Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
A few notes on Derek Jeter's defense

By David Schoenfield

This come up in our Spreecast from today on Derek Jeter's retirement, somebody insisting we point out that Jeter cost his team more runs on defense than any player in history. I just wanted to follow up on that a bit more.

That statement is arguably -- or maybe inarguably, depending on your belief in defensive metrics -- a true statement. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the players who cost their teams the most runs on defense over their careers compared to an average defender at their position:

1. Derek Jeter: -236 runs
2. Gary Sheffield: -196 runs
3. Adam Dunn: -165 runs
4. Michael Young: -154 runs
5. Bernie Williams: -139 runs
6. Manny Ramirez: -129 runs
7. Bobby Bonilla: -121 runs
8. Danny Tartabull: -120 runs
9. Ricky Gutierrez: -117 runs
10. Chris Gomez: -114 runs

My first thought: Hmm, all those guys are fairly recent players. Tartabull began his major league career in 1984 and he's the oldest player in the bunch. Most were still active within the past decade. So that raises the question if the methods of defensive evaluation are biased against current players, when defense has been precisely measured. Probably to some extent. The first pre-1980s player on the list is 1970s outfielder Rick Monday at No. 12 and no pre-World War II player shows up until Jim Delahanty at No. 34. Surely they were some bad defensive players in the 1920s and '30s who had long careers.

Anyway, that's another debate. Back to the bottom 10. It's an interesting mix of players. Three of the players won Gold Gloves -- Jeter won five (all in his 30s, which is as ridiculous as it sounds), Williams won four and Young won one (the Rangers were so impressed they moved him from shortstop to third base the following season). Jeter and Young are similar: They looked good out there, were smooth and reliable, Jeter maybe a little more flashy because of his jump throws, but the metrics just don't believe either had good range.

Williams is maybe the surprise; while he had a notoriously weak arm he glided easily to balls and certainly looked like a plus center fielder. Baseball-Reference rates him as above average his first few years but he started slipping pretty quickly: -14 runs in 1996, -7 in 1997, -14 in 1998, -16 in 1999, -22 in 2002, -17 in 2003 (when the system switches from Total Zone to Defensive Runs Saved), down to -26 in 2005, his last year as a regular center fielder. Of his -139 career runs below average, 37 of those are attributed to his poor arm. I'm not sure why Williams rates poorly, although his career range factor per game is 2.59 compared to a league average of 2.73. So in terms of plays made he does rate a little below average before you factor in how many fly balls the Yankee staff gave up and so on.

Nobody is going to argue about Dunn, Ramirez and Bonilla being on the list. Bonilla was a big slow guy who played third base and the outfield. His range at third was actually OK but he had some high error totals -- 32 in 1988, 35 the next year.

Sheffield and Tartabull were both minor league shortstops, believe it or not. Sheffield arrived in the majors as a shortstop, moved to third base and then moved to the outfield of fielding .899 one year. He had the tools to be a better outfielder than he was (he had a pretty good arm) but was largely indifferent to defense. Tartabull played some second base as a rookie with the Mariners before soon moving to right field. He actually had a few Sheffield-like seasons at the plate (he led the American League in slugging percentage with the Royals in 1991) but never covered much ground in the field and his range factors were horrible (1.86 career in right field versus 2.19 league average).

Gutierrez and Gomez were both primarily shortstops who the metrics didn't like. Total Zone rates Gomez as -33 runs with the Padres in 1997 even though his range factor was league average. The Padres did allow the second-most runs in the league that year (in a pitcher's park) but the system seems to rate their defense has unusually horrible: Gomez at -33, Quilvio Veras at -19, Steve Finley at -18, Tony Gwynn at -15 (he was getting big by then), Ken Caminiti and Archi Cianfrocco both at -11, -130 runs all told. Maybe it was horrible that year, although with the same cast of characters the next year the Padres made the World Series.

OK, back to Jeter. Saying he cost his team more runs on defense than any other player isn't the same thing as saying he's the worst defensive player of all time. Obviously he's a better defender than Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez or Dave Kingman or Greg Luzinski. He was good enough to remain at shortstop for nearly two decades. Baseball-Reference rates Jeter's worst years as -27 in 2005, -24 in in 2007 and -23 in 2000. He rates as plus defender twice: +2 in 1998 and +4 in 2009. As Ben Lindbergh wrote last year on Grantland, after Brian Cashman told Jeter after the 2007 season that he needed to work on his positioning and lateral quickness, he did makes some changed and improve on defense for a couple years. Then he got old.

Maybe Jeter didn't deserve those five Gold Gloves. But the Yankees still won five rings with him at shortstop. In the end, I'd say everything worked out OK.