The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
No other player, not even 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Mariano Rivera — the first player ever elected unanimously by the writers — typified the Yankees’ late-1990s resurgence and evolution into a dynasty more than Derek Jeter. A 1992 first-round pick out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, the 6-foot-3 shortstop seemed not only to be built for stardom but engineered to withstand the spotlight’s glare. Famously instilled with a level-headedness by his parents, who during his childhood made him sign code-of-conduct contracts, he pulled off the remarkable feat of simultaneously exuding a cocky charisma and an off-the-charts baseball IQ while remaining completely enigmatic even in the country’s largest media market. Not only did he avoid mental mistakes on the field, he ably evaded virtually every controversy that surrounded the Yankees; by the time he turned 29 years old, he had been named team captain. During his two decades in pinstripes, he played a pivotal role for 16 playoff teams, seven pennant winners, and five champions. Not until he was 34, deep into his 14th season, did he play a game in which his team had been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.
With an inside-out swing that yielded consistently high batting averages and on-base percentages, Jeter was a hit machine, an ideal table-setter among the Bronx Bombers. In 15 of his 18 full seasons, he collected at least 179 hits, and 13 times, he scored at least 100 runs. He did both with such consistency and longevity that he ranks sixth all-time in hits (3,465) — not just more than any other shortstop, but more than any other infielder — and 11th in runs scored (1,923). Though he had less power than Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, the pair with whom he formed the “Holy Trinity” of shortstops, he was fully capable of hitting a well-timed home run. In fact, his 20 postseason homers are third all-time, yet one of the rare October (and November, ahem) records that he does not hold. He wasn’t without flaws, of course. Though his strong arm, sure hands, and low error totals helped him pass the eye tests of casual fans, broadcasters, and even the opposing managers who bestowed five Gold Gloves upon him, his defensive metrics are brutal. Even so, they’re outweighed by contributions in every other aspect of the game.
Thanks to his 3,000-plus hits and his collection of championship rings, Jeter will have no trouble gaining first-ballot entry to the Hall of Fame. With the precedent of non-unanimity finally broken, the primary suspense of this cycle is whether he’ll match Rivera by receiving the full 100% from the writers. Secondarily, and more frustratingly, the possibility exists that his presence on the ballot will overshadow other worthy candidates. Either way, he’ll be standing on the dais in Cooperstown next summer.
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg. HOF SS||67.0||43.0||55.0|
Jeter was born on June 26, 1974 in Pequannock Township, New Jersey. His father, Charles Jeter, played shortstop at Fisk University in Tennessee (and later claimed defensive superiority compared to his son!), earned a doctorate in sociology and became a substance abuse counselor, while his mother, Dorothy Connors, worked as an accountant; the pair met while serving in the US Army in 1972, when both were stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. The family moved to Kalamazoo when Derek was four years old, but both he and his younger sister Sharlee spent summers with their maternal grandparents in West Milford, New Jersey. It was through those summers that Derek became a Yankees fan. As legend has it, by age six, after he had taken up Little League, he had declared his intention to become the team’s shortstop someday.
At Kalamazoo Central High School, Jeter starred in basketball and cross-country running as well as baseball. After he hit .557 with seven homers as a high school junior, he was named a “Super-25 Player” by USA Today and offered a scholarship to University of Michigan to play under 11-time All-Star catcher Bill Freehan. After he hit .508 with four homers as a senior, Baseball America named him its top high school player in the country. As BA’s pre-draft scouting report for 1992 described Jeter, “He’s a born shortstop with above-average arm strength and speed, and is the one high school player certain to be one of the draft’s first five picks. How well he hits is the only unanswered question.”
That year, the Astros owned the first overall pick. Michigan area scout Hal Newhouser, previously a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Tigers, raved about Jeter. “That kid is something special,” he told his wife. “He’s got the softest hands I’ve ever seen.” Newhouser was just as impressed by the teenager’s makeup, and made his case for the Astros to draft him first, the potential bonus be damned. “No one is worth $1 million,” he told scouting director Dan O’Brien, “But if one kid is worth that, it’s this kid.”
Pinching pennies, the Astros opted for Phil Nevin at number one. Jeter slipped to the Yankees at number six, after Paul Shuey (Cleveland), B.J. Wallace (Montreal), Jeffrey Hammonds (Baltimore), and Chad Mottola (Cincinnati) came off the board as well. That quintet totaled just 30.4 bWAR for their careers, with Nevin and Hammonds the only ones to make All-Star teams. Oops.
Devastated that his advice had not been heeded, the 74-year-old Newhouser quit the Astros. In time, he would be vindicated, but the 18-year-old shortstop would struggle initially. Jeter hit just .210/.311/.314 in 58 games split between the Yankees’ Gulf Coast League and A-level Greensboro affiliates in 1992, and while he improved to .295/.376/.394 at Greensboro the following year, he made 56 errors and finished with a ghastly .889 fielding percentage. Scouts were nonetheless impressed enough with his tools for Jeter to rank 44th on Baseball America’s 1993 prospects list and then 16th the following year. He climbed to fourth in 1995 on the strength of a sizzling .344/.410/.463 showing with 11 triples and 50 stolen bases, done while rocketing through three levels; he cut his error total to 25 as well. He spent most of that season at Triple-A Columbus, but did make his major league debut against the Mariners on May 29, shortly after the starting middle infield of Pat Kelly and Tony Fernández were both sidelined by injuries; while he went 0-for-5, he singled twice off Tim Belcher the next day, and started 13 straight games before returning to Columbus. He spent most of September on the bench, watching as the Yankees claimed the AL Wild Card spot — their first playoff berth since 1981 — but getting into just two games.
When Fernández suffered a season-ending right elbow fracture in March 1996, the Yankees’ brass was split as to whether Jeter was ready to assume the starting role, with owner George Steinbrenner and his Tampa advisors favoring a trade but general manager Bob Watson, assistant GM Brian Cashman, advisor Gene Michael, new manager Joe Torre, and others preferring Jeter. The latter side won out, quashing a potential trade that would have sent Rivera to the Mariners for shortstop Félix Fermín, whom the Yankees nonetheless ended up signing to a minor-league deal shortly after he was released by Seattle in mid-April.
The non-trade paid off several times over, obviously. The still-21-year-old Jeter homered on Opening Day off the Indians’ Dennis Martinez and went on to hit .314/.370/.430 (101 OPS+ — yes, it was a high-offense league that averaged 5.39 runs per game) with 10 homers, 14 steals and 3.3 WAR en route to unanimous election as AL Rookie of the Year. Augmented by the emergence of fellow “Core Four” members Rivera and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees went 92-70, claiming their first full-season AL East title since 1980, and Jeter sparkled in the postseason (.361/.409/.459). He hit a leadoff single and scored the winning run against the Rangers in the 12th inning of Game 2 of the Division Series; collected four hits including a Jeffrey Maier-aided home run in the ALCS opener against the Orioles; scored runs in all five ALCS games while racking up a series-high 10 hits; singled twice while scoring the first and last runs of the Yankees’ World Series Game 4 win against the Braves, when they came back from a 6-0 deficit to win 8-6 in 10 innings; and drove in the second of three runs in the Yankees’ 3-2 clinching victory in Game 6. Whew.
Thanks to better defense (-3 runs via Total Zone, compared to -14 the year before), Jeter improved to 5.0 WAR despite similar offense (103 OPS+) in 1997, but he really took off the following season while helping the Yankees, who had been bounced in the 1997 Division Series by the Indians, steamroll their way to 114 regular season wins and another championship, this time via a sweep of the Padres. He batted .324/.384/.481 with 203 hits, 19 homers, 30 steals, +2 defense (one of just two times he finished in the black according to B-Ref’s Total Zone/Defensive Runs Saved combo), a league-high 127 runs scored, and 7.5 WAR, second only to Rodriguez among AL players. He made his first All-Star team, finished third in the AL MVP voting, and while his postseason was rather meh, he collected two hits in the ALCS opener while executing perhaps the most famous of his jump throws, scored twice and drove in two runs in the ALCS clincher against Cleveland, and scored two of the Yankees’ three runs in the World Series clincher as well.
Jeter’s 1999 season, his age-25 campaign, wasn’t just the best of his career to that point, it was the best he would ever have. It was also the year’s best of any AL position player according to WAR (8.0), that despite defense rated as 11 runs below average. He hit .349/.438/.552 with an AL-high 219 hits and 24 homers, carrying a batting average above .370 into late July, but ultimately slipping behind Garciaparra, who finished at .357; Jeter finished third in on-base percentage and fourth in OPS+ (153) as well. He was unstoppable in the postseason, collecting hits in all 12 games and batting a combined .375/.434/.542 against the Rangers, Red Sox, and Braves. For as brilliant a season as it was, he finished sixth in a highly-contested AL MVP vote won by Ivan Rodriguez.
With his defense taking a turn for the worse, Jeter couldn’t quite match that lofty standard over the next two seasons, hitting a combined .325/.396/.481 (126 OPS+) in 2000 and ’01, with top-10 finishes in batting average in both years, but just a combined 9.8 WAR; defensively, he went from -9 runs in 1998-99 to -40 in 2000-01. Off the field, the latter stretch was punctuated by contract negotiations that in February 2001 produced a 10-year, $189 million extension, at the time the sport’s second-largest contract behind Rodriguez’s 10-year, $252 million free agent deal.
That extension arrived in the afterglow of Jeter’s best postseason. He hit .317/.427/.571 while homering four times during the 2000 postseason, including once apiece in Games 4 and 5 of the “Subway Series” against the Mets as the Yankees clinched their third straight title. Jeter was the MVP of the World Series, that after earning All-Star Game MVP honors as well; to date, he’s the only player to collect both honors in the same season. While he scuffled during the 2001 ALCS and World Series by going a combined 6-for-44, he helped the Yankees get by the A’s in the Division Series with his heads-up flip play — redirecting an errant heave from right fielder Shane Spencer to catcher Jorge Posada — to nab Jeremy Giambi at the plate and preserve a 1-0 lead in Game 3.
In Game 4 of the World Series, after Tino Martinez had hit a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth off Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim, Jeter struck him again via a walk-off solo shot in the 10th, shortly after the October 31 game passed midnight, making him “Mr. November.” The Yankees lost the series thanks to a ninth-inning comeback against Rivera in Game 7, but the nickname lives on.
To this point, Jeter’s Yankees had reached the World Series five times in six years, winning four times, but after 2001, such appearances would become less routine, even as the team extended its streak of AL East titles to nine straight (1998-2006). Jeter’s own play would take a step back as well, mainly due to defense. From 2002-08, he hit .312/.382/.448 for a 119 OPS+ while averaging 15 homers, 20 steals and 4.0 WAR, a mere four-point drop in OPS+ relative to 1996-01, but a dip from an average of 5.6 WAR. While still sure-handed enough to average only 14 errors per year in the latter stretch, his range deteriorated drastically. The irony is that he not only remained at the position following the February 2004 acquisition of the defensively superior Rodriguez, who shifted to third base, but he began winning Gold Gloves even while the more granular Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating came into vogue. With voters apparently blinded by his aura, Jeter won three straight Gold Gloves from 2004-06 despite being a combined 56 runs below average, with a low of -27 in 2005.
In 2003, Jeter suffered the first major injury of his career. On Opening Day, he collided with Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby and suffered a separated right shoulder. He missed 36 games, and failed to make the All-Star team for the first time since 1997, but returned without missing a beat, hitting for a 125 OPS+. In June, Steinbrenner even appointed him team captain, the first since Don Mattingly from 1991-95. “He represents all that is good about a leader,” said Steinbrenner. “I’m a great believer in history, and I look at all the other leaders down through Yankee history, and Jeter is right there with them.”
Jeter helped the Yankees reach yet another World Series that year, this time by steamrolling the Twins in the Division Series and then beating the Red Sox in the ALCS. He was particularly a thorn in Pedro Martínez‘s side, hitting a game-tying solo homer off the Red Sox ace in Game 3, then a one-out double in the eighth inning of Game 7, igniting what proved to be a game-tying rally. Though Aaron Boone’s homer gave the Yankees the AL pennant, they lost the World Series to the Marlins. It was Boone’s subsequent torn left ACL, suffered while playing basketball in January 2004, that precipitated the acquisition of Rodriguez from the Rangers. During A-Rod’s three years in Texas, he had been average at shortstop according to Total Zone, and eight runs above average via DRS in 2003, the year the latter metric was introduced, but to pave the way for the deal, he agreed to move to the hot corner.
Both in terms of offense and overall value, Jeter’s best season during this stretch came in 2006, when he hit .343/.417/.483 for a 132 OPS+ and 5.6 WAR, his best numbers since 1999; he fell four points shy of the AL batting title, losing out to Joe Mauer, and ranked seventh in WAR. He was unstoppable in that year’s Division Series against the Tigers (.500/.529/.938), but for the second year in a streak that would run to three straight, the Yankees failed to get out of the first round. Their failure to do so in 2007 led to Torre’s departure, and the next year, their first under Joe Girardi, the Yankees’ run of 13 consecutive trips to the postseason came to an end. That season marked the final one in the old Yankee Stadium and in the odd, postseason-free void, it was left to Jeter to deliver a farewell speech to “The House that Ruth Built.”
After hitting for just a 102 OPS+ in 2008, his age-34 season, Jeter rebounded to a 125 mark in 2009 (.334/.406/.465) with 18 homers, 30 steals, and — holy cow! — +3 DRS en route to 6.6 WAR, the league’s sixth-highest total. He also brought home his fourth Gold Glove, the only one in which his metrics were above-average. With his fellow Core Four pals rebounding and now accompanied by free agent acquisitions A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira, the Yankees won 103 games, matching their highest total since 1998. They proceeded to sweep the Twins, off the Angels, and then dethrone the defending champion Phillies in the World Series for the fifth championship of Jeter’s career. Jeter, for his part, hit .344/.432/.563 with three homers in October.
In the wake of that triumph, Jeter began to show his age, hitting for a career-worst 90 OPS+ in 2010, and 100 the following year, with a total of just 3.1 WAR for the two seasons. After the 2010 season, his 10-year contract expired, and negotiations with Cashman turned contentious enough that that the exec told ESPN New York that Jeter should test the market to “see if there’s something he would prefer other than this.” Ultimately, he secured a three-year, $51 million deal, but Ian O’Connor’s book The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter characterized the relationship as seriously or even irreparably damaged, and to be fair, it was jarring to see the Yankees take negotiations public in a way that Jeter never did.
Jeter’s league average 2011 performance concealed an in-season uptick driven by the one-on-one work he did with hitting instructor Gary Denbo after being felled by a right calf strain in mid-June. When he was sidelined, he was hitting a meager .260/.327/.325 (79 wC+), but upon returning, he hit .324/.376/.435 (123 wRC+), highlighted by a 5-for-5 showing at Yankee Stadium on July 9, a game that included his 3,000th hit, a home run off the Rays’ David Price. That made him just the second player to reach the milestone via a homer, after noted slugger Wade Boggs, as well as the second to reach 3,000 as a shortstop, after Honus Wagner (Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount had both switched positions by that point in their careers), and the first Yankee. Roll over, Babe Ruth, and tell Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle the news.
The resurgence carried over into 2012, when Jeter reached the 200-hit plateau for the eighth and final time, collecting a league-leading 216 while batting .316/.362/.429. Even so, his defense (-18 runs, his worst showing since 2007) limited him to 2.2 WAR. While he and the Yankees made it past the Orioles in the Division Series, in the 12th inning of the ALCS opener against the Tigers, he broke and dislocated his left ankle while diving for a grounder. He underwent surgery to implant a metal plate and screws, and spent much of the winter riding a motorized scooter around his mansion. While he claimed to be “100 percent healed” as of March, he suffered a new crack in the bone while rehabbing, didn’t make his season debut until July 11, and played just 17 games due to subsequent strains of his right quad and calf. He returned for one final season, and while the highlights included a leadoff double in that year’s All-Star Game and a walk-off single in his final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, he hit an abysmal .256/.304/.313 — largely from his typical second spot in the batting order, as Girardi was apparently unwilling to provide a necessary reality check to the aging superstar. Such accommodations played a major role in the Yankees missing the playoffs by four games while getting just 0.2 WAR from the 40-year-old Jeter.
From a Hall of Fame standpoint, Jeter’s case is open and shut. Yes, the five Gold Gloves are a farce, and the total of 14 All-Star appearances a bit inflated, the way many a superstar’s total are, but Jeter’s central role in five championships, with a .308/.374/.465 postseason line (.321/.384/.449 in the World Series), is exceptional. In fact, he holds the career postseason records for games (158), plate appearances (734), at bats (650), hits (200), runs (111), doubles (32), and triples (five); his 20 homers rank third. Yes, he had his teammates’ help to reach October perennially, but once there, he put together the equivalent of a prime Jeter season, and against top competition to boot.
Back to the regular season. Not only is Jeter one of 32 players to reach 3,000 hits, he’s sixth all-time, with a hit total that trails only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Tris Speaker. While his final five seasons were something of a slog, his 216-hit age-38 season elevates the tail end of his career to something much more than mere stat-padding. His 3,371 collected as a shortstop is a record for infielders. He got there with eight 200-hit seasons, and 12 with a batting average of at least .300, including seven season in which he ranked among the AL’s top five, and 10 times in the top 10. For as out of vogue as batting average may be, he’s one of just 17 post-integration players to maintain at least a .300 average across 10,000 plate appearances; among that group, he’s third in plate appearances:
This, I think, speaks to Jeter’s broad appeal. Statheads have long looked past batting average in favor of on-base and slugging percentages, more comprehensive batting stats such as OPS+ and wRC+, and more all-encompassing stats such as WAR — all of which paint a more detailed picture and show a greater connection to scoring and winning. Nonetheless, the Carews, Gwynns, Suzukis, and Jeters, who deal in quantity of hits perhaps more than quality, connect with even the most casual and entry-level fans, including the ones who have yet to discover FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and so on (yes, there’s a larger sermon in here that I’ve been hinting at, but that’s for another day).
Anyway, Jeter was no slouch in the on-base department, with four seasons with at least a .400 mark, and 12 of at least .370 — making him an exceptional enough table-setter to rank 11th all-time in runs scored. Six times, he placed in the league’s top 10 in on-base percentage, and while he never did so with slugging percentage, his 255 home runs as a shortstop is fifth at the position behind only Ripken (345), Rodriguez (344), Miguel Tejada (291), and Ernie Banks (267). In terms of total offense, his 353 batting runs (the offensive component of bWAR) ranks fourth among players with at least 1,000 games at shortstop, a cutoff that includes the top-ranked Rodriguez (640) as well as Wagner (637) and Arky Vaughan (363), not to mention the sixth-ranked Banks (255).
Of course, Jeter’s cumulative stats as a shortstop owe something to his persistence at the position despite unfavorable defensive metrics. While his -243 fielding runs (Total Zone through 2002, Defensive Runs Saved thereafter) is 50 fewer than the next-lowest total at any position (Gary Sheffield’s -195 is next), he more than offset that with his bat and his legs (he was a combined 63 runs above average via baserunning and double-play avoidance). Thus, his 72.4 WAR ranks 10th at the position and is 5.4 WAR ahead of the standard among the 22 enshrined shortstops. Limited by his defense somewhat, his 42.4 peak WAR is 15th, 0.6 below the standard, about one run a year. He’s 12th in JAWS, 2.4 points above the standard. That’s a full-blown Hall of Famer.
There’s no doubt that Jeter will be elected this year, and quite possibly, he’ll be the only one. Whether he’ll be a unanimous choice, the second in a row after Rivera, is an open question. While not regarded as his position’s best the way that Rivera was among closers, Jeter did what he did nine innings a day for more or less 20 years, and did it while remaining an exceptional player and a great ambassador for the sport. With the ballot traffic thinned out enough that few voters are anticipated to fret over winnowing their choices down to the limit of 10, and with transparency now the norm (84.0% of all voters revealed their picks last year, either before or after the results were announced), he’s got a reasonable shot, though as with Ken Griffey Jr., some anonymous voter or three could still lurk in the weeds. That would be frustrating, but so too is the choice of certain voters — two out of the 11 published thus far — to submit ballots with only Jeter, as though no other candidate is worthy of sharing the stage with him. Still, while the focus on unanimity is 100% certain to produce a backlash (we see you, Ken Tremendous), there is no legitimate argument against Jeter’s election.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.