Friday, September 26, 2014

Derek Jeter and Keith Olbermann

Derek Jeter, wearing a Derek Jeter patch, 2014.

Two days ago Keith Olbermann went on a rant on his TV show about how Derek Jeter is overrated, and that he’s sick of all the hype surrounding Jeter’s impending retirement. While I agree with Olbermann that Jeter is overrated, the rant that he went on was annoying and over the top. Olbermann didn’t give Jeter any credit for being a great player, which annoyed me. He called Jeter “excellent,” but that’s it. I think it’s completely logical to think these two things:

1. Derek Jeter is a great baseball player
2. Derek Jeter is also overrated

I should say that I’m not a Yankees fan. I’m a Twins fan, and I hate how the Yankees have crushed us in the playoffs in 2003, 2004, 2009, and 2010. That being said, I admire and respect Derek Jeter. He plays the game hard, all the time. He’s the kind of player you’d love to have on your team, and the kind of player you hate playing against. 

So what does Olbermann have against Jeter? Well, first Olbermann criticizes Jorge Posada for saying that Jeter is the greatest Yankee of all time. Come on, what do you think Posada is going to say? Jorge Posada played with Derek Jeter for 17 years. Jorge Posada did not play with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle. Jorge Posada is not a baseball historian. He’s not going to say, “Well, actually, if you look at OPS+ and WAR, no one has ever come close to surpassing Babe Ruth as the greatest Yankee of all time.” His purpose, at that press conference, is to say something nice about Derek Jeter. Of course people who really know the history of the game know that Derek Jeter isn’t the greatest Yankee ever. 

Yes, Derek Jeter is overrated as a player. Yes, the year-long celebration of him and how wonderful he is has become a little grating. But what Olbermann didn’t say is that there are reasons why Derek Jeter is overrated:

1. Jeter has played his entire career for the New York Yankees, which means that he plays for the most famous baseball team in the world. Just because of that fact, he’s going to get more media attention than, say, Paul Konerko, who has played almost his whole career for the White Sox, and who is also retiring at the end of this season.

      2. Jeter has played almost an entire season’s worth of post-season games. 158, to be exact. Even if you’re a casual baseball fan who only plays attention in October, Derek Jeter is someone you are very familiar with. Jeter also comes through during the playoffs. His regular season slash line is .309/.377/.439. His postseason slash line is .308/.374/.465. Derek Jeter consistently comes up big when the game is on the line, as he showed tonight when he got the game-winning hit in his final home game at Yankee Stadium.
      3. Derek Jeter is very media friendly. He’s movie-star handsome. He has a knack for always saying the right thing. He comes off as a smart, well-spoken guy. He’s always been a class act. And he just seems like a really nice guy. (In contrast to A-Rod, who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time and comes off as a jerk.)

For those reasons, it’s inevitable that Derek Jeter is going to get a lot of media attention and press coverage and be much more famous than other baseball players. It isn’t so much that Derek Jeter is overrated; it’s that he’s overexposed. 

To further criticize Jeter, Olbermann picks the stat, “Best WAR per season as a Yankee,” which is slightly misleading, since Jeter played more seasons for the Yankees than anyone else on the list. Jeter has played for 20 seasons, but since Olbermann is only counting full seasons, we’ll disregard the 1995 and 2013 seasons for Jeter, putting him at 18 full seasons, and an average of 3.8 WAR per season. I’m not sure where Olbermann is getting his numbers from. I’ve used for my WAR stats. According to baseball-reference, Jeter has 71.7 WAR for his career. If we take away 1995 and 2013, his partial seasons, he has 72.7 WAR, which would be an average of 4.04 WAR per season, which is higher than the 3.8 figure Olbermann has. So how does Jeter compare to those other Yankees that Olbermann mentions?

Graig Nettles averaged 4.0 WAR a year as a Yankee, but he also played for the Yankees for just 11 seasons, rather than Jeter’s 18. Nettles also played for the Yankees during the peak of his career, which helps his WAR as a Yankee. If you look at Nettles’ whole career,  he had 68 WAR over 22 years, which averages out to 3.09 WAR per year, quite a bit lower than Jeter’s 3.8. 

Red Ruffing pitched for the Yankees for 15 years, so the 7 years he played for the Red Sox at the beginning of his career, when he was a crappy pitcher with an ERA+ of 92, don’t count. It’s also silly to compare pitching WAR to hitting WAR anyway.

Willie Randolph’s name is spelled wrong in the graphic on Olbermann’s show. He played 13 years for the Yankees, so we’re not counting the last 4 years of his career. When you average out Randolph’s WAR for his entire career, it’s 3.64 per season, which is lower than Jeter’s 3.8.

Mike Mussina played for the Yankees for 8 years. He has more WAR than Jeter, but he’s also a pitcher so the comparison is silly anyway.

Thurman Munson played for 11 years. He died in a plane crash at the age of 32, so we don’t know what kind of numbers he would have put up in the decline phase of his career. He’s not a great comparison to Jeter.

A-Rod has been a Yankee for 10 years. Yes, he has more WAR than Jeter. He’s also a steroid user.

Joe DiMaggio only played for 13 years, because he missed 3 full seasons due to World War II. Babe Ruth played 15 years for the Yankees. Lou Gehrig played for 17 years, although 3 of those are partial seasons, putting him at 14 full seasons. Mickey Mantle played 18 years, the same number as Jeter when we take away his partial seasons. Mantle is the only player on the list who has played as many seasons with the Yankees as Jeter. These comparisons are inexact, and invariably unfair to Jeter, because you’re comparing his entire career to people who played many fewer seasons for the Yankees. Baseball-reference ranks Jeter 5th in WAR for the Yankees, behind Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and DiMaggio, and I think that’s a better display of where Jeter ranks among the all-time Yankees.

I do agree with Olbermann that Jeter has stunk this year. His stats show that he really did make the right decision to retire. And he probably should have said, “Move me down in the batting order.” However, Joe Girardi probably didn’t want to be in the middle of the inevitable media firestorm that would have occurred had Jeter been moved down in the batting order. 

Yes, the modern merchandising of baseball has made Jeter’s final season a crass marketing juggernaut. But because we knew early in the season that 2014 would be Derek Jeter’s last year, fans got a chance to show their appreciation for him, knowing it would be the final time he played in their city. Sports fans don’t often have a chance to say goodbye so publicly to athletes. Most of them just fade away. Many great players and Hall of Famers did not get the season-long sendoff that Jeter did. To give just a few examples, Jim Palmer was released by the Orioles in May, 1984. Steve Carlton was released by the Twins in April, 1988. Mike Schmidt abruptly retired in May, 1989. Ken Griffey abruptly retired in June, 2010. Pete Rose just stopped putting himself in the lineup after August 17, 1986. Fans didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to these great players. So it’s pretty cool that Derek Jeter got to have a final lap. I’ll admit, when the All-Star Game came to Target Field this year, I was proud to stand up and cheer for Jeter as he exited the game. I was applauding Jeter for his whole career, and the excellence he’s embodied throughout 20 years in the majors. I was applauding his ability to rack up more than 3,400 hits, good for 6th on the all-time list. I was applauding his uncanny ability to make the big play when it needed to be made. I’m glad I got a chance to say goodbye to a truly great player.

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