Jesse Spector on a big milestone that did not pass without some fanfare:
- Derek Jeter became the all-time leader for hits by a shortstop on Sunday in Seattle, passing Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio. But does that mean he's the best hitting shortstop of all time?
It most certainly does not even though it's a title that Jeter may deserve anyway.
Aparicio, who had 2,673 of his 2,677 career hits as a shortstop, is in Cooperstown every bit as much for his glove as for his bat just as Omar Vizquel, who is third on the shortstop hit list, may be one day. Hits are great, but they're only part of the equation when measuring a player's offensive greatness. Before Sunday, it's not as if anyone was calling Aparicio the best shortstop ever to swing a bat, and rightfully so, given his .262 career average and 83 home runs in 10,230 at-bats.
Jeter's career average of .316, on the other hand, does put him alongside the games true greats, from Honus Wagner (.327) to Lou Boudreau (.295) to a certain someone who plays on the same infield as Jeter, one Alex Rodriguez (.304).
When it comes to slugging percentage, only three players with at least 8,000 career plate appearances (Jeter has 9,620) and half of their games at shortstop have posted higher slugging percentages than the new shortstop hit king - A-Rod, Joe Cronin and Wagner. If Jeter has the hits and the power, and Rodriguez is out of the conversation, then perhaps Jeter is the greatest offensive shortstop the game has ever seen.
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.
There's one player who's sort of criminally missing from this conversation, and you get an A in Baseball History 101 today if you know the missing man's identity (answer below).
Obviously, neither Vizquel nor Aparicio belong anywhere near this conversation. They're highly comparable to one another for sure, both outstanding fielders who were roughly 17 percent below league average, as hitters, during their careers. But neither belong in a conversation about best-hitting anythings, really. Ozzie Smith was a better hitter than both of them, and he doesn't belong in this conversation, either.
Among major leaguers with at least 5,000 plate appearances and at least 80 percent of their games at shortstop, only six have OPS+'s higher than Miguel Tejada's 112 (and yes, OPS+ is a fairly crude measure but it's useful here). Honus Wagner laps the field, at 152. Jeter's not going to catch him (Alex Rodriguez might have, but he's going to finish his career with far more games as a non-shortstop than a shortstop).
Jeter's No. 3, with a 121 OPS+. And he's followed by Lou Boudreau (120), Joe Cronin (119) and Barry Larkin (116).
Boudreau we must discount some, because two of his best seasons came during World War II against subpar competition. We must discount him further because he was an everyday, full-season player for only nine years. Basically, he's out of the competition.
Joe Cronin was an outstanding hitter, and he did his best work before Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, he was finished as an every-day player at 34; Jeter's 35 right now, and enjoying yet another excellent season.
Barry Larkin should be in the Hall of Fame, but five points of OPS+ is significant. As things stand now, Jeter's got him beat out.
Of course, Jeter's numbers are going to drop some, as even he probably is not immortal. But the famously fragile Larkin is already nearly 600 plate appearances behind Jeter, and that gap will only widen in the coming years.
Does OPS+ "work"? In this case, it did. Jeter is, right now, the third-best hitting shortstop of all time, and he's not going to fall to fourth. He's not going to move to first. Can he grab the No. 2 spot?
My No. 2 guy is Arky Vaughan. Our mystery man. Vaughan's 136 career OPS+ sits 16 points below Wagner's and 15 points above Jeter's. He certainly can't match Jeter's playing time -- and didn't reach 8,000 plate appearances, which is why he didn't merit a mention from Spector -- but Vaughan missed three full seasons because of World War II. Give him those three seasons, and he'd be roughly even with Jeter right now.
So it's a spirited battle for second place, and for Jeter to pass Vaughan, he'll have to maintain his quality while piling up quantity for another two or three seasons. Given what we've seen this year, I wouldn't bet against him.