Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus wrote a tremendous article the other day on Derek Jeter's defense, which has long been a point of contention. As Ben writes,
The "best ever" argument is easy. Jeter has the hardware; only four shortstops can top his total of five Gold Gloves. He's one of the few fielders who have a signature move, the instantly recognizable Jeter jump-throw. He even has a pair of pantheon plays: the 2001 ALDS-saving maneuver commonly referred to as "the Flip," and the header he took into the stands after chasing a popup in 2004.
On the other side are the advanced statistics, which disregard Gold Gloves and treat a flashy-looking jump-throw just like any other assist. According to two historical play-by-play-based systems, Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average and Baseball-Reference's Total Zone, Jeter has cost his team more in the field than any other player in history, with both methods assessing the damage at 230 to 260 runs.
Now, Ben fairly points out that the Jeter is "worst" in part because he's been so good at everything else he's remained at shortstop for a long and historic career. The worst shortstops don't stay there.
Anyway, Ben reviewed Jeter's best and worst plays from 2012 and compared them to the best and worst plays from Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan (as determined by Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved metric, which we use here at ESPN and Baseball-References uses for its defensive measurement that is included in players' WAR totals).
Ben's idea copied something Bill James did back for the 2006 edition of the "The Fielding Bible," comparing Jeter to then-Astros shortstop Adam Everett. Here is the link to the original Jeter/Everett article. James, reviewing plays from 2005, wrote:
The two men could not possibly be more different in the style and manner in which they run the office. Jeter, in 40 plays, had maybe three plays in which he threw with his feet set. He threw on the run about 20-25 times; he jumped and threw about 10-15 times, he threw from his knees once. He threw from a stable position only when the ball, by the way it was hit, pinned him back on his heels.
Everett set his feet with almost unbelievable quickness and reliability, and threw off of his back foot on almost every play, good or bad. Jeter played much, much more shallow than Everett, cheated to his left more, and shifted his position from left to right much, much more than Everett did (with the exception of three plays on which Everett was shifted over behind second in a Ted Williams shift. Jeter had none of those.)
Jeter gambled constantly on forceouts, leading to good plays when he beat the runner, bad plays when he didn’t. Everett gambled on a forceout only a couple of times, taking the out at first base unless the forceout was a safe play.
Many or most of the good plays made by Jeter were plays made in the infield grass, slow rollers that could easily have died in the infield, but plays on which Jeter, playing shallow and charging the ball aggressively, was able to get the man at first. These were plays that would have been infield hits with most shortstops, and which almost certainly would have been infield hits with Adam Everett at short.
For Everett, those type of plays were the bad plays, the plays he failed to make. The good plays for Everett were mostly hard hit groundballs in the hole or behind second base, on which Everett, playing deep and firing rockets, was able to make an out. These, conversely, were the bad plays for Jeter—hard-hit or not-too-hard-hit groundballs fairly near the shortstop’s home base which Jeter, playing shallow and often positioning himself near second, was unable to convert. And there was literally not one play in the collection of his 20 best plays in which Jeter planted his feet in the outfield grass and threw. There were only three plays in the 40 in which Jeter made the play from the outfield grass, two of those were forceouts at third base, and all three of them occurred just inches into the outfield grass.
In comparing Jeter in 2012 to Ryan, you can look at the gifs Ben provided and see the difference between a great shortstop and a lesser one with your own eyes. The graphic comparing the range of best plays between the two is also telling. If we did this for a variety of players -- here's why Andrelton Simmons and Nolan Arenado rate so well, for example, and here's why Miguel Cabrera rates so poorly or why Mike Trout doesn't rate as well as last year -- it would certainly help alleviate some of the concerns many have with defensive metrics.
Ben's ultimate point -- as referenced in the article's headline, "The Tragedy of Derek Jeter's Defense," -- is that Jeter actually had become a different shortstop in his later years, after Brian Cashman talked with him in the offseason following 2007. He worked on his positioning and footwork and his metrics improved -- at least until he got too old.
If there's a lesson to be learned from Jeter's defensive history, it's that sometimes there is room for improvement, even from the great players. The good organizations aren't just evaluating how good their players are on defense, but evaluating if they can get better.