We continue our countdown of the 25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era. The rest of the posts can be found here.
For the foreseeable future, that chant will echo off the walls of the concrete jungle known as New York City. Derek Jeter is a legend in Yankee lore, and finds himself among the (very crowded) Mt. Rushmore of the Bronx Bombers’ storied history.
When you talk about the greatest players of the our time, his name will always show up in the discussion. However, when we look at his offensive stats and those stats alone, I believe the appropriate spot for him is in the back end of the teens at #18.
Basically, take Paul Molitor’s stats, add just a bit of seasoning, and you have Derek Jeter. As a Yankee fan, I will point out that I’m staying true to criteria I have set forth previously. Number of hits is not the top factor for me. When all is said and done, and you sort my top 25 hitters of this era by the column labeled “H,” Derek Jeter will be your top player. He finished with 3,465.
That’s good for sixth in the history of the game. Only five people who have ever walked the Earth compiled more hits in Major League Baseball than did The Captain.
So, why is he 18th?
I certainly didn’t come here to point out Derek’s faults. My mother might disown me.
Again, his stats are very similar to Molitor’s, just a bit better. He finished with a .310 average, which over 12,602 plate appearances is simply spectacular. He homered 260 times, and finished with a .377 on-base percentage. He added 544 doubles to his resume, landing him at 33rd all-time.
With an inside-out swing tailor-made for Yankee Stadium, Jeter became known for his knack for taking the ball to right field. Highlight reel after highlight reel showed Jeter, head down, slicing the ball away from him for a clean single to right or right-center. He had an uncanny ability to “go oppo.”
His final spray chart shows that he hit the opposite way 33.1% of the time, more than he pulled the ball (32.8%) though less than up the middle (34.1%).
Winning Rookie of the Year in the Yankees championship season of 1996, Jeter hit .314 with an OPS of .800. He went on to bat over .300 a total of 12 times, and added four more seasons in the .290s. Though he never won a batting title, he posted elite averages throughout his career: .349 in 1999, .339 in 2000, .343 in 2006, and .334 in 2009. The heart of the Yankees dynasty seemingly racked up hits in his sleep.
Some argue that he’s overrated, as he had loaded lineups around him his entire career. I have never bought into that. I can be swayed that his defense got more credit than it may have deserved, and perhaps there were shortstops more deserving of the gold gloves, but Jeter has nothing to prove about his skills at the dish.
To prove my point, look no further than his postseason hitting stats.
The Yankees rolled into the playoffs almost every season during Jeter’s career, and he compiled plenty of plate appearances in baseball’s second season. Why I say that this is important is that in the playoffs, you are always facing good pitching. And against the best staffs in the league, year after year, here’s what Derek Jeter did.
In 158 games, basically a season’s worth, he batted .308 with a .374 OBP and an .838 OPS. He deposited 20 baseballs in the seats, racked up 32 doubles, and collected a total of 200 hits. Jeter was always good at the plate, and to hold it against him that he was surrounded by good players isn’t fair. He was a consistent performer and his stats speak for themselves.
As great as he was, some of the peripherals will drag him down in my list. His 0.59 BB / K ratio is tied for last on my list with a player to be named later, as he struck out 14.6% of the time. A career ISO of .130 is also lower than most on the list, as well as his .817 OPS.
I think some of these peripherals created a ceiling on The Captain’s potential in this list, and I couldn’t justify raising him any higher. However, make no mistake, the Yankees raised five championship flags in Jeter’s career, and he was as big a part of that as any other player. Also, to maintain a .310 average over 12,600+ appearances, that takes a special type of talent.
So again: number of hits doesn’t win out, but longevity does in the sense that he maintained an elite hit rate over his entire career.
There are so many Derek Jeter highlights I could link to, so I’m going to go with one that personally meant a great deal to me. As a Yankees fan growing up in the 80’s, all I had to really cheer for was Don Mattingly. My dad told me story after story of listening to Yankees games on the radio in Brooklyn growing up. He saw Mickey Mantle’s last World Series home run. This dominant franchise, and all I knew was misery and playground teasing.
1996 changed all that. The Yankees stormed back on the Braves to win their first World Series in my lifetime in a very magical playoff run. I have several very distinct memories of that playoff run, but along with Leyritz’s three-run homer off of Wohlers in game 4, this hit by Jeter off Maddux in game 6 stands out as an unforgettable moment.
And I’ll always love Bob Brenly’s comment in that highlight: “I think the whole city is shaking.” The Yankee Stadium crowd still gives me chills.