Derek Jeter: A Baseball Original and One of the Greatest Shortstops Ever

For the New York Yankees, it’s a time of transition. After making the playoffs for 13 years in a row and 17 of 18, they’re possibly going to be on the outside looking in for the second consecutive season, the first time that’s happened in 20 years. They have the oldest roster in baseball, meaning turnover is likely, and they still have huge future salaries committed to two talented pitchers dealing with serious injury concerns in CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s this: For the first time in two decades, the Yankees will go into a winter not knowing who their starting shortstop is going to be. Derek Jeter, the last link to the dynastic Yankees of the late 1990s, is calling it a career after parts of 20 seasons in the big leagues. When he does, the longest-tenured Yankee will either be David Robertson, if he returns as a free agent, or Brett Gardner, if Robertson leaves. It’s about to be a very different Yankees Universe.

The fact is, it’s very difficult to remember a version of the Yankees that didn’t have Jeter in the fold. The 1994 Yankees, the last team to play a full season without him, had names like Don Mattingly, Melido Perez, and Danny Tartabull. They had multiple players who entered professional baseball in the 1970s. There’s an entire generation of baseball fans who don’t know what the sport is like without him, and they’re about to be forced to find out.

With New Era dropping a limited edition collector’s edition Hat Box exclusively at Champs Sports this weekend, naturally, everyone wants to ask how Jeter will be remembered? Yankee fans will remember him as “the Captain,” the long-time leader with the impeccable image who made 14 All-Star teams and contributed to five World Series champions. They’ll know that he’ll soon get his due in Monument Park and take his rightful place among Yankee deities like Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. Non-Yankee baseball fans will remember him as one of the greatest shortstops who ever played — sorry, Red Sox fans, there is no version of this where that isn’t true — although with some room for discussion on where exactly he places among other great shortstops.

The raw totals, obviously, are stunning. Jeter will go off into retirement having played the second-most games at shortstop ever and with the most hits by a shortstop. He’s among the top five in doubles, runs, and homers at the position. He’s the only Yankee with 3,000 hits; he’s the only ballplayer other than Willie Mays to accumulate that many hits along with 250 home runs, 300 steals, and 1,200 runs driven in. When he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame in five years, not only is he among the most obvious first-ballot candidates ever, he may be the most serious contender to Tom Seaver’s record 98.84 percent of the vote. (Seaver himself thinks that Jeter should be unanimously inducted, though that’s unlikely due to the fractured politics of today’s voters.)

Though there seems to be a perception that advanced metrics dislike him, Jeter still fares extremely well there. Excluding those who primarily played in the 19th century, FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement has Jeter ranked as the fourth-best shortstop ever, and while it’s accurate to say that there’s an enormous gap between the top three — Honus Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, and Cal Ripken, Jr. — and Jeter, it’s also important to remember that Rodriguez and Ripken both moved off of shortstop to third base before they were finished, while Jeter has played every single game of his career (other than appearances at designated hitter) as a shortstop. It’s something that very few other players in history can say.

If there’s a disagreement on Jeter, it comes from opinions on his defense, which can run to the extreme in either direction. It’s very fair to say Jeter’s steady sure-handedness and signature move — who doesn’t smile when they see that jump throw? — have somewhat obscured the fact that his range hasn’t been a strength, allowing many balls to get by that other shortstops would have collected. That said, keep in mind just how high the level of difficulty is to even play shortstop, easily the most important defensive position on the field. Compared to a legendary shortstop defender like Ozzie Smith, Jeter may come up short. Compared to the overwhelming majority of major league players during his time in the big leagues, he’s been quite good. The bar to handle shortstop defense is just so high, and he’s lasted longer there than just about anyone else, ever.

In the end, the conversations about where exactly Jeter ranks are fun, but otherwise meaningless. You can say Jeter is the best shortstop ever, or third-best, or fifth-best or however you feel about it. The simple fact that a player can even be solidly in the conversation for “best who ever played at his position” says all you need to know, and it’s not only the Yankees who will feel Jeter’s absence next year. It’s all of baseball.

Follow Mike on Twitter at @mike_petriello