Derek Jeter is a bargain at his current salary of $22.6 million a year. You could pay him A-Rod money — $30+ million a year, and he’d STILL be the biggest bargain in baseball.
I don’t have to look at FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference to know that what I’m saying is true.
(OK. I DID look at FanGraphs. FanGraphs says that Jeter’s Wins Above Replacement(WAR) number is currently third best for American League shortstops, half a win behind leader Alexei Ramirez, and tied with Marco Scutaro. This half-a-win difference does not seem to me to be worthy of hand-wringing. For what it’s worth, Jeter’s co-All Star Elvis Andrus has a WAR rating 0.4 behind Jeter’s. Why in heaven’s name are we so worried about Derek Jeter’s 2010 performance?)
Remember, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY. It’s all about the paying customers and eyes tuned to the YES network, the engines that generate the cash flow. This isn’t rocket science, people. The cash isn’t going to flow unless there’s a product on the field that drives fans to reach DEEP into their wallets.
People don’t pay big bucks to watch $5 million shortstops. They DO pay big bucks to see Derek Jeter.
Throw your sabermetric calculations out the window. Derek Jeter is the best known baseball player on the planet. He gets selected to all-star games. He gets to appear in Gillette ads with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. He gets to date the most beautiful women in the world.
SportsBusiness Daily conducted a recent poll of baseball “movers and shakers” to determine who is baseball’s signature star. You’ve probably heard of the guy in the poll that came in second place – his name is Albert Pujols, and he’s arguably the best player in the game. Albert got three votes as baseball’s signature star. Derek Jeter received 39 votes, 80% of the total. Only Joe Stalin won elections with this kind of margin. By the way, who do you think topped the previous two polls of baseball’s most marketable stars, in 2003 and 2005? Derek Jeter, and Derek Jeter.
Who has the top selling jersey in baseball? Derek Jeter. Whose bobblehead doll is most popular? Derek Jeter’s. Who is the most popular baseball player? Derek Jeter. He is the third most popular athlete in the country, behind Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant.
This isn’t about power to the opposite field. This is about star power. This isn’t about turning the double play. This is about turning turnstiles. This isn’t about Hal Steinbrenner and the front office. This is about the box office.
My wife could trip over David Ortiz and land on Tim Lincecum, and she wouldn’t recognize either of them. But my wife knows Michael Phelps when she sees him. She knows Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, and both Williams sisters. She probably could recognize Tom Brady and Apollo Ohno. She thinks that Lance Armstrong is “sexy”. The only baseball players she knows by sight are Manny Ramirez (we live in LA) and Derek Jeter.
You don’t think that star power matters? Consider our neighbors to the north, the Boston Red Sox. Rob Neyer posted earlier this week that the ratings for the Red Sox regional broadcast network are down 36% so far this year – as Neyer put it, this is “way, way down.” Low ratings mean (eventually) less money for the Red Sox to spend on payroll. The Red Sox regional network had the highest ratings in baseball for years, and now they’ve dropped to fifth place. What happened?
Neyer blames some of the drop on the Celtics’ and Bruins’ playoff runs, and most of the drop on the fact that the Red Sox are in third place. There’s some truth to what Neyer says. But I have to point out that the Phillies’ ratings are UP in spite of the fact that they’ve been struggling all year, and that the Red Sox were just a half-game out of first place at the beginning of this month. Something more must be going on here.
I look at the Red Sox’s relative lack of star power. You know a team has star power when you can refer to their players by first name or nickname. Like CC and A-Rod and Teix and the “Core Four”. Even today, years after the Red Sox’s 2004 and 2007 championships, I can still refer to Manny and Pedro and Nomar, and (if you’re a baseball fan) you know exactly who I’m talking about. Please don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for the current version of the Red Sox, but if I mentioned Kevin, Dustin and Josh, how long would it take before you knew who I meant?
If you don’t like my “first name” theory, consider this: not one Red Sox player was voted by the fans to this year’s All-Star game.
The Red Sox provide us with a perfect model for how NOT to value Derek Jeter. The Red Sox are terrific at evaluating players and finding hidden value. The Red Sox don’t overpay to keep aging talent – it seems like no one ever retires in a Red Sox uniform. So Manny is replaced by Jason Bay, who in turn is replaced by Mike Cameron. Each replacement improves the team, and each replacement arguably makes the team less interesting.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider instead the words of the most famous Red Sox fan in the Red Sox nation, ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Bill spoke about the Red Sox to Johan Keri in a pre-season webcast last March. While Simmons thought that the Sox would win at least 95 games in 2010, he also said that “last year’s Red Sox season was the most boring I can remember that they’ve had probably all decade. There was not one person where I was excited when the guy was up … You always used to have the Manny test of ‘oh I can’t go get a hot dog right now, Manny’s coming up the next inning.’ There wasn’t one guy on the team where you felt that way. ‘I’ll get a hot dog right now.’ What do you care? Who are you going to miss?” (29 minute point of podcast.)
It’s not difficult to draw a connection between what Simmons said in March and this July’s plummeting Red Sox TV ratings. It matters a great deal when a team’s biggest fan calls the team “boring”, just as it matters when a movie critic calls a movie “boring”.
This may offend the purists, but you cannot value a baseball player solely on the basis of how the player performs on the field. Some players are worth more. Manny Ramirez. Joe Mauer. Ryan Howard. Stephen Strasburg. The guys you go out of your way to watch. The guys they build national TV broadcasts around. The guys who are the signature players on their teams. “Ichiro and the Seattle Mariners.” “Joe Mauer and the Minnesota Twins.” Not every team has one of these guys.
Baseball is entertainment, and entertainment is star-driven, and stars are worth more than the rest of us, because people pay to see stars, and IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY. The biggest star in baseball’s night sky is Derek Jeter. We’ve already shown, no one else comes close. Jeter’s being the biggest star does not make Jeter the world’s best baseball player (though he’s still pretty damn good), any more than Tom Cruise is the world’s best actor, or Lady Gaga has the world’s best singing voice. You don’t get to pay Angelina Jolie less money just because you think that she was better looking 10 years ago. That’s not the way things work.
When the time comes, Derek will sit down with Brian and Hal, and the Yankees will pay Derek a boatload of money, and Derek will play for another 4 years and make the Yankees a bigger boatload of money, and everyone should be happy. Us included.
Yes, at some point when Jeter is not performing up to a level where he’s tied for third for AL shortstop WAR, we’ll have to consider moving him to another position or reducing his role. If you want to worry about this, go ahead, but worry first about having a replacement available to play shortstop in Jeter’s place. (Or worry that Jeter asks TODAY to be moved to DH, so that he can prolong his career and chase Pete Rose’s career hits record. What in the world would we do if Jeter didn’t want to play shortstop anymore? Who would we get to replace him?)
In the meantime, don’t worry about how much Jeter is going to be paid. His fame and popularity make him one of a kind, and anything that’s one of a kind is impossible to value. He is the Brad Pitt of baseball. Imagine that – a Brad Pitt who is tied for third in American League shortstop WAR. What do you think that’s worth?
It’s worth a lot more than $5 million a year, that’s what it’s worth.