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With last year’s election of Mariano Rivera, voters rid themselves of an arcane, self-imposed burden: finally, for the first time in 86 years, they had unanimously enshrined a player in Cooperstown. The practice has long been ridiculous and inexcusable, and it is time for it to become nothing but a relic of history and not merely an accident of the perfect player. Fortunately for voters, another candidate worthy of unanimous enshrinement is on the ballot for the first time: Derek Jeter. This is a chance for voters to continue to right old wrongs.
Now, it may seem self-evident that a blog whose banner image captures the aftermath of one of Jeter’s most iconic moments would argue this case. And it is true, of course, that I am a Yankees fan to my core. I watched more than 150 Yankee games in 2019, and in every season before this one for as long as I can remember. It’s fair to say that I am more than a bit biased.
What is not biased, on the other hand, is Jeter’s candidacy. He straightforwardly belongs in the Hall of Fame. Consider his lifetime offensive achievements, devoid of all context. In nearly 3,000 MLB games and across more than 12,000 plate appearances, he hit .310/.377/.440 (119 wRC+). His 3,465 career hits rank 6th in baseball history. (He added another 200 in postseason play, and is responsible for some of the sport’s most memorable moments during his career.)
That alone is worthy of the Hall. Add in positional context and it becomes clear that Jeter was especially unique. His 72.4 bWAR ranks 6th all-time among players who spent 75% or more of their time at shortstop, according to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. His 73.1 fWAR also ranks him 6th among FanGraphs’ leaderboard for shortstops, which accounts for a slightly different group of players.
Among either group, he has the most hits, a top 10 batting average and a top 15 on-base percentage. His career 115 OPS+ sits 7th all-time among shortstops with 5,000 or more career plate appearances and first among those with 10,000 or more.
The difference between Jeter and many on these lists, though, is that he never moved positions. Of course, he deserves some blame for this, not praise: he refused to make room for Alex Rodriguez, a superior player in every regard. This harmed the Yankees and, as we’ll see below, also hurt Jeter’s own value defensively.
In any event, either due to his obstinance or the Yankees’ unwillingness to challenge a franchise icon, Jeter is one of only 46 players in baseball history to play more than 1,000 games and have 95% or more come at short. Here are his rankings among that group:
Hits: 3,465 (1st, next closest Luis Aparicio with 2,677)
Batting Average: .310 (1st, next closest Ozzie Smith at .290)
On-Base Percentage: .377 (1st)
Home Runs: 260 (1st)
bWAR: 72.4 (2nd)
Slugging Percentage: .440 (3rd)
OPS+: 115 (3rd)
Slicing up the data in this way, accounting for both the more common 75% or more group and rarer 95% or more group, does bring home a key point: Jeter is one of the best shortstops in baseball history. By Jay Jaffe’s JAWS method, he ranks 12th all-time. There is no mistaking it.
Where all of this gets murkier, of course, is on the defensive side of the ball. Jeter’s defense has long been a running joke, and one with some merit. If it were possible to make a word cloud of every phrase John Sterling has ever uttered on air, “Past a diving Jeter” would probably rank third, behind just “Well, Suzyn, I thank you” and “It is high, it is far, it is gone”.
If I spend so much time on his bat, then I must also note his defensive deficiencies. Jeter was sub-par with the glove by every available defensive metric. By Baseball-Reference, no player has ever cost his team more runs. Zone-based fielding analyses hate him. He almost certainly did not deserve his five Gold Gloves. All of this is true.
There are two caveats, though. The first is that, while Jeter was certainly not a good defender, defensive metrics are problematic to say the least. Can we confidently say that Jeter cost his team more runs than Phil Rizzuto, Dave Bancroft, or Herman Long cost theirs? All of those players also played more than 1,600 games at short. Only Rizzuto retired after the Korean War; the others before the Great Depression. Given the volatility of advanced defensive metrics, I do not think that we can. But hey: call me biased.
The second is that his time spent at shortstop means his value was calculated against many of the game’s top defenders. A more honest reading of his value, according to Jeff Sullivan, formerly of FanGraphs, finds him to be more average than horrendous. See more on that argument here. Either way, Jeter is not a Hall of Fame defender. On that, everyone can agree.
In any case, both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference account for this deficiency in their calculation of WAR. Again, he is sixth among those with 75% or more games at short; first among those with 95% or more. Therefore, even after taking his glove into account, we are left with the same conclusion: Jeter is one of the best shortstops of all time.
Ultimately, isn’t that the point of all of this? By any calculation, Jeter ranks as a unique player in the game’s history. So, taking all of this into account, two things become clear. One, Jeter is an absolute no-doubt lock for Cooperstown. Two, there is no honest reason why a voter could or should leave him off his or her ballot.
To be fair, Jeter faces one additional criticism: that he was a Yankee. The argument goes that his high-profile status on the dynasty Yankees inflates his value and led to media adulation, both of which is probably true. Spare me this thought experiment, though, because if Jeter was drafted a Royal or a Red, then his 3,465 hits would still rank 6th all-time. So would his WAR.
That cuts to the heart of the matter for me. Voters should vote without consideration for 5% thresholds or other cute justifications for leaving no-doubters off their ballot. They should simply compile the best ballot they can, and in every scenario, the best possible ballot includes Derek Jeter. To put it bluntly, that means he should be a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame.
Doing so will not correct the egregious mistakes of the past. It is outrageous that Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, and so many others were not unanimously elected. But that, ultimately, is irrelevant. Voters cannot change the past, but they can finally rid themselves of the ridiculous arrogance it takes to leave an inner-circle player off a ballot. Lucky for them, they have a chance do to so right now, and it starts with Derek Jeter.