Derek Jeter

Some years ago, American Heritage Monthly had an annual “Overrated – Underrated” where they asked writers and historians to write brief essays on things that were Overrated and Underrated in categories within their areas of expertise. From “Fictional Detective” to “Philanthropist” to “Ad Campaign”, they were all fun and informative. I’ll probably write my own essays in that format soon.

But with Derek Jeter retiring at the end of this season, online comment boards are filled with arguments insisting that he is overrated – and underrated. Is this possible? Can the same thing be both at the same time?

Jeter’s many detractors cannot hide their general hatred of the Yankees. But they do bring up a few good points. Jeter’s defense has always been – at best – average. The highlight reel plays he’s made are the result of sheer luck rather than any real defensive skill. Much of his fame is due to his playing in New York City, one of the largest media markets in the world. His personal charisma and squeaky-clean reputation have thus played a major part in his deification. His fans confuse “personality” with “talent”.

That’s the same thing we see in the Hall of Fame case for Gil Hodges. Played for a legendary team, great guy, eminently likeable, and just lucky enough. But when you look at the numbers, Hodges was just an average first baseman, who never really stood out in anything.

Unlike Hodges, Jeter does belong in the Hall of Fame, despite his being turned into a god. For even many of his most ardent worshipers underrate him when it comes to his actual baseball talents.

While it is true that Jeter rarely led the league in any significant stat, and never won a major award other than Rookie of the Year, what is remarkable is his high level of consistency over his career. When considering offensive stats only, Jeter compares quite favorably with Paul Molitor (who is in the Hall of Fame) and Craig Biggio (who should be) – neither of whom won any major awards as well.

From his first full season in 1996 through 2012, only twice did he appear in fewer than 145 games. And only once did his average drop below .290… In 1996, his slash line was .314/.370/.430 – in 2012 (sixteen years later), it was .316/.362/.429. His post-season slash line? .308/.374/.465 over a total of 158 games (playoffs and World Series combined). That’s a great sign of being able to adjust to different players, different styles of play, and the effects of time. There aren’t many players who can stay that healthy for that long, never mind being able to produce at such a level over that span.

You can have a player who takes a few years to hit their stride and then blow everyone away for a few years before fading, or one who, while never really excelling, gives you the same high level for years and years.

Derek Jeter is not the God of Baseball that some make him out to be. If he doesn’t make it in to the Hall of Fame unanimously, there should not be an uprising in the streets. Hell, even Henry Aaron wasn’t unanimous. But as one of the best everyday hitters – who performed at a high level every day for many, many years – he does deserve our respect and admiration.

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