When Derek Jeter retires at the end of the 2014 season, he will do so as the most respected player in the last twenty years, not to mention the model of baseball professionalism and a proven winner. Pending the Yankees' outcome in 2014, Jeter has played in the post-season every year of his major league career but two. Perhaps more to the point, few doubt that his legacy is as the indispensable Yankee (with due respect to Mariano Rivera) who "led" his team into the post-season year after year through commitment without excuses, an unrivaled work ethic, and unflagging consistency. He is what Joe DiMaggio was to the Yankees from 1936 to 1951, and like DiMaggio is retiring on his terms--before the inevitable decline of age overshadows the grace and athleticism and all-around excellence on the diamond that defined the entirety of his career.
Derek Jeter in Shortstop Perspective
A first-ballot Hall of Famer for sure, Derek Jeter will go down in history as one of baseball's greatest players. Ironically, greatness is an attribute not necessarily dependent on also being one of the very best players in terms of measurable on-the-field performance alone. Derek Jeter was not that, even dismissing as irrelevant the fact that he never won an MVP award. In seventeen full seasons with the Yankees, not including 1995, when he appeared in 15 games as a replacement shortstop during his final year of full-time minor league preparation, and last season when persistent injuries kept him sidelined for all but 17 games, Jeter's player value based on the WAR metric exceeded the 5 wins above replacement that denotes an All-Star level quality of performance only five times in his career, three of them in his first six seasons.
Jeter's best consecutive years were in fact from 1997 to 2001 when he was 23 to 27 years old. His 7.5 WAR in 1998 and 8.0 WAR the year after were the highest player values of his career. It was during those five years that Jeter made his reputation as a team leader, a clutch player, and a winning player by being at the center of the action as the Yankees went to four straight World Series (1998 to 2001), winning three. But Jeter was not even one of baseball's two best shortstops in terms of player value based on WAR during those years, because he was a direct contemporary of both Seattle's Alex Rodriguez and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra.
By the year 2000, even though he had been a full-time regular for only as long as Jeter (since 1996), there were already advocates for A-Rod staking a claim to being perhaps the best player ever once the final chapter of his career was written. Little did anyone know then that so many chapters in A-Rod's epic saga would be sordid and career-diminishing. And Nomar was the model of consistency at better than an All-Star level of performance from 1997 to 2003, averaging between 6.1 and 7.4 wins above replacement every year, not including an injury-ravaged 2001 season that limited him to 21 games. Thereafter, of course, Garciaparra's Hall of Fame trajectory nose-dived with injury after injury, making him a virtually forgotten afterthought in the once-vivid debate over who was the best shortstop in the game--A-Rod, Nomar, or Derek? Both Rodriguez and Garciaparra were not only better all-around shortstops based on performance, but their presence on an otherwise average major league team for an entire season would have made more difference to that team's winning percentage than Jeter (see the 162W/L% column under "Player Value" on their player pages in Baseball-reference.com). Maybe so, but Jeter is the one with all the championship rings . . . five of them. A-Rod has one. Nomar has none.
Going back to more recent Hall of Fame shortstops, the Brewers' Robin Yount (from 1980-84), the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith (1985-89), the Orioles' Cal Ripken, Jr., and the Reds' Barry Larkin (both from 1988-92) all had better five-best consecutive years than Jeter based on the WAR metric for player value. All four also had more seasons in their career than Jeter where their player value exceeded an All-Star level of performance on the field--Smith 10 times, including eight times in nine years between 1984 and 1992; Ripken eight times in nine years between 1983 and 1991, with MVP awards at both bookends; Larkin eight times; and Yount seven times, although two of his were after he switched to the outfield. All four were much better defensive shortstops than Jeter. And three of the four were elected into the Hall of Fame their first time on the ballot; Larkin had to wait until his third year of eligibility to break the 75 % vote barrier.
None of the four, however, has more than one World Series ring, and only Ozzie (with three appearances) played in more than one World Series. Jeter, meanwhile, has five World Series rings in seven trips to the Fall Classic--and is working towards six in eight in this, his final season--and the "Captain" hit .353 or better in four of those five Yankee triumphs. His batting average in 38 World Series games is .323, brought that low only because of the .148 he hit in the 2001 Series, which the Yankees lost on a pop fly single just beyond Jeter's reach over a drawn-in infield.
While it's hard to go against Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time, there will be significant temptation to proclaim Derek Jeter as the best shortstop in American League history. Putting aside what to make of A-Rod's self-sabotaged career--including his admitting in 2009 to using steroids back when he played shortstop for the Texas Rangers--Cal Ripken, Jr., at least based on player performance, is the best-ever to play the position in the American League. Ripken was sent to Cooperstown with 98.5 % of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 2007. None of the players elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America since then have matched that total, including not Greg Maddux this year. Like Ripken--an ambassador for the game, universally liked even by those who hate his team (of whom there are legions when it comes to the Yankees)--Derek Jeter stands an excellent chance of reaching the Ripken plateau in percentage of votes.
The final two players I would like to bring into this discussion are Pete Rose and Craig Biggio. Derek Jeter for me is today's Pete Rose, who I idolized when I first became baseball-conscious because, while he was not the best player in the game, he played with abandon, he never short-changed effort, he probably played above his ability, and he was a leader, a winner--playing in six World Series--and a role model for the love of the game. Love or hate the Big Red Machine, you had to admire and respect Pete Rose. If not for his gambling addiction finding its way into his baseball profession, Rose would have been a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. Even had Jeter not busted his ankle, it would have been a long shot for him to break Rose's all-time hit record, but it's worth noting that over the course of his career, Jeter has averaged 206 hits per 162 games compared to 194 for Rose, which helps explain Jeter's .312 lifetime average to Rose's .303. Even acknowledging that Rose played in a tougher era for offense, this difference is not nothing.
Craig Biggio, with 3,060 hits to call his own, was a Jeter-type player who did not make the Hall of Fame in either of his first two years of eligibility, perhaps because he happened to play in Houston and played in only one World Series where his team was unceremoniously swept. Had Jeter been Jeter with his 3,316 hits (and counting) but played for anyone else but the Yankees, he certainly would wind up in the Hall of Fame--but like Biggio, he might be having to wait a year, two, or three to get in.
There will be no waiting for Derek Jeter . . . because he was the indisputable leader of a team that made it to the post-season in all but one season he was their shortstop (not counting 2013, when he missed virtually the entire year--and, who knows, the Yankees might have made it had he been healthy) . . . and because of those five rings he was so instrumental in winning not just for himself, and not just for his teammates, but for the New York Yankees.