He has been the most publicized and exposed player in the sport during his career, as the shortstop of New York's most storied franchise -- and, in turn, he has been placed under greater scrutiny, to the degree that any tweet or column about Jeter is inevitably batted back at you, attached to a word: overrated.
A chorus has been in refrain for a decade now, and was heard again in the days after he Facebooked his plans. Jeter's defense is beyond terrible, they say; he doesn't hit enough home runs, they say; his postseason numbers are merely a product of the money monster he plays for and the era he plays in, with multiple layers of October games.
But is Jeter really overrated?
Indeed, in my chat last week, the Jeter question was raised:
RJ (Bronx) -- I'm having a hard time figuring out how Jeter can be considered one of the best of all time if he was never the best SS in baseball in any given year.
RJ wasn't exactly right. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Jeter was the best shortstop in the majors one season in his career, in 1999. Here are his year-by-year rankings with the best shortstop that season:
1996: 3.3 WAR, 5th (Alex Rodriguez: 9.3)
1997: 4.9 WAR, 4th (Nomar Garciaparra: 6.6)
1998: 7.5 WAR, 2nd (Rodriguez: 8.5)
1999: 8.0 WAR, 1st
2000: 4.6 WAR, 4th (Rodriguez: 10.3)
2001: 5.1 WAR, 3rd (Rodriguez: 8.4)
2002: 3.7 WAR, 7th (Rodriguez: 8.8)
2003: 3.5 WAR, 8th (Rodriguez: 8.4)
2004: 4.2 WAR, 5th (Miguel Tejada: 7.4)
2005: 3.8 WAR, 8th (Rafael Furcal: 6.4)
2006: 5.5 WAR, 4th (Carlos Guillen: 6.0)
2007: 3.9 WAR, 8th (Troy Tulowitzki: 6.8)
2008: 3.0 WAR, 9th (Hanley Ramirez: 6.8)
2009: 6.6 WAR, 2nd (Ramirez: 7.3)
2010: 1.8 WAR, 16th (Tulowitzki: 6.7)
2011: 0.9 WAR, 20th (Tulowitzki: 6.2)
2012: 2.2 WAR, 17th (Erick Aybar: 4.3)
2013: Injured (Andrelton Simmons: 6.7)
In the chat, I made a comment along the lines of "Is Frank Robinson not an all-time great because Hank Aaron was the better right fielder?" Jason from D.C. responded that the "Frank Robinson comparison wasn't fair" because Aaron was just one player, while Jeter was bested by numerous other shortstops.
Jason's point is certainly reasonable and gets to the heart of our question: What makes an all-time great? Ron from Maryland argued that the Hall of Fame is about a great career, not a great season. That's also a reasonable point. Steve from Princeton pointed out that you could similarly argue that Nolan Ryan was never the best pitcher on his team except for a brief period in the '70s when Frank Tanana got injured. (I'm not sure Steve is right. OK, I'll look it up. Ryan was the best pitcher, via WAR, on the Angels in 1972, 1973 and 1974; on the Astros in 1981 and 1983; and on the Rangers from 1989 to 1991. That's eight seasons.)
But is “Hall of Famer” the same thing as "all-time great"? There is no definition of all-time great. Top-25 player? Top-50? Top-100? Or maybe it's something that goes beyond statistics and rankings. That's part of Buster's argument when he writes, "It's true that he has been one part of great teams. But at some point, doesn't he get just a little credit for the fact that the Yankees missed the playoffs only twice during his 19 seasons? Day after day after day, year after year after year, the Yankees have fielded one of the best overall shortstops in baseball."
That argument is countered by this one:
Clarke (Rye, N.Y.) -- Although, if Craig Biggio and Derek Jeter swapped teams for their careers, I bet Biggio would be the no brainer and Jeter would be the one stuck waiting a few turns on the Hall of Fame vote.
When we look at the cold, hard numbers, we are attempting to remove Jeter from his context and evaluate him strictly as a player. But is that the right thing to do? Part of the Jeter myth or legend or story is that he did play for five World Series winners, that he did play for the Yankees and not the Astros or Padres. It's sort of a reverse Ted Williams argument: Hey, if Williams was so good, how come DiMaggio won all the rings?
Maybe it's possible that Jeter is both an all-time great and overrated. Baseball-Reference has something called the EloRater, "which is a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players in two-player games." On Baseball-Reference, users are presented with two players and asked to vote for the better one. Take it for what it’s worth, but as I type this, Jeter is rated just 122nd among position players -- below the likes of Ted Simmons, Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton, Dale Murphy, Rusty Staub, Darrell Evans, Jeff Kent, Mickey Vernon, Fred Lynn, Steve Garvey and Willie Davis, just to name a few.
Now that seems a little ridiculous. Maybe Jeter is actually underrated.
My two cents? Is Jeter one of the top 25 players of all time? No. One of the top 50? Maybe right around there. Jeter rated No. 33 on the recent ESPN Hall of 100 list, which I think is too high. But he’s definitely better than the 122nd-best position player of all time.
Which makes Jeter both overrated and underrated.