Derek Jeter’s pesky defense

02.derek-jeterRecently Grantland published a large article about Derek Jeter‘s defense. Let me summarize the article for you: He’s bad at defense. This has been the sabremetric criticism of the Captain for his entire career. No one can deny that a guy who’s picked up more than 3,000 hits gets it done with the bat. Instead, the argument has always been that despite the Gold Gloves and highlight reel plays, Jeter is actually an awful defender due to a lack of range at his position.

Naturally, I’m a huge Derek Jeter fan as any good follower of the Yankees should be. It pains me to write that I agree with the criticism. While I’m not a huge fan of defensive statistics, I recognize their general value. Beyond that, Jeter looks like he has poor range at short. He fails the eye test when you compare his exploits to those of the other team’s shortstop. Sadly, all these articles criticizing Derek’s defense are true.

Here’s the thing that never gets mentioned: It doesn’t matter. Conventional baseball wisdom tells us that shortstop is a premium defensive position, one that requires a rangy, athletic defender even if that player under performs with the bat. Jeter demonstrates just how untrue this is. According to Fangraphs Jeter’s career fWAR is 73.9, while defensively he’s cost the Yankees 137.7 runs during that same stretch. That’s a lot of runs to give up with the glove, but it didn’t matter. Jeter’s bat was so much more valuable than his poor defense that he still gave the Yankees almost 74 wins during this career.

Digging into the numbers deeper reinforces this point. The 2005 and 2006 seasons are prime examples. Derek put up fWAR totals of 4.6 and 6.1 in those seasons, respectively – excellent numbers. He did that while giving up -15 and -7.3 runs on defense, according to Fangraphs. So, despite that porous defense Jeter was still a lock to be a 5 win player. Those wins are more important than the runs he gave up with the glove. Put simply, Jeter is number five in fWAR from 1996 to the present. Fangraphs hates his defense during that time, but it doesn’t matter because only four players in baseball were better overall than he has been during his career.

Here’s the kicker though: Jeter’s bad defense hasn’t prevented the Yankees from winning five championships with him at short. The championship argument is a poor one to make in a vacuum, but it is an excellent statistic over the course of a career. Jeter’s defense doesn’t matter because overall his contribution to the Yankees has made him one of the anchors of a multi-season baseball dynasty.

It may be fun for analysts to point out that Derek isn’t as great an all-around player as many believe. But what they fail to mention is that his bad defense doesn’t matter. The Yankees won all those titles with Derek at short. Clearly, therefore, a team can win championships with a poor defending shortstop if he’s also a legend with the bat. The bad defense has cost the Yankees nothing.