This is a guest post from the always-welcome Moshe Mandel of The Yankee Universe.
At the very least, he’s in the conversation with Cronin and Wagner, a pair of Hall of Famers who were the best of their times. Cronin in the early part of the live ball era and Wagner in the dead ball era, both before Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues at second base and expanded the talent pool to allow Jeter to be a part of it.
The other thing is that the game has changed in ways beyond simply who is playing it. Cronin and Wagner combined to strike out 1,027 times in their careers, while Jeter has gone down on strikes 1,440 times. But in this era, even averaging 100 strikeouts a year, Jeter rarely is criticized for having a high strikeout rate. Jeter also has the advantage of having been seen by millions of people in his career. The only people who ever saw Cronin or Wagner were either there in person or saw them on newsreels. Good luck finding them on YouTube.
In an era where everyone is always quick to describe the last thing to happen as the greatest, Jeter does deserve all the praise for breaking a record and having a place among the greatest of all time. But it’s impossible to peg him as being alone as the best when the hard facts of statistics don’t put him there convincingly, and the rest of the evidence isn’t up for review. So, at least until Jeter gets a clear numerical edge on Cronin and Wagner, he’ll have to settle for just being called one of the best, with nobody standing as the clear-cut No. 1.
This is a very thoughtful, reasonable article, and I encourage you to read it. That being said, Jeter is most definitely not the best hitting SS ever, although he is almost certainly in the top 5. The problem with judging Jeter at this point is that his career is not over, in that he has not gone through a decline phase yet, and other players are being penalized for having moved off SS while Jeter has not reached that point in his career. However, being that Derek is unlikely to play another position for an extended period, let us consider only the players who spent a considerable portion of their career at SS.
For example, players like Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, George Davis, and Alex Rodriguez would all have legitimate arguments to be ahead of Jeter, but none lasted at SS past the age of 30. This is going to be a rudimentary analysis, so correct me if I make any errors. Remember, we are considering offense only. Furthermore, a player like Luke Appling would likely be on this list if not for missing time due to WWII. Because I am not sure how to correct for that, I am just going to use career totals, which sadly leaves Appling off.
Honus Wagner: Career Numbers: .327/.391/.466 OPS+: 150 5 best (full) years by OPS+: 205, 187, 186, 176, 175
Joe Cronin: Career Numbers: .301/.390/.468 OPS+: 119 5 best years by OPS+: 138, 136, 135, 129, 127
Arky Vaughan: Career Numbers: .318/.406/.453 OPS+: 136 5 best years by OPS+: 190, 149, 148, 146, 140
Lou Boudreau: Career Numbers: .295/.380/.415 OPS+: 120 5 best years by OPS+: 164, 145, 133, 131, 128
Cal Ripken: Career Numbers: .276/.340/.447 OPS+: 112 5 best years by OPS+: 162, 145, 144, 143, 128
Derek Jeter: Career Numbers: .317/.387/.459 OPS+: 121 5 best years by OPS+: 153, 132, 128, 127, 126
One note: Looking at 5 best seasons by OPS+ does not exactly do Jeter justice, as much of his value is caught up in his consistency. His 6-10 best years are likely better than those years for most of the players on this list. That being said, I think we can reach a few conclusions.
1) Honus Wagner is the best hitting SS of all time, and Arky Vaughan is second.
2) Cal Ripken stuck around way too long, and his decline was substantial enough to knock him out of the top 5 in terms of offensive value.
3) Jeter is right there in the next group with Boudreau and Cronin, rounding out the top 5, and an argument can be made for Jeter as #3 if you place career value over peak.
Conclusion: Among players who remained at SS for the bulk of their careers, Derek Jeter is no higher than 3rd but is likely no lower than 5th (unless I missed somebody) in terms of hitting. Next time somebody tells you he would be a borderline star if he played in KC, tell him to do some research.
ed note: this was written and sent to me yesterday before either of us saw this.