Derek Jeter and the Case of the Vindictive Statheads

The topic of Derek Jeter is so loaded with biases that it’s become impossible to discuss rationally. It’s like the abortion of sports debates.

And I’ll admit right at the top that I’m probably just as incapable as anyone else of being objective about Jeter — I’m a Yankees fan, and he’s one of my all-time favorite players. He’s about my age, so there’s a sense that we grew up together. Now we grow old together.

Jeter connotes so many different things to different people that merely bringing up the subject at a party, bar or ballpark is likely to elicit some kind of screaming. People hate him because he’s a symbol for the Yankees. People hate him because he’s a symbol for New York. People hate him because they’re jealous of his looks, money and women. People hate him for his aloof manner with the media and the public. People love him because they’re Yankees fans. People love him because of his looks, money and women. People love him because he “plays the game the right way.”

Now that Jeter is in serious decline as a baseball player, it’s bringing out the worst in everybody.

Those who loathe Jeter delight in his failings, as is their right. Those who love him defend him irrationally, ignoring the evidence unfolding before them on the YES Network every night.

But statheads, or the sabermetrically inclined, are taking particular glee in watching Jeter’s career peter out.

The Yankee captain has long been a source of contention between statheads and casual fans, but the argument has always centered around his defense. Statheads pointed to defensive metrics like range factor and John Dewan’s plus/minus system, which universally showed Jeter to be well below average as a shortstop. Casual fans ooh’d and aah’d at his flip play in the 2001 ALDS and his crashing into the stands to catch a pop-up in a big game against the Red Sox.

I’ve always been non-committal on Jeter’s defense, falling somewhere in the middle. At least until the last couple seasons, I’ve always thought he was a little better than defensive metrics showed, and a lot worse than most fans, media members and Gold Glove voters believed.

Now, though, precipitated by a terrible 2010, highly public contract negotiations, and a terrible start to 2011, attentions have turned to Jeter’s hitting. Starting around the middle of last season, when it became clear that Jeter was going through something more than merely a prolonged slump, statistically inclined analysts began to predict that the end was nigh for Captain Intangibles. They pointed to the lack of productive offensive seasons for shortstops older than 36 throughout baseball history (with the exception of Honus Wagner and Luke Appling), and noted Jeter’s severe paucity of power.

I held out hope. I thought a player with Jeter’s talent, conditioning and dedication could experience at least a partial turnaround. While I never thought Jeter could produce again like he did in his near-MVP days of 2008 and prior, I thought 2010 might be an aberration and that he’d be able to put together a couple more seasons along the lines of .300/.370/.410 — not world-beating, but well above average for a middle infielder.

I was wrong. Jeter’s done. We now have more than 1,000 plate appearances over 15 months that prove it to be so. For the record, I now believe the following to be true:

  • Jeter’s power is gone forever.
  • Jeter should not under any circumstance bat leadoff. He should probably bat 9th.
  • Jeter is vastly overpaid, even considering his off-field value to the Yankees.
  • There will be no rejuvenation. No Renaissance.

What infuriates me, much more so than watching a great player age or watching the Yankees’ record suffer for it, is the delight that statheads are taking in Jeter’s death rattle. They’re thrilled, delighted, gleeful that the player they’ve long argued about with the non-enlightened is failing. This makes sense with Yankee-hating stat guys like Rob Neyer, but even statheads who double as Yankees fans, like Steven Goldman, Joe Sheehan and the guys at No Maas take undue joy in Jeter’s struggles. My Twitter feed is a constant stream of gloating and sarcastic digs every time Jeter puts in another 1-5 with a single and a double play.

The analysts are so excited that they were right about Jeter’s decline last year and in the off-season that they can’t control their unbridled euphoria. But they’re happy and boastful about something that’s intrinsically sad. It’s like watching atheists die, then learn there’s no heaven or afterlife, and start crowing and celebrating their good sense right before they disappear into oblivion.

Statheads are pissed off because, in their view, Jeter has long been overrated by fans and the media (that’s an argument for another day). They’re pissed off because everyone’s paying so much attention to the quest for 3,000 hits, an individual milestone which is anathema to their win-at-all-costs worldview. The Yankees-based statheads are pissed off because Jeter batting leadoff and making $16 million are detrimental to the team’s long- and short-term success.

But the anger is misdirected. They should be angry at the Yankees’ management for not taking steps to move Jeter in the lineup. They should be angry at the idiots who dole out Gold Gloves based on offensive prowess and Q rating. Jeter himself has done nothing to merit their ire. He’s just played as well as he can, which these days is not very well.

I identify as a stathead, but this is where I break from my peers and my favorite analysts and writers. I take no joy in watching Jeter’s skills fade. And I wouldn’t take joy in watching, say, Todd Helton or Miguel Cabrera similarly struggle. Watching great players lose it is one of the saddest experiences in sports. It reminds us of our mortality, and it robs us off our youth.

Like the real Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter will soon be gone. And the longer he plays like this, and the longer his opponents and defenders react to his play with such misplaced passion, the harder it will be to remember only what we want to remember.


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