Moving on from the Derek Jeter Era

As you may have heard, the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number on Sunday. ESPN’s coverage of the ceremony — and the subsequent game, of course — will begin at a surprisingly early 8:00 a.m. EST. The first pitch of the game between the Astros and Yankees, two of the powerhouse teams in the American League, is scheduled for 7:35 at night. Sunday Night Baseball usually kicks off at 8, but the Yankees got ESPN to agree to moving the game up to give the pre-game ceremonies (and theoretically the game itself) a larger audience and reach.

Of course, a player can’t have his number retired unless he himself is retired, and indeed, Jeter hasn’t suited up since 2014. His retirement was kind of a big deal, as you likely remember. It turned into a media bonanza that facilitated the sale of many tickets and even more merchandise. Jeter struggled that year to a -0.1 WAR and the Yankees just barely missed the playoffs. He started at shortstop in the All-Star Game. Even when he clearly had overstayed his welcome as a productive player, he still represented a massive source of revenue for the Yankees and for the sport.

MLB social media has spent the week doing a tournament of Jeter’s best moments under the #Jeets16 hashtag. Budweiser just put out an ad that uses the number retirement as its inspiration. The league, and a corporation as huge as Anheuser-Busch, wouldn’t be doing a Jeter-shaped media blitz if there wasn’t profit to be made here. And there is, of course, seeing as Jeter was the most recognizable figure in baseball, and one of the most recognizable people in all of sports, for nearly two decades.

There’s still something a little strange, though, about having this much hullabaloo about a retired player. The Sunday night game features two strong teams chock full of exciting young talent. Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and George Springer will all be taking part in this game.  There’s absolutely room to celebrate both Jeter’s past and those players’ present and future. Given the pre-game focus on Jeter, it will be interesting to see how much of the game broadcast is spent discussing him and not the game itself. It could go some way to revealing ESPN’s production interests.

And herein lies the issue. There’s nothing wrong with honoring Jeter. He’s one of the greatest Yankees ever, and a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Fame candidate. Much has been made of the Yankees’ habit of retiring number after number, but Jeter absolutely deserves this. Jeter didn’t become a legend in the game — and, more importantly, in the media — just because of his level of play, though. Jeter’s persona was nearly the Platonic ideal of what the institution of baseball wants its players to be. He was a handsome straight-laced leader of men, the angel on the left shoulder to Alex Rodriguez’s devil on the right. He was amiable with the media and almost never created trouble (despite a few gift baskets). His boy-scout personality made him a hit with the New York beat, and a welcome reprieve from the controversy of Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire. And, to his credit, he wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself every now and then.

Jeter was, in essence, the golden boy. That made him a media darling. That and his excellent level of play made him the biggest star in New York since Reggie Jackson. I was raised a Yankees fan, and I grew up at the altar of Jeter. He was, and remains still, one of my favorites. Any trip to Yankee Stadium will show you just how many Jeter shirts and jerseys are still worn to the game. There’s absolutely a need for the team to be honoring one of their greats.

That said, the league’s attempt to promote the event to fans of other teams feels odd. It seems like a safe, yet short-sighted, allocation of resources — especially as the Sunday night game represents the week’s marquee broadcast. While the league appears intent on celebrating the past, it might came at some risk to acknowledging the present and future talent on the field itself.

For all of his talent, Jeter wasn’t the best player of his era. When Rodriguez set foot in the Bronx, he wasn’t even the best player on his team. The reverence for Jeter likely wouldn’t exist had he played in a different market, or hadn’t kept his nose quite so clean. The intangibles and leadership he provided to the team were undeniably invaluable.

Yet Jeter represents an ideal that is to some outdated. Baseball’s fight against personality in its players is counterintuitive to its growth and its appeal to youth. To be clear: this isn’t to condemn Jeter for how he conducted himself. But personality and exuberance make the game fun, and the game is entertainment. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on the promotion of the Jeter ceremony by the league shows a reluctance to embrace the youth and vibrance currently blossoming in the game. I expect this from the Yankees, who market themselves as a bastion of prestige and deep-rooted excellence. They always have, and always will, present themselves as the old guard and the shining city on a hill. The league, and in turn ESPN, are buying in full-stop this week.

In the grand scheme of things, a week of full-on Jeter immersion is just a blip. However, it speaks to the larger idea that baseball is a game and an institution stuck in the past. Sunday night’s game, and indeed this entire series, should be a showcase of the game’s future. If all goes well, players like Correa, Judge, and Sanchez will shape the game alongside the Trouts and Harpers of the world. The game is clearly crossing a threshold into a new generation of stars. Baseball’s story of the week is about the most old-fashioned of stars of the older generation.

There’s nothing wrong with honoring Derek Jeter. In fact, it would be a shame if he weren’t honored in some fashion. But the decision to carpet-bomb social media and television with promotion for the retirement of his number seems to indicate a strategic error. The game is moving on from the old-fashioned. That’s for the better. This week has been the perfect symbol for how very slow and reluctant the league is to accept that.

We hoped you liked reading Moving on from the Derek Jeter Era by Nicolas Stellini!

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Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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mtsw
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Member

Jeter’s a sure Hall of Famer but I’m a bit mystified as to how he moved into “Slam Dunk No Doubt First Ballot” territory. A guy who isn’t in the top 10 all time at his position and only at ~70 career WAR isn’t on the same tier as a lot of the first ballot members. A huge amount of his notoriety was the result of advertising and sponsors pushing him, rather than on-the-field accomplishments.

Sure there’s his vaunted intangibles, but baseball isn’t really a game about team chemistry or leadership or class. One of the only chances he had to demonstrate leadership was by offering to move over to let A-Rod, a much better fielder, play SS, but he instead stubbornly held on to the role until the end of his career. Can’t blame the guy (he doesn’t set the lineups) but it’s hard to give him extra credit in that area either.

A great player, but it’s hard to run away from the idea that he’d be thought of more like Craig Biggio than like Babe Ruth if he hadn’t been lucky enough to play for the league’s premier team in its largest market.

Monsignor Martinez
Member
Monsignor Martinez

Jeter had everything he could ask for with NYY: great salary, perennial contender, several WS rings under his belt early in his career, fan favorite. People praise his loyalty to NYY, but when has he ever been tested?

Monsignor Martinez
Member
Monsignor Martinez

FYI I am agreeing with your post, just expanding on it.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

…do you not remember that Cash told him to call around and see if there were any better offers after 2010?

It was extremely public, and I’m pretty sure he’s still pissed about it.

Monsignor Martinez
Member
Monsignor Martinez

To be fair though, it was the latter part of his career, and he had a major drop in performance. And the Yankees still offered him way more than what any other team would have realistically given

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Damn, I never realized that 8 isn’t an element of the set [1,2,3,…,10]!

You learn something new every day!

defiancy
Member
defiancy

I’m with you on this. I do think he gets a boost because he generally has pretty excellent postseason stats. While his post season stats line up with with his career numbers, he had a reputation as a post season performer and that will add to his hall of fame credentials.

I do agree, it’s interesting to think how much bias there is that favors Jeter and his accomplishments.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Is the same bias why Rod Carew and his 66 wRC+ in 14 playoff games made it on the first ballot?

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

(He’s also the 6th best SS of the World Series Era, and 3rd best during the time that members of the Jeter family have been allowed to play in the MLB…and one of the guys in front of him spent nearly half his career at 3B).

Biggio is the 10th best 2B in history, the 10th best in the WS Era, and the 5th best since Integration..and amassed 6 fewer WAR than Jeter in 103 more games.

If only there were an Integration Era MIF within 0.5 career WAR of Jeter, who had spent his entire career on, say, the Twins and Angels, and never won a playoff series, much less a ring! There’s no way he would get over 90% of the vote his first year on the ballot!

mtsw
Member
Member

Oh there’s plenty of other comps, Biggio was just the first name that came to mind. I didn’t mean to suggest that was the end-all-be-all-comparison.

I don’t actually feel super strongly about this: It’s debatable! But it’s worth debating rather than just sort of tacitly accepting it to be true because of his fame and marketability.

Six Ten
Member
Six Ten

Jeter definitely deserves to go in, and I think being precious about first time stuff is silly, so I don’t feel any attachment to it. But since it’s had some historical significance, picking specific points of comparison seems useful. In terms of recent position players, his career WAR is sandwiched between Frank Thomas and Scott Rolen. Slightly older: between Eddie Murray and Ron Santo. Murray and Thomas, above him, were first ballot guys. Below him, Rolen is eligible next year and Santo had to get in via one of the committees.

Sure, he’s a couple notches below the all-time legend types. But he’s in the same class as some other guys who’ve deserved to be in and gotten there on their first ballot. So I wouldn’t think it weird if he did, even if he hadn’t played for the late 90s/early 00s Yankees. (I’ll think it a lot weirder if Adrian Beltre doesn’t when his time comes.)

mtsw
Member
Member

I obviously feel otherwise, but it’s not like OUTRAGEOUS to suggest he has a first-ballot resume. Certainly other first ballot HoFers have similar (or worse) resumes, and some guys who aren’t in the HoF arguably have better ones.

It’s just weird that in our culture it seems to have moved past a subject of debate and into undisputable conventional wisdom. And it’s hard to find a reason it’s done that beyond “well he’s really famous.”

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

He’s the third best SS in the Integration Era, and the best to spend his entire career at SS.

Intangibles (and 4-5 WAR worth of playoff production) be damned, it’s genuinely bizarre to me that people think it’s controversial that a guy with the same fWAR as Rod Carew is a no-doubt first-ballot HoF.

We’re through the looking glass of Jeter’s being overrated to the point that some people don’t seem to understand how good he was.

noseeum
Member
noseeum

Yes, Jeter’s entire career can best be summed up as “well he’s really famous.” That’s the whole story.

trenkes
Member
trenkes

well, it is the Hall of Fame after all

theojd
Member
theojd

His “old school” numbers are impressive. 3,465 hits, 8 seasons with 200+, career .310 hitter with playable power especially for a career SS, 1923 runs (11th all time), 1311 RBI (from a SS!). These are some gaudy numbers. I fail to see how Jeter isn’t a top 10 all time SS on numbers alone.

And, of course none of this takes into account the “intangibles” however much stock you want to put into that. I’ll say that as a Yankee fan, there was no one I’d rather have at the plate in a high-leverage spot (Bernie is a close 2nd). Yes, he isn’t A-Rod….but who is?

mtsw
Member
Member

Defense kills a lot of his value compared to other HoF-caliber SS.

He accumulated the most negative DRS of any player EVER (and it’s not particularly close http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=fld&lg=all&qual=y&type=1&season=2017&month=0&season1=1871&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=10,a though DRS doesn’t go back very far)

Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great player, just that you have to take into account that he gave a significant portion of the value his bat earned back through his glove.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

That sounds much more impressive until you remember that DRS (and UZR) data only goes back to 2002, haha.

tung_twista
Member
tung_twista

To be fair, most first-ballot HOFers are
more like Craig Biggio than like Babe Ruth.

Quick and dirty calculation
Biggio has 65.8 total war
as opposed to Ruth’s 180.8
The average would be 123.3
There are 11 non-Ruth players above that threshold. (2 pitchers)

thebossjarhead
Member
thebossjarhead

He was never the best player in the game, but he was consistency above average for a long time. He hit above .290 for 14 straight years, hitting above .300 in 11 of those years. Double digit home runs for 15 straight years.

No one is saying Jeter is anywhere close to Babe Ruth. Biggio was a great player, but he had his down years, and his up years (like pretty much all players). But Jeter, for essentially 15 years, didn’t put up a bad season. And you could easily argue that he didn’t put a bad season for 17 straight years. IMO, that is much more valuable than what Biggio did.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

His lowest WAR total between 1996 and 2012 was 2.2.

That’s absolutely insane, even if he only had a single 7 win season.

noseeum
Member
noseeum

It has to do with winning 5 freaking championships. The purpose of playing a baseball game is not to accumulate WAR, it’s to win. It’s a damn shame to me that people who understand baseball far more than the average bear can’t appreciate Jeter.

There is literally no argument. None. For claiming Jeter is not a top 10 all time SS.

Sure, if he had the same exact career for a lesser team, he might be less thought of. But it’s not because he played for the Yankees. It’s because he played for the Yankees and those Yankees won 5 WS Championships. And he was key to winning those series.

So yeah, if he had a career like Biggio, maybe he’d be thought of like Biggio. Except he had a career like Derek Jeter. Some of that was thanks to his team. Some of that was thanks to him. But for fans of baseball to just pretend championships have nothing to do with the history of baseball whenever a player like Jeter comes up just boggles the mind.

It’s OK to say Ripken is better than Jeter while at the same time saying Jeter deserves to be honored as one of the greatest of all time.

rbemont
Member
rbemont

… and it seems to that Jeter gets pretty much sole credit for those championships.