Playing the Jeter game

OK. I'll play this game:

    No doubt that Jeter has been one of the greatest Yankees of all-time. His first handful of years in the league, he played in the world series 5 times, winning 4.
    But since that run, the Yankees have gone into a slump.

    Jeter is certainly not to blame for the slump, however, when you're the captain, people will look to you when the team is good and certainly when they're bad.

    All that aside, where does Jeter rank amongst the great Yankees? There are few that would put him above the legends like Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, and Mantle. But what about the rest?

    Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mariano Rivera?

I'm not going to give anything away; click on the link and make your choice, and you can see what everybody else thinks.
I will tell you what I think, though. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle were all, by popular acclaim, the very best players in the American League, and more than once. Ruth, you know about. Gehrig was probably the second-best player in the American League until late in Ruth's career, after which Gehrig was probably the best. When Gehrig hit his decline phase and then got sick, DiMaggio took over, winning three MVP's and finishing second twice; his record would be even more impressive if he hadn't missed three seasons during World War II. And of course, as DiMaggio was going out, Mantle was coming in. The Mick won three MVP Awards and finished second three times.

Derek Jeter just can't compare to those guys (all of whom, by the way, wore their share of World Series rings, too). His highest MVP finishes: second and third. You might argue that it's harder to win awards now because there are more teams, and you would be absolutely right. You might argue that Jeter should probably have won at least MVP by now, and you would probably be right. But it's hard for me to construct an argument that Jeter belongs, qualitatively, in that exclusive club. We just can't get him into the top four, no matter how hard we try.

Top five, though? As much as I admire Mariano Rivera, let's leave him behind for now. He's a relief pitcher. And relief pitchers, however brilliant, just can't break into this discussion. Not for long, anyway. So it comes down, I think to Jeter, Ford, and Berra.

Ford went 236-106 in his career, which essentially lasted only 14 seasons. But it's often forgotten that many players in Ford's time were drafted during the Korean War, and Ford missed all of 1951 and '52 while serving in the military. I'm always hesitant to "credit" young pitchers with theoretical performance during missed seasons, because it's at least possible that those missed seasons actually led to a longer career (cf. Warren Spahn). The bottom line is that from 1953 through 1964, Whitey Ford was the best pitcher in the American League. By quite a lot.

Yogi Berra still ranks among the two or three greatest catchers ever. It's basically Berra, Johnny Bench, and whoever else you want to throw in there. Is Derek Jeter one of the three greatest shortstops? Not yet, he's not. Not with his defense (sorry). The top three shortstops are Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, and ... well, I'm a big Arky Vaughan fan. But I'm looking at a list of Hall of Fame shortstops, and I'm not at all sure that Jeter doesn't belong in there somewhere.

The real problem, I think, is that we don't yet have any perspective on his career. The other problem is that where you place Jeter among that next group of three depends largely on preconceptions that are just marginally subject to analysis. For the moment, I'm prepared to say only that Jeter, at this moment but with many more moments to come, might be the Fifth Greatest Yankeee Ever, or the Seventh.