belong in Cooperstown, then Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa are as overqualified as Jeter. If they think those guys aren’t legends, they’ve been sleeping longer than Rip Van Winkle.