As aspiring saberists, everyone here probably remembers when they first discovered Derek Jeter’s FanGraphs page. Jeter’s baseball card in then-plain English was like a glistening diamond, filled with solid black and gold, while FanGraphs had the infamous negative numbers next to his defensive metrics. At the now-defunct Grantland, you can see how someone like Brendan Ryan was a much superior defensive shortstop based on his range alone.
When this information is revealed, it really has the air of a “secret” that’s being told to you by a source no one in real life knows, back when sabermetrics was on places like Fire Joe Morgan and not on ESPN.com.
Well, FJM has come full circle. Ken Tremendous (or Michael Schur) went back to a familiar talking point that Jeter was a “very good hitter, and a good-not-great defensive SS,” which made him a “borderline Hall of Famer” after he appeared on the 2020 ballot.
This may or may not have been satire itself, but it’s a popular opinion among saberists, as I said, and it kind of acts as a Rorschach test for pretty much how you see baseball at large. Reading take-downs of Jeter’s defense in retrospect is kind of like reading your own Facebook posts from ninth grade about religion or politics; the sense of smugness about learning the “correct” thing does not actually deliver anything other than satisfaction that, in retrospect, actually looks incredibly cringe and naive.
This is because you have to think about this from two perspectives, both from looking at the trajectory at perceptions of Jeter himself, as well as the very people who held up this Jeter narrative to begin with.
Look, I have very little sympathy for the rabidly pro-Jeter crowd. I grew up around it, and it was a narrative that in many ways represents the most insufferable aspect of sports culture and especially New York sports culture, which is the idolization of Guys Who Did It The Right Way, inevitably leading to the ostracization of anybody who, by that arbitrary guideline, didn’t. Case in point, Robinson Canó was happily erased from Yankees lore despite the fact that he could very well finish his career with more WAR than Jeter.
That being said, I don’t especially care myself with that as much because that’s not the cultural milieu we hope to inhabit here; it was commonplace for Jeter’s defense to be a litmus test among the analytically inclined, and it was sacrosanct otherwise.
That changed over time as this phase wore off; Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote upon Jeter’s retirement:
“So maybe the mainstream media has overrated Jeter over the last 20 years, but if they have, they’ve slightly exaggerated the greatness of one of the greatest players of all time. This isn’t a Ryan Howard or Jack Morris situation, where the narrative has turned an okay player into a superstar based on myth and legend. Jeter is a legitimate legend on his own merits, with no embellishments needed.”
And what happened to the earlier Jeter defense people? Well, they became the teams themselves. While it’s a fun fact that Placido Polanco was similarly as valuable as Derek Jeter from 2000 to 2013, it wasn’t as fun when those very same people decided that they instead went looking for Polanco’s instead of Jeter’s. Dear God, you should prefer a Jeter.
That in many ways is the story of sabermetrics itself, the story of people who tossed away one idol and found another, but there’s a path forward that I think many are starting to take within the analytics community, which is more the holistic approach.
Today we’re lucky enough to not just read about how, say, the Astros were able to be successful using the very same rules established under Jeter-defense, but we can also go one step deeper and analyze the ethical consequences of taking that to its logical extreme. The same could be said about how you look at Jeter, both from criticisms around his media persona, The Players’ Tribune, as well as his tenure with the Marlins as lens to view through.
So really, how we look at Derek Jeter is really a proxy for what we aspire the game to be like. If you think he’s overrated because his defense stinks, then your ideal future is one where players are interchangeable parts utilized for specific, tactical purposes. How lucky you are today!
If you think he’s overrated because he’s from New York, then you want a sport that’s both more regional but also with young stars from across the country. Gotta say, we’re lucky to actually have that. If you think he’s the embodiment of Playing The Right Way, then he’s a personality marker (null set) for what the rest of players should look like, certainly an opinion that skews older. Regardless, The Battle of Jeter won’t end because the battle over identity won’t end, nor will the meta-battle over how we interpret that identity, either.