I’m going to come out and say it right here, even though you probably already know this: Derek Jeter is a terrible defensive shortstop. I don’t care how many Gold Gloves he wins. I don’t care how many times he falls into the stands and cuts his face. I don’t care how many times he ends up between first base and home plate to cut off a terrible throw and backhand it to the catcher. While these plays were stellar, they don’t say anything about his everyday fielding ability. The fact is, his range has gone from mediocre to bad to worse. Since 2002 (when UZR was first recorded), he has had two seasons in the positive: 6.4 in 2009, and 0.9 in 2002. Every other year was in the negatives, the worst being a whopping -17.9 in 2007. That means that in that year, merely having Jeter at shortstop gave up nearly 18 runs to opposing teams.
But that’s all right. You know why? Because he can hit, and that’s not a very common trait among shortstops. Through 2000-2009, Jeter put up the best batting average of all shortstops with 500 plate appearances (.317), ranked second in WAR (47.5), and ranked third in wOBA and OPS behind Alex Rodriguez and Hanley Ramirez. Impressively enough, he managed to do all of this while posting a hideous -37.8 UZR. That’s even worse than Yuniesky Betancourt’s -32.4. Once you’re worse than Betancourt, you’re pretty bad. Maybe it’s even worth trading in that bat for someone who can actually move.
So, let’s swap out our relatively hard-hitting shortstop for one who deserves those Gold Gloves and see if there’s any team improvement. In the same time span, Omar Vizquel was the leading shortstop according UZR, posting an impressive 49.0 on the nose. He committed only 58 errors, a little over a third of Jeter’s total, 158. If Vizquel was the Yankees shortstop through the 00’s, he single-handedly would have stopped opponents from scoring 67 runs. Sounds pretty nice, don’t you think? In 2008, the Bombers lost 18 games by one run. Vizquel could have helped turn those games to wins, catapulted the team into the playoffs, and helped them win the World Series. Even better, the Yankees would still have 31 runs to put towards games in other years. It’s too bad you can’t just pick up runs and stick them wherever you need them.
It sounds nice so far, but now we have to take out Jeter’s offense – can’t have your cake and eat it too. Vizquel batted .270/.339/.370 and managed a wOBA of only .312, way under Jeter’s .374. Jeter also hit three home runs for every one of Vizquel’s, 161 to 44. Even if every one of those dingers was a solo shot, Jeter would still create more than enough runs to make up for the 67 he’s giving up out in the field. In the end, Vizquel racked up only 18.8 WAR, 28.7 less than Jeter. Even with his awesome glove, there’s just no way for Vizquel to make up for the hitting prowess he lacks. Despite Vizquel’s higher defensive capabilities, Jeter’s offense leads to far more wins. Even in Jeter’s rough 2010 season, he still managed to out-wOBA and out-WAR Vizquel while putting up a significantly worse UZR, though Vizquel spent most of his time at third base.
The captain isn’t the only player who’s shown that an above-average offense can make up for a subpar defense: Jorge Posada threw out only 28% of base runners in 100 games in 2009, but he also hit 22 home runs and managed to post a 125 OPS+ and 3.7 WAR. Not bad for a 37-year-old catcher, really. Gerald Laird, on the other hand, threw out an impressive 42% of base runners in 138 games, but only managed to post a 1.5 WAR due to his amazing noodle bat: .225/.306/.320, with a meager four homers and 65 OPS+.
The Yankees have never been interested in stocking up on great defenders (the team posted an abysmal -137 UZR in 2005), and they’ve proved before that it’s a perfectly fine strategy to use. It’s predicted that Montero will follow in Posada’s footsteps as all-hit-no-catch backstop, and quite frankly, I’m perfectly fine with that. Players like Montero, Jeter and Posada show that the Yankees prefer to outfit the lineup with capable bats up and down, even from fielders you don’t expect to see offense from. It’s definitely worth the few extra bags that may be taken, because the result is the best run differential in baseball for two years in a row, and if all those extra runs means a dribbler gets by Jeter every so often, I’ll live with it just fine.