Friday, April 24, 2009

Ripken vs. Jeter: Not Even Close

While I was up in the Baltimore area during opening week, I listened to a fair amount of local sports radio to catch up on the Orioles. Most of it was fine but I did hear somebody repeat a myth and in the process degrade the reputation of one of the all-time Oriole greats.

I was listening to Anita Marks and Scott Garceau on WHFS and someone called in to ask how much longer the Yankees could afford to let Derek Jeter play shortstop given his diminishing ability to play the position. Garceau scoffed and said he was sick of hearing how Jeter can no longer play shortstop. Jeter may not have the raw athletic range he once had, opined Garceau, but he put himself in good positions to make the plays and thus gets to as many balls as he ever did. And then he said it...Just like Cal Ripken, Jr. did later in his career.

I have had this argument before on two fronts. The first to show that Cal Ripken did maintain excellent range until he moved to third base in 1997 and to show that Gold Glover Derek Jeter is, by and large, a fraud in the field. And I usually have this argument with baseball fans who are not necessarily statheads. So how do I make the point?

Total Chances. Most baseball fans understand in general terms how Fielding Percentage is calculated (Assists + Putouts)/ Total Chances (Assists + Putouts + Errors). People understand that your Total Chances demonstrate how many times you got to the ball. The numbers don't care how you did it, just that you did it. Here's the graph of total chances by season as full-time shortstops for Ripken and Jeter.

First, each player has a season where they plunge below 500 Total Chances. For Ripken it was 1994, the strike-shortened season. For Jeter, it was 2003 when he was injured and only played 118 games. The rest of the points all represent full seasons.

Jeter only had three seasons where he got to more than 700 balls. Ripken only had two full seasons in which he did not get to 700 balls. When Ripken got to the point that he could barely keep it above 700, he quit kidding himself and switched to third. Jeter has no such self-awareness. I mean, look at the graph. It's a slam dunk.

As Ripken's range and quickness declined, he adapted in two ways. The first, he positioned himself well for each batter and even each pitch. Secondly, and most important, he was blessed with a cannon for a right arm. This allowed him to play deeper, even out on the grass, and still make the plays he needed to.

With Jeter, he was never an elite defender to begin with. He enjoyed three, maybe four decent seasons in the field. He doesn't make a lot of errors once he gets there but, by and large, he doesn't get there. And that's the most important job of a fielder...get to the ball.

And while no fielding metric is perfect, I could grab a ton more data to show the same thing.

So let's put this myth to rest. Jeter is not Ripken. Certainly not in the field and perhaps not even at the plate.

2 comments: said...

Exceptional insight here.
I am wondering how Jeter's hitting
stats match up to Ripken's.
I'm guessing but I think Jeter probably has seen better numbers at the plate. Perhaps givng him longer latitude with his defense.

Doesn't matter, either way Ripken is the man!
I thought for sure you were going to say that Anita Marks said...Scott Garceau?

Heath said...

Yeah, that's a bit of hyperbole on Jeter's hitting. Ripken had more power but Jeter is a career .300 hitter. Both will probably finish with 3,000 hits and Jeter's OPS+ is better...but Jeter hasn't hit the real decline period of his career yet. Come of those averages are bound to come down a bit. But Ripken's defense certainly sets him apart.