Jeter's all-around game just better
The memories that Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr. elicit are a testament to their enduring greatness. Hear Ripken's name and you think of Baltimore's favorite son sprinting to his position before each inning, or testing out yet another batting stance, or circling the Camden Yards outfield to bond with fans the night of consecutive game No. 2,131.
The Jeter images are just as vivid, if not more so. He's hitting the climactic homer in the Jeffrey Maier game (Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series), making that improbable flip to nab Jeremy Giambi at the plate (Game 3 of the 2001 AL Division Series) or diving into the stands to catch a Trot Nixon pop fly and emerging with a bloody face (July 1, 2004). The cherry on top came July 9, 2011, when Jeter ended the suspense and went deep against David Price at Yankee Stadium for his 3,000th career hit. The timing was impeccable.
In the end, I'm taking Jeter because of his all-around game. Dozens of scouts who have watched him for two decades consider him the standard against which baserunners are measured. The ability to go from first to third on a single or score from first on a double has been a constant and vital element to his game. Jeter also brings a speed element that Ripken lacked. He has 13 seasons with 100 or more runs scored to Ripken's three; he leads Cal in stolen bases 348-36.
But Ripken beats Jeter for power, right? Well it's not quite that simple. Jeter has a career slash line of .313/.382/.448 to Ripken's .276/.340/.447, so he was clearly the better, more consistent all-around hitter. Ripken has outhomered the Captain 431 to 255, but Jeter leads by a fraction in slugging percentage. He also tops Cal in both OPS (.829 to .788) and OPS-plus (117 to 112).
Yes, Ripken has two career Most Valuable Player awards to none for Jeter. But Jeter has eight career top-10 MVP finishes to Ripken's three. And although Gold Gloves aren't the most accurate barometer of defensive prowess, Jeter has collected five to Ripken's two.
Finally, I'm taking Jeter because of his October portfolio, which includes 200 career postseason hits, an .838 OPS and five championship rings. He has performed on the biggest stage in New York, amid unrelenting scrutiny, with nary a misstep on or off the field. And despite suffering that horrific ankle injury in the ALCS in October, the Captain isn't through yet. Not by a long shot.
Ripken blazed a trail as a shortstop
Who do you see in your mind's eye when you try to envision the perfect shortstop? A fielder? A bopper who gives you a lineup advantage over the clubs playing the plinky scrappers? How about the player who could do it all, and by that I mean the big things that really count -- put runs on the board for his team, and take them away from the other guys on defense?
Try conjuring that guy and you might see Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter or Barry Larkin. I wouldn't blame you -- at this level of greatness, you really can't go wrong. But me? I see Cal Ripken, and if that makes me an aging "get off my lawn" crank, so be it.
If you rely only on the data, the numbers themselves for Ripken are compelling: most home runs for a shortstop with 345, a career OPS+ of 112. His first MVP season in 1983 powered a World Series win for the Orioles; his second in 1991 might be the best season from a shortstop ever. And he deserved a third in 1984 after a season almost identical to '83. And there's the streak, all 2,632 games of it, powered by the bat and glove that were always good enough to keep him on the field. Those things he had control over generated even more awards: 17 straight All-Star Game starts, Silver Slugger awards and the highest percentage of votes for the Hall of Fame ever earned by a position player.
Ripken did not single-handedly redefine what was possible from a big-league shortstop at the plate, but he shredded the expectations of what a good shortstop could look like: Shortstops could be big. Ripken is still the tallest man to play shortstop regularly, but he blazed a trail for subsequent big men at short like Jeter and Troy Tulowitzki. Their kind of offense at short is a huge competitive advantage over the people asking what Cliff Pennington is up to.
Add all that up, and for a brief while Ripken was the lone shortstop who, since integration, was arguably the best player in all of baseball. When Nate Silver looked at the issue in 2007, Ripken's career-starting stretch catapulted him past Mike Schmidt for the title. Nobody at short has done it since. Look back at who did it before Jackie Robinson and you add Arky Vaughn and Honus Wagner, but with the dubious quality of play and baseball's competitive imbalance during the reserve clause, I'm comfortable with suggesting that Ripken is the one shortstop who belongs in a "best ballplayer ever?" conversation.
If all that doesn't make him better than Jeter, what should?