Derek Jeter's Place in Yankee Universe

Jeter can't compare to past greats on the field, but his total package is unique in Yankee history

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Another indelible moment from a most indelible player.

    The 3,000th hit has come and gone and Derek Jeter can now get back to his avowed wish to just play baseball and stop thinking about history.

    That’s all well and good for someone who has to go out and play shortstop for the rest of the season, but the rest of us are free to do whatever we please. The All Star break gives fans plenty of time to ponder the question of just where Jeter ranks in the pantheon of Yankee greats.

    This could be a very short debate. While Jeter is in the VIP room inside the VIP room inside the VIP room that is the all-time Yankee clubhouse, you can’t make much of an argument that he’s a better player than most of the other people in that room.

    Jeter: "It's A Special Day"

    [NY] Jeter: "It's A Special Day"
    Derek Jeter's postgame press conference, after the Yankee Captain became the 28th player in Major League Baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit milestone.

    He isn’t a better player than Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle and isn't really all that close. This is not a demerit against Jeter because not being as good as those four legends is something he shares with just about everyone else who ever played the game.

    There have been people trying to mount arguments to the contrary, but those arguments are invalid from the moment people try to tell you that something matters more than how good Jeter was on the field compared to the other guys. Best player means best player and Jeter falls short, no matter how much he may have in the intangibles category.

    Babe Ruth is the guy you use to test any new statistical metric to measure baseball players. If the system doesn't spit Ruth out as the best player in history, there's a flaw in the equation.

    In fewer plate appearances, Gehrig finished with a far superior on-base-plus-slugging percentage -- otherwise known as OPS  -- (1080 to 832) , and adjusted OPS (178 to 118) than Jeter.  Gehrig also had 118.4 win shares to Jeter's 70.5. DiMaggio and Mantle played even less than Gehrig and still outpace Jeter in every meaningful offensive category by similar margins.

    Offense isn't everything, obviously, and defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable, but the two center fielders are also widely regarded to be superior players at important defensive positions. Jeter's defensive issues might be overblown, but he wasn't good enough to make up the gap that Gehrig and Ruth enjoy at the plate.  

    Again, none of this is meant as any slight to Jeter because assessing his place in Yankee lore isn’t quite that easy. Sports comes down to winning and losing, but our thoughts and opinions about athletes are formed by things that go beyond the statistics, even the stats that make it clear Jeter is a step below giants such as Mantle, DiMaggio, Gehrig and Ruth.

    They are formed by memories and moments that don’t fit so easily into a spreadsheet designed to evaluate which player has been more valuable than another over the course of their career. It is about how we experience these players over a lifetime of watching them. There might not be another player in the history of baseball who has been watched more than Derek Jeter.

    There’s the massive New York market, obviously, but you can get YES on satellite anywhere or access Yankees games from Tokyo or Tucson thanks to the internet. What’s more, Jeter has played in more postseason games than any other player in history and those games have been watched by more people than watched any game played by the big four in Yankee history.

    Legend counts for a lot when it comes to baseball, in no small part because it was very difficult to actually know what it was like to watch the greatest players in the game do their thing on a nightly basis for most of the sport’s existence. Almost no one saw Ruth call his shot and relatively few people saw any of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, but milions saw Jeter’s flip play against Oakland and what feels like nearly everyone saw him write a fairy tale ending to the chase for 3,000 on Saturday afternoon.

    Those things don’t make Jeter a better player, but it is almost impossible for them not to affect the way we view him. 

    Ultimately, it is impossible to compare someone you know that intimately with those who are a mix of fantasy and legend blown up to epic proportions. Jeter isn’t the best Yankee of all time, but he’s certainly the one we know the best.

    That puts him in a category all by himself and it is difficult to imagine he'll have much company for a good long time.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.