The New York Daily News front page headline last week on Derek Jeter’s retirement announcement said: “There’s never been a Yankee who’s mattered more.”
Maybe they felt they needed the hyperbole to sell papers to an audience diminished by a foot of snow, but that’s not exactly what Mike Lupica’s column, which the headline referenced, said. Lupica added “since Ruth,” and even if Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig and Yogi Berra are debatable, it’s possible Jeter mattered more than all of them. Not Ruth, though. But who can fit two more words on the front page when you’ve already got eight?
It’s like adding Johnny Blanchard’s 21 home runs to a 1961 starting lineup that hit 208 of them. There’s only room for nine names on the lineup card.
The Daily News wasn’t alone. Albert Pujols said Jeter was “pretty close to” Jesus. A Poughkeepsie Journal columnist said the Hall of Fame should waive the five-year waiting period and allow Jeter to enter with Mariano Rivera.
Of course spring training is just beginning, and we’ve only had a few days to overhype Jeter’s retirement. Before we’re done, Jeter’s farewell will make the departure of Jay Leno seem as if Leno were the Eduardo Nunez of late-night talk.
Leave it to the Onion to salvage some reality: Derek Jeter Announces 2012 Will Be His Final Decent Season, read its headline.
It’s not Jeter’s fault, but it’s 2014, not 1939. Imagine the coverage today if Gehrig made his “luckiest man” speech with ESPN present.
It’s best to let the furor simmer before attempting to determine Jeter’s historical place. But there are a few things we can stamp with certainty:
Their next-longest drought was the eight seasons they went without after their 2000 title to 2009, though they made the playoffs seven of those years and lost two Series to franchises that didn’t exist when Jeter was born (2001 to the D’backs, 2003 to the Marlins). From the Yankees’ first World Series appearance in 1921 until the modern postseason playoffs began in 1969, the longest gap in World Series without the Yankees is the four seasons from 1965-68 (and they didn’t return until 1976); before that, it was three seasons three times (1929-31, 1933-35 and 1944-46). Call them the Evil Empire if Larry Lucchino wants, but that’s a remarkable record. And it’s why Jeter — and Rivera and Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams — all mattered. But, yes, Jeter most of all.
For the Yankees, it’s mostly, with the exception of second and third bases, Hall of Fame worthy: 1b-Gehrig (340/447/632), 2b-Bobby Richardson (266/299/335), ss-Jeter (312/381/446) usurping Phil Rizzuto (273/351/355), 3b-Gil McDougald (276/356/410), catcher-Bill Dickey (313/382/486), of-Berra (285/348/482), DiMaggio (325/398/579) and Mantle (298/421/557), P-Whitey Ford (236-106, 2.75), P-Mariano Rivera (652 saves, 2.21 ERA).
That still leaves a bench of Bernie Williams (297/381/477), Jorge Posada (273/374/474), Frankie Crosetti (245/341/354), Tommy Henrich (282/382/491), Earle Combs (325/397/462), Red Rolfe (289/360/413), George Selkirk (290/400/483), Spud Chandler (109-43, 2.84), Jerry Coleman (263/340/339), Dr. Bobby Brown (279/367/376), Tony Kubek (263/303/364), Roy White (271/360/404). And probably some others.
But all of the above played only for the Yankees. The modern-day Yankees may be best known for signing away high-priced free agents. But the most recent Yankees’ extended success in the late 1990s was rooted in earlier Yankees successes: home-grown talent which played only for them. Jeter, Posada, Rivera and Williams never played anywhere else.
(Today’s trivia: Thirteen Yankees have won the MVP. Name them.)
Given that the Yankees have won 40 pennants, it might seem they should have won more, but in the early days of the award, repeat winners weren’t allowed. Thus, Babe Ruth won one rather than a decade’s worth. Jeter has three top-five finishes in the MVP vote: third in 1998, second in 2006 and third in 2009. It’s the middle one that Yankees fans say Jeter should have won, because Justin Morneau won it. In that limited context, perhaps so.
Morneau hit .321 with 34 homers and a .934 OPS at first base; Jeter hit .343, slugged .483, stole 34 bases and won a Gold Glove. His OPS was just 34 points less than Morneau’s and it would seem evident a Gold Glove shortstop with a .900 OPS would be more valuable than a slugging first baseman whose OPS+ was just eight points greater. WAR reflects as much — Jeter’s was 1.2 greater (5.5-4.3).
All of that may not be evidence of an anti-New York bias as much as an anti-informed electorate. David Ortiz’s 1.049 OPS was 115 points greater than Morneau’s, and his 5.7 WAR was better than both players who finished ahead of him. Ortiz was third. Joe Mauer’s OPS was two points greater than his teammate’s, and Mauer caught. His 5.8 WAR was better than Ortiz, Morneau and Jeter, and he was sixth.
And yet a third Twin had a better WAR than both Morneau and Mauer. Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana won 19 games with a 2.77 ERA and led the league in innings pitched (Mets fans, his arm troubles started with all those 230-inning seasons), strikeouts, wins, WHIP and ERA, and his 7.5 WAR led the league. Yet, he was third among Twins in the voting and seventh overall.
That’s not even including Travis Hafner (1.097 OPS and 5.9 WAR), Carlos Guillen (320/400/519, 6.0 WAR), Grady Sizemore (290/375/533, 6.6 WAR), or Vernon Wells, who got three points despite hitting .303 and 32 homers and slugging .542 (6.2 WAR). It’s a shame his teammates were so bad that they cost him votes. Even Jeter’s teammate Chien Ming-Wang, tied for 26th in the voting behind Wells, had a higher WAR (6.0) than Jeter.
Yes, Jeter was more deserving than Morneau. But neither should have been the MVP. No WAR isn’t the only factor. Yes, it was a hard year to pick an MVP (in hindsight, I’ll take Mauer. Or Sizemore). But it’s hard to finish ninth in WAR, as Jeter did, and claim to be the victim of an injustice.
Three of them (Vaughan, Luke Appling and Dahlen) are within Jeter’s reach with a good 2014; Wallace and Ozzie Smith are too if he has one more 2009-like season. I’ll take Jeter over Ozzie; the latter’s value is about half defense, which is still hard to quantify, even if no one is objecting to the obvious. But Ozzie’s .666 career OPS is 162 points less than Jeter’s .828.
The only modern-day shortstop clearly ahead of Jeter is Cal Ripken, who won two MVPs, two Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year and eight Silver Sluggers. He hit 431 homers, had 3,184 hits and saved all his sick days. Ripken’s .788 OPS is 40 points less than Jeter’s and his 112 OPS+ is five points less than Jeter’s 117. Some of the difference is length of careers; Ripken played 21 seasons, Jeter 19, though last year doesn’t really count. But much of the difference is some big Ripken seasons early in his career: an 11.5 WAR in 1991 (323/374/566, 34 homers, 46 doubles), a 9.9 WAR in 1984 (304/374/510) and 8.2 in 1983 (318/371/518). All of those were before offense was back in vogue, whether because of expansion, small parks or PEDs.
Behind Wagner and Ripken for Jeter seems about right, too.
All-time SS WARs, with all-time WAR rank, according to baseball-reference.com: 10. Honus Wagner, 130.6; 36. Cal Ripken, 95.6; 52. George Davis, 84.4; 69. Ozzie Smith, 76.5; 70. Bobby Wallace, 76.2; 74. Bill Dahlen, 75.3; 78. Luke Appling, 74.5; 82. Arky Vaughan, 73.0; 88. Derek Jeter, 71.6.
The 13 players who have won the MVP award as Yankees: Babe Ruth (1923), Lou Gehrig (1927 and 1936), Joe DiMaggio (1939, 1941 and 1947), Joe Gordon (1942), Spud Chandler (1943), Phil Rizzuto (1950), Yogi Berra (1951, 1954 and 1955), Mickey Mantle (1956, 1957 and 1962), Roger Maris (1960 and 1961), Elston Howard (1963), Thurman Munson (1976), Don Mattingly (1985) and Alex Rodriguez (2005 and 2007).