October 18, 2017

Where does Derek Jeter Rank among All-Time Shortstops?

January 4, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

Now that his long and outstanding career is over, many are asking the fun question: where does Derek Jeter rank among all-time Major League shortstops? Answering this question is not easy, and not only because it is always difficult to compare players from across the 140+ years of MLB history. No, the first question we need to ask is: who qualifies as a shortstop for the purposes of this ranking?

You could start by looking at the list of players who have played the position the most. Derek Jeter is second all-time in games played at shortstop with 2674, a mere 35 behind Omar Vizquel. Next up are Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken, Larry Bowa, Luke Appling, Dave Concepcion, Rabbit Maranville, and Alan Trammell. (Here is the list: http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/Gm_ss_career.shtml.)

Some of the players many fans quickly think of as all-time great shortstops aren’t in the top 50 in games played at the position. Take a look at the Shortstop JAWS leaders here: http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/jaws_SS.shtml

The top of the list, not surprisingly, is Honus Wagner. Most consider him the greatest SS of all-time, and I agree. While it is true he played 373 games as an OF, 248 at 1B, 210 at 3B, and 57 at 2B, since he played most of his games, 1887, at SS… we rightly consider him a shortstop for such all-time ranking questions.

But then the second person on the list… is Alex Rodriguez. Few are going to consider him to be the second greatest SS of all time, for a few reasons. First, there is the PED issue – where most assume his statistics were inflated, and so must be discounted to some degree when compared with other players – of his own era let alone yesteryear. But many today also forget how long he played SS before switching to 3B: as of the end of 2014, he has played 1272 games at SS and 1179 at 3B.

And A-Rod isn’t the only player in the top-20 of this SS ranking list who played a non-trivial number of games at other positions. Three key others are:

  • George Davis – 1374 games at SS, 529 at 3B, 303 at OF, 113 at 2B, and 41 at 1B.
  • Robin Yount – 1479 games at SS and 1218 at OF
  • Ernie Banks – 1125 games at SS and 1259 at 1B (yes, more at 1B than SS)

Yount’s total of 1479 is only good enough for 64th on the SS games played listing… while Banks’ 1125 doesn’t even crack the top 100.

So if you only count statistics and other accomplishments while the players were actually playing shortstop, that would drop the likes of A-Rod, Davis, Yount, and Banks out of contention for the top spots on any All-Time Shortstop ranking – likely out of the top 10 in fact. The remaining candidates for such a top-10 ranking include the aforementioned Wagner, Ripken, Smith, Appling, Trammell, as well as greats such as Arky Vaughan, Bill Dahlen, Barry Larkin, Bobby Wallace, Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin, Pee Wee Reese… and of course, Derek Jeter.

I referred to the JAWS listing above – JAWS is a nice metric that tries to combine the quantity and quality of a player’s career. It does this by averaging a player’s total WAR (Wins Above Replacement) number with their 7-year peak WAR number. The top 18 shortstops in terms of JAWS are:

  • Honus Wagner 98.2 (131.0 Total WAR)
  • Alex Rodriguez 90.1 (116)
  • Cal Ripken 75.8 (95.5)
  • George Davis 64.5 (84.7)
  • Robin Yount 62.1 (77.0)
  • Arky Vaughan 61.8 (72.9)
  • Ernie Banks 59.7 (67.5)
  • Ozzie Smith 59.4 (76.5)
  • Luke Appling 59.2 (74.5)
  • Bill Dahlen 57.7 (75.2)
  • Alan Trammell 57.5 (70.4)
  • Derek Jeter 57.0 (71.8)
  • Barry Larkin 56.6 (70.2)
  • Bobby Wallace 56.0 (70.2)
  • Lou Boudreau 55.8 (63.0)
  • Joe Cronin 55.2 (66.4)
  • Pee Wee Reese 53.6 (66.3)
  • Jack Glasscock 51.4 (61.9)

Why only the top 18 you ask? Because there is a relatively big gap after Glasscock and the next player (Joe Sewell at 45.5), and also for total WAR (Luis Aparicio at 55.8).

So according to JAWS, Derek Jeter either ranks 12th or 8th, depending on whether you include the four mixed position players. It is interesting that his JAWS rating is so close to his contemporary Barry Larkin. And it is even more interesting that his JAWS rating is slightly below Alan Trammell’s – another reason to support Trammell for the Hall of Fame, since just everyone would consider Jeter a lock Hall-of-Famer. (Yes, Jeter did loads more in the post-season, but he also had a gazillion more opportunities. To his credit Alan Trammell performed great in the postseason in the Tigers 1984 championship season. But even if you allow for Jeter’s postseason accomplishments to argue he is more of a Hall of Famer than Trammell, the JAWS similarity is striking and good reason to support Trammell for the HOF).

Casual fans might not be familiar with George Davis – he was a turn of the century (1890-1909) star who scored 100+ runs five times, had 100+ RBI three times (including a league-leading 135 in 1897), stole 619 bases while hitting .295. And keep in mind that back then the playing season was shorter – only three times did he play more than 140 games, so those 100+ runs and RBI totals are that much more impressive.

Bill Dahlen’s career spanned essentially the same period (1891-1911). He has his Hall of Fame supporters, based on his resume that includes 100+ runs scored in each of his first six seasons, solid speed on the bases (548 SB), good triples power (163), and a respectable .272 average, .358 OBP, and 110 OPS+. His two best years were clearly 1894 when he belted 15 HR, batted .359, scored 150 runs, and drove in 108 RBI while playing in 122 games, and then 1896 when he scored 137 runs in 125 games while batting .352.

Arky Vaughan is better known today than Davis or Dahlen, but won’t be as familiar to casual fans as say Ripken, Banks, Ozzie, or some of the others on the list above. It is interesting to see how highly he rates according to JAWS, since his career was all but over at age 32. Like Davis, he too scored 100+ runs five times, leading the league in three of those seasons. He also led the league in triples three times with 19 in 1933, 17 in 1937, and 15 in 1940. He didn’t have nearly as many stolen bases, though he did manage to lead the league with 20 in his final full season in 1943. He hit for a .318 average, and also walked a lot leading to a .406 career OBP. Vaughan was an All-Star in nine consecutive seasons.

During many of those same years, while Vaughan was shining for Pittsburgh in the National League, Luke Appling was the star for the White Sox in the American League. He only topped 100 runs or RBIs in 1936 when he had 111 runs and 128 RBI, one of two seasons in which he was the MVP runner-up. He didn’t have much power at all (only 45 HR, though 102 career triples). But he batted .310 and had a .399 OBP while playing from age 23 to age 43.

Of course WAR and JAWS are not the only metrics that have been used to compare players across eras. Bill James’ Win Shares system is another such metric, and according to the Win Shares provided at www.baseballgauge.com, the top shortstops are:

  • Honus Wagner 646.5
  • Alex Rodriguez 479.6
  • Cal Ripken 423.0
  • Robin Yount 422.4
  • Derek Jeter 414.9
  • George Davis 395.9
  • Bill Dahlen 386.2
  • Luke Appling 376.6
  • Arky Vaughan 357.9
  • Barry Larkin 344.1
  • Bobby Wallace 343.5
  • Joe Cronin 332.3
  • Ernie Banks 331.4
  • Ozzie Smith 325.4
  • Pee Wee Reese 318.8
  • Alan Trammell 313.3
  • Rabbit Maranville 303.7

That happens to be the top 18 again, and all those with over 300 Win Shares, a nice round number as a list cutoff. Really, really old-timer Jack Glasscock doesn’t fair as well here, with 262.4 Win Shares for a 30th ranking.

Here we see Jeter rank much higher: 5th or even 3rd if you don’t count Rodriguez and Yount. Aside from Ripken, here Jeter rates much higher than other modern shortstops such as Larkin, Smith, and Trammell. And speaking of Smith, as a side note it is interesting to see Banks and Smith next to each other on this listing – as it is otherwise hard to compare ballplayers with such different styles: Banks was a power-hitting SS turned 1B, while Smith lacked power but had lots of speed on the bases and is arguably the best defensive SS ever.

Before the advent of these approaches to comparing players, two more rough-and-ready approaches were the Black Ink and Gray Ink tests. The Black Ink test is so-called because of the tradition of indicating a league leading statistic in boldface type (this tradition continued as the massive print baseball encyclopedias gave way to www.baseball-reference.com). Gray Ink is similar, but it counts appearances in the top-10 in various statistical categories, not just the times a player led the league.

Here is how the top shortstops rank according to the Black Ink Test, as defined at www.baseball-reference.com:

  • Honus Wagner 109 (this is sixth all-time amongst all batters)
  • Alex Rodriguez 68
  • Arky Vaughan 29
  • Ernie Banks 26
  • Cal Ripken 19
  • Luis Aparicio 19
  • Bert Campaneris 18
  • Vern Stephens 18
  • Maury Wills 16
  • Nomar Garciaparra 15
  • Robin Yount 14
  • Jimmy Rollins 14
  • Donie Bush 14

Actually, I may have missed a few really old timers, but you get the idea. Stephens makes the list because of his power, while Aparicio, Campaneris, and Wills make it based on their speed. Derek Jeter comes in a bit lower than the above, with only a 10 Black Ink mark: he got three points each for leading the league in runs with 127 in 1998, hits with 219 and 199 and then 216 at age 38 in 2012, and then one point for leading the league in at-bats with 683 in 2012. His lower rating here is not a big surprise, since anyone who has paid attention to Jeter’s career knows that it has been marked by consistency, not huge offensive outbursts. It can also be argued that it is harder to lead a league in a category today than 50 or 100 years ago, given the far larger number of teams, and hence players, in each league.

Not surprisingly then, Jeter fairs a lot better in the list of top shortstops according to the Gray Ink test:

  • Honus Wagner 367 (fourth amongst all hitters)
  • Alex Rodriguez 212
  • Ernie Banks 167
  • Arky Vaughan 156
  • Derek Jeter 145
  • Vern Stephens 141
  • Robin Yount 120
  • Cal Ripken 116
  • George Davis 108
  • Luke Appling 103
  • Joe Cronin 102
  • Pee Wee Reese 102

What about the other three modern shortstops from the lists above? Larkin rates 66, Ozzie 51, and Trammell 48.

So where does all of this leave us? Although in his final season Jeter managed to surpass Honus Wagner on the all-time hits list (and also leads him in runs scored, 1923 to 1739), I can’t see anyone rationally ranking Derek Jeter as the top shortstop of all-time. Wagner’s lead in the metrics above, and in others as well such as OPS+ (151 vs. 115 for Jeter), is significant and I think uncontestable.

But after Wagner, it gets interesting… and at least debatable as to where Jeter should rank. If you look at just statistics, and ignore both the PED issue and his splitting time between SS and 3B, you’d have to rate A-Rod above Jeter. But those are huge things to ignore, so I don’t think we should when considering the greatest shortstops of all-time.

You can make a case for Davis, Yount, and Banks vs. Jeter, but as noted they played a lot of their careers at other positions. So setting them aside, that leaves us with the likes of Ripken, Vaughan, Smith, Appling, Dahlen, Trammell, Larkin, and a few others to compare with Jeter. Vaughan had better peak performances than Jeter, but had a much shorter career. Smith was superior in defense and speed on the bases, but was not as well-rounded of a player as Jeter. I think Derek was also overall better than Trammell and Larkin, but not by a huge margin.

The toughest one for me is Ripken – his JAWS and career WAR are significantly higher than Jeter’s, and this aligns with my intuitions in terms of their relative greatness.

So amongst “pure shortstops”, I gotta rank them Wagner, then Ripken, then… Jeter… maybe? Is he the third greatest of all-time?

Comments

2 Responses to “Where does Derek Jeter Rank among All-Time Shortstops?”
  1. Luis says:

    Good stuff. I really enjoyed the breakdown. I never thought much about how the great shortstops compared to each other beyond the top three, which I think you nailed. The huge gap between Jeter and Ripken defensively is too much for Jeter’s offensive advantage to overcome.

    I consider Jeter to be the best hitting shortstop of the live ball era. He may also be the worst defensive shortstop to ever play the position regularly. Had he been drafted by any other team, he would’ve been moved off the position early in his career. He really contrasts strongly with the other players on that list.

    I was surprised at how low he ranked by JAWS. Jay Jaffe is going to get excoriated once Jeter becomes Hall eligible! To be fair, it really is underrating him.

    The ink tests were interesting. The only black ink of his that’s relevant were the two seasons that he led the league in hits. Except for his 1999 season, he was never truly elite. He never hit for much power and I already mentioned the defense.

    His strengths were his great hitting and ability to get on base. To get that from a shortstop is incredible. To be that consistent for so long makes you an all-timer. He’s far from the player that the media portrays him to be, but that’s ok. He’s one of the best shortstops to play the game, nonetheless.

    Good stuff on Alan Trammell, too. He is a worthy Hall of Famer.

  2. Simon Foster says:

    I think he would have been the starting SS whichever team he played on – but not for the benefit of the team. Strikes me he would have been consulted before Rodriguez was signed, but only agreed on the proviso that “he is not to play my position. Don’t care how good he is – in this club, DEREK JETER is the SS”.

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