Derek Jeter's announcement last week that 2014 would be his last season led to a predictable media frenzy. Jeter is not only one of the best players of his generation, but also one of the most divisive. Within 48 hours of the announcement, articles could be found that were laughably hyperbolic describing Jeter as the greatest player ever while others derided Jeter because of his weak defense or his carefully polished media image.
Jeter is one of the most intriguing of baseball players because for most of his career he has simultaneously been overrated, he is clearly not the greatest player or even the greatest Yankee in history, and underrated. He is not strong on defense, but has not been as bad as many think. Moreover, Jeter's extremely cautious style with the media has led most of the media to cover him as some sort of baseball saint, always ready with a good team oriented quote, respectful of the game and its history and almost never willing to criticize a teammate, or opponent. A minority of fans, however, see this is as a highly choreographed image by Jeter, which of course it is, and decry him for not being genuine.
Related to this is the widespread belief that Jeter's true value lies in things like leadership, intangibles and being a winner, not in his numbers. While Jeter certainly has some impressive traits that make him a good teammate, his numbers are the reason he will be a first ballot Hall of Famer. For all of the celebrity that surrounds Jeter, his true value as a ballplayer has been his rather workmanlike ability to get on base at an impressive clip while fielding a demanding defensive position well enough to stick at that position for almost 20 years. He has buttressed those skills with decent power and a good base-stealing ability. An important skill for a shortstop is the ability to play that position for a long time. Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were all better during their peak at shortstop, but none of them were able to stick at the position as long as Jeter, despite his poor defense. Rodriguez is obviously a more complicated player in this regard because he moved off the position largely because Jeter would not, but it is likely that Rodriguez would not have been able to stay at that position much longer given his changing body type.
Jeter was the Yankees shortstop for so long that it is easy to forget the arc of his career. For much of Jeter's career he was part of an underachieving Yankee team laden with superstars. For most of the last 13 years, he was surrounded by highly paid superstars like Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira, Gary Sheffield and Robinson Cano, as well as aging star pitchers like Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and, of course, Mariano Rivera. On most of those teams that got knocked out of the playoffs between 2002-2012, Jeter was not the best player. Interestingly when when the Yankees managed to win the World Series in 2009, Jeter, not Alex Rodriguez or any of the trio of free agents, CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Teixeira, led the team with 6.6 WAR.
However, those 1996-2000 Yankee teams were different. The 1996 World Series champion team in particular, had few superstars, other than perhaps an aging Tim Raines or Wade Boggs and a good young setup man. For the most part, all four of those championship teams relied on a balanced lineup, strong pitching and an combination of young stars from the then strong Yankee farm system like Jeter, Bernie Williams, Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, as well as good players who were not quite superstars like Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, Jimmy Key and David Wells.
Jeter was not a supporting player on those teams. He was their best player. He led the team in WAR in 1998 and 1999, and accumulated considerably more WAR than anybody else on the team from 1998-2000. Jeter was never as valuable as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or other Yankeess of that ilk were while in their prime, but he was the best player on a team that won three consecutive World Series, and again on another World Series winner almost a decade later. That is an accomplishment that obviously rests somewhat on the work of strong teammates, but is nonetheless impressive.
Jeter's place in Yankee, and indeed baseball history, is significant, but still not clear. Much of that will take shape after Jeter retires. If, in a worst case scenario, he is linked to an on- or off-the-field scandal, he will be marginalized and his place will recede. If, however, he is able to be the face of the Yankees for the next 20 to 40 years, find a good philanthropic use for some of his money and maintain strong media relations, he will continue to create a special niche for himself. Either way, he is exhibiting wisdom in announcing his retirement now as he is no longer the player he once was.