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Why Jeter could be ... underrated?

January 21, 2020

What had long been obvious became official on Tuesday: Derek Jeter is going to the Hall of Fame. The only question was if he would join longtime teammate Mariano Rivera as the only players to be voted in unanimously by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Ultimately, just one voter

What had long been obvious became official on Tuesday: Derek Jeter is going to the Hall of Fame. The only question was if he would join longtime teammate Mariano Rivera as the only players to be voted in unanimously by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Ultimately, just one voter out of 397 did not cast a ballot for Jeter, leaving him at a mere 99.7 percent.

1 vote shy: Jeter just misses 100%

There tend not to be mild opinions about Jeter. His many supporters laud his status as “The Captain,” his presence, his clutchness and his postseason heroics.

Those who over the years grew tired of the constant adulation pointed out his notable defensive shortcomings, poked at his celebrity status and wondered aloud what his reputation would be if he weren’t a Yankee.

Both viewpoints can obscure a fundamental fact. Strip away the logo on the jersey, the indelible October moments, the rings and the tabloid covers, and what remains is a sensational hitter. That part -- Jeter the hitter, not Jeter the brand -- can be underrated amidst all the hoopla, despite the 99.7 percent support.

There are two things about this newly minted Hall of Famer that can’t be ignored:

1) He played a lot of shortstop -- for better or worse.

2) He swung the bat like few shortstops in history.

The result is that Jeter produced more offensive value in his career than just about anyone in Major League history, a small handful of legends aside.

This is based on Baseball Reference’s offensive WAR (oWAR) metric, which unlike overall WAR, ignores Jeter’s greatest deficiency (defense). It does factor in hitting and baserunning, while adjusting for position. Jeter accrued 96.3 oWAR over his 20 seasons, thanks to his durability, athleticism and consistently strong bat at a premium defensive position.

That oWAR figure puts Jeter 20th all-time, but that ranking places him right behind Nap Lajoie, a second baseman whose career began in 1896. If we limit the field to players who spent the majority of their careers in the integration era (since 1947), Jeter just misses the top 10.

1) Barry Bonds: 143.7
2) Willie Mays: 136.8
3) Hank Aaron: 132.4
4) Ted Williams: 126.4
5) Stan Musial: 124.8
6) Mickey Mantle: 116.4
7) Alex Rodriguez: 115.3
8) Frank Robinson: 107.0
9) Rickey Henderson: 105.2
10) Joe Morgan: 104.4
11) Derek Jeter: 96.3

Of the 10 players above Jeter, eight are inner-circle Hall of Famers, and among the most storied players ever to take the field. Bonds and Rodriguez produced some of the gaudiest numbers the game has seen, though the former’s path to Cooperstown has been blocked by ties to performance-enhancing drugs, something that also figures to hurt Rodriguez’s chances when he joins the ballot for 2022.

Jeter ranks ahead of Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, George Brett, and Ken Griffey Jr.

None of the players above Jeter were shortstops for the majority of their careers. (Rodriguez wound up playing 46% of his games at short, though one could argue that he -- and not Jeter -- should have stayed at the position when the Yankees acquired him in 2004.)

The only primary shortstop with more career oWAR than Jeter was Honus Wagner. Nobody from the past 100 years is close, with Jeter (96.3) easily outpacing Robin Yount (83.1) and Cal Ripken Jr. (78.1).

In other words, factoring in quantity and quality, Jeter is the most successful offensive shortstop in modern history. How?

He was durable: Jeter played 20 MLB seasons. Excluding his brief debut in 1995, he played at least 145 games in 16 of 19 years, making him one of five players with at least that many 145-game campaigns. He ranks 29th all-time in games played (2,747).

He was always at short: Sure, maybe this wasn’t always wise. Jeter’s minus-243.3 fielding runs and minus-8.3 defensive WAR, per Baseball Reference, attest to his weaknesses on that side of the ball -- despite his five American League Gold Glove Awards. Although one could quibble with the accuracy of those metrics, there’s no doubt Jeter’s glove lagged well behind his bat. Still, he is second to Omar Vizquel in career defensive games at short, and he never played anywhere else (DH aside). Given the low offensive standard at the position, that helps Jeter's bat stand out all the more.

He hit, year in and year out: Jeter racked up nearly 3,500 hits, drew his share of walks and possessed enough pop to be dangerous. In his 18 full seasons (each at least 119 games) he was average or better with the bat (at least a 100 OPS+) 16 times. The only exceptions came when he was 36 and 40 years old. Jeter posted nine qualifying seasons with a 120 OPS+ or better, more than any other shortstop since integration. His career mark of 115 is a close second to Barry Larkin (116) among players with at least 1,500 games at shortstop during that period.

His legs were effective: We didn’t have Statcast in Jeter’s day, so his sprint speed remains a mystery. It’s fair to say Jeter wasn’t a burner like Juan Pierre or Ichiro, but he was quietly productive on the bases. He piled up 358 career steals -- reaching double digits 17 times -- with a nearly 79% success rate. Add that to things like taking an extra base, and Jeter produced 56 career baserunning runs above average, per Baseball Reference, ranking 22nd all-time.

Even accounting for Jeter’s well documented defensive issues, his overall WAR of 72.4 puts him squarely in Hall of Fame territory. It ranks sixth among all players who spent at least three-quarters of their career games at shortstop, and third since integration, behind only Ripken (95.9) and Ozzie Smith (76.9).

On July 26, Jeter will officially be enshrined in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame will be an appropriate place for a player who spent his career under an unrelenting spotlight, a celebrity athlete as closely watched as anyone.

Yet it’s also an appropriate destination because Jeter spent two decades putting bat to ball more than any modern player at his position. That might not be the first thing that comes to mind about him -- for supporters or detractors -- but this is as good a time as any to recognize it.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.