While pondering our recent discussion on Derek Jeter’s future yesterday, I posed a question to the legions of River Ave. Blues’ Twitter followers. Who’s easier to replace, I asked, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera?
This question was not, by any means, posed idly. It had its origins in a questionable statement by The Post’s Joel Sherman — a shocking concept, I know. In discussing the four members of the Yanks’ old guard, Sherman wondered how to replace them. “The falloff,” he wrote, “from Jeter to Ramiro Pena, Rivera to either Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes, Pettitte to Chad Gaudin or Alfredo Aceves, and Posada to Francisco Cervelli remains pretty steep.” There’s no denying that the falloff from either Posada to Cervell or from Jeter to Pena is incredibly steep, but for the other two players, Sherman’s statement rang dubious.
Meanwhile, Brian Cashman seemed to echo Sherman to a point. In explaining why the Yankees won’t negotiate with their free agents before they hit free agency, Cashman had this to say to the Daily News: What’s the difference between him and Mariano? Is Derek any more important than Mariano? Is that a message we want to send? We have legacy-type people and we have a policy in place. Everyone understands it and it’s not an issue.” I understand overall point, but the difference between Derek and Mariano is not a small one. And thus a Twitter poll was born.
The responses I received were widely divergent. Apparently, Yankee fans love, adore and admire Mariano Rivera across the board, and many of them said that Rivera would be tougher to replace than Jeter. When the Twitter reply dust settled, the final tally stood with 20 people saying Rivera is easier to replace and 16 saying that Jeter is easier to replace. Three people said that Rivera was easier to replace during the regular season but that Jeter was easier to replace than Rivera is during the playoffs because Rivera’s postseason value is through the roof.
So we’ll start this analysis by examining Rivera’s and Jeter’s contributions since 1996. Derek has played in 2138 games for the Yanks, third most in franchise history, while Rivera has appeared in 917, tops among Yankee pitchers all-time. Innings-wise, Jeter has the edge. Not counting the 14 times, he’s DH’d, Derek has spent 18440.1 innings the field for the Yanks while Rivera has 1090 innings pitched under his belt. Astute readers will know where this is going.
With the help of WAR, we can better see how Rivera and Jeter impact the Yankees. Since 2002 — the earliest date Fangraphs presents for WAR — Rivera has put together a 19.4 WAR while Jeter has contributed a 40.3 mark. Jeter’s lowest WAR mark is a 3.7; Rivera’s highest a 3.1. Mo might be the greatest, but he’s still just a reliever.
In terms of replacing one or the other, there’s little doubt in my mind that Jeter is harder to replace. Last year, in fact, Jeter’s WAR led all short stops, and the drop-off is steep. Ryan Theriot and Miguel Tejada, 11th and 12th on the list, put up marks of 2.8 and 2.6 respectively. Rivera’s relief translated into a 2.0 WAR, sixth best among relievers, but the drop-off is less steep. Alfredo Aceves, for instance, put together a 1.2 WAR. The Yankees, meanwhile, have someone who was more valuable as a reliever than Rivera during the regular season last year. Phil Hughes’ relief WAR was 2.1. All of a sudden that drop-off isn’t so steep.
In the end, this analysis is clouded by the post-season. Mariano Rivera stands head and shoulders above every other postseason reliever, but then again, in 637 October plate appearances, Jeter has hit .313/.383/.479. It’s tough to find that from anyone, let alone a starting short stop.
As both players near free agency for possibly the last time in their respective careers, the Yankees are going to have to mull replacing them at some point. While the two are a long way from retiring, it’s still a scary and depressing thought for fans used to seeing Rivera and Jeter there everyday. Make no mistake about it though: When push comes to shove, it will be much harder to replace Derek Jeter than it will be Mariano Rivera. And that’s coming from someone who worships at the Temple of Mo.