MLB Hall of Fame: Derek Jeter is Captain One-Short-of-Unanimous

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14: Former New York Yankees great, Derek Jeter and his wife Hannah pose in front of his plaque during a pregame ceremony honoring Jeter and retiring his number 2 at Yankee Stadium on May 14, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14: Former New York Yankees great, Derek Jeter and his wife Hannah pose in front of his plaque during a pregame ceremony honoring Jeter and retiring his number 2 at Yankee Stadium on May 14, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

Derek Jeter missed being the second unanimous member of the MLB Hall of Fame by a single vote.

The only question around Derek Jeter being elected to the MLB Hall of Fame was whether he’d become the Hall’s second unanimous Baseball Writers Association of America choice, after his Yankee teammate Mariano Rivera last year. Everybody heave a sigh of relief. Sort of.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jeter was elected a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He missed unanimity by a single vote. Larry Walker was also elected in his final year of eligibility. He crossed the threshold by six votes. And, no, it doesn’t matter if you get in by a measly six or miss unanimous election by a single (miscast) vote.

Well, there was another question, early in the voting period, as to whether there’d be a considerable rash of Hall ballots with votes for Jeter and nobody else. I’d written about it elsewhere at the time, citing Newsday writer/voter Anthony Rieber saying Jeter “deserves to stand alone at the podium as the entire Hall of Fame Class of 2020” come 26 July.

I also noted Rieber’s fellow Newsday writer Steve Marcus arguing the Hall of Fame is, you know, getting a little too crowded, a point Marcus drove home with his #keeptheHallsmall hashtag. A headline attached to a 2019 column by Marcus said, “Legends are my baseline for baseball Hall of Fame ballot.” Oh, brother.

Before Jeter’s election only 22 players in the Hall of Fame’s history—less than ten percent of all Hall of Famers, whether elected by the writers or by assorted Veterans Committees—were the only ones the writers elected in the years since the BBWAA got the job:

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Rogers Hornsby (1942)
Charlie Gehringer (1949)
Luke Appling (1964)
Ted Williams (1966)
Red Ruffing (1967)
Joe Medwick (1968)
Lou Boudreau (1970)
Ralph Kiner (1975)
Ernie Banks (1977)
Eddie Mathews (1978)
Willie Mays (1979)
Bob Gibson (1981)
Willie McCovey (1986)
Willie Stargell (1988)
Reggie Jackson (1993)
Steve Carlton (1994)
Mike Schmidt (1995)
Phil Niekro (1997)
Ozzie Smith (2002)
Bruce Sutter (2006)
Goose Gossage (2008)
Barry Larkin (2012)

You wouldn’t really argue against Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, or Ozzie Smith standing alone, would you? Maybe Ernie Banks and Reggie Jackson, too. But guess who among them really did stand alone? As in, at the podium with no one else—whether Veterans Committee choice, executive, pioneer, Negro Leagues inductee, nobody—on the big day? Four—Hornsby, Stargell, Jackson, and Smith.

Rieber and Marcus and who knows how many more writers thought Jeter belongs to the same set and sub-set, too. We can debate that all year long if we wish. For every argument that Jeter was the Yankees of the 1990s and the Aughts, there’s an argument equally plausible that says those Yankees and their successes, the generation that returned the Yankees to greatness, were near-total team efforts, even if Derek Jeter was the face of the franchise for two decades.

Like The Mariano, Jeter shone especially in the postseason. He made it look so simple a child of five could have done it. (Thank you, Groucho Marx, but please don’t send for a child of five.) The easiest thing to think in those years was that Jeter was built as if the New York heat met its match in his quiet charisma and his ability to duck every actual or alleged Yankee controversy. Jeter played in the postseason as if the big moment was just another routine day on the job he loved.

(For the record, he played 158 postseason games. His postseason OPS is 21 points higher than his lifetime regular season OPS. His postseason line would be a career year for a lot of players.)

Jackson once talked about “the magnitude of being me.” (He didn’t necessarily mean it as self-congratulation, either.) Jeter lived the magnitude of being him. It was as natural to him as coffee with your breakfast and worth about as much discussion by him—none. Not that Jeter was perfect. Nobody is. And the worst-kept secrets in Yankee lore include that Jeter could be thin in the skin at times. Not to mention that, like Joe DiMaggio before him, he could carry a grudge in a championship league for a long enough time.

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But his legend is very real, in or out of New York, and he has the performance papers (not to mention five World Series rings) to back it up. His election into the Hall of Fame makes him the tenth Cooperstown shortstop to have played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball era. The longer I watched him, in or out of all those postseasons, the more I wanted to see how he’d stack against the other nine.

I have a concept I like to use called real batting average. The traditional batting average, I think, should really be called a mere hitting average, and it’s really an incomplete measure of a player’s work and worth at the plate. Derek Jeter’s .310 lifetime traditional batting average and those  3,465 lifetime hits are huge. (He’s the only player to collect every last one of them in a Yankee uniform.) But they don’t tell you by themselves what he was really worth at the plate.

Ignore the snarling giddoff-mah-lawners and ask: How proper is it to declare all hits created equal, then divide them purely by official at-bats? Why aren’t we accounting for everything a man does at the plate to help create runs and help his teams win?

We should account instead for his total bases. That does treat hits the way they should be treated—unequal. Unless you really think a single’s equal to a double’s equal to a triple’s equal to a home run. We should account for his walks. We should account for his intentional walks, too: why aren’t we giving a man credit when the other team would rather he take his base than their heads off? We should account for his sacrifices. (If you want to kvetch about the death of the sacrifice in the contemporary game, then you should want to credit a man when he does take one for the team.) And, we should account for the times he got hit by pitches. (They want to put you on the hard way? Let it be on their heads.)

Then, we should add all those up and divide the sum by his total plate appearances. For the formula lovers: TB + BB + IBB + SAC + HBP / PA. That’s my real batting average (RBA) formula. And you’re going to love where Derek Jeter stacks against the nine incumbent postwar/post-integration/night ball era Hall of Fame shortstops (you’ll be surprised just who else stacks where, too, I think):

Luis Aparicio—.398.
Ozzie Smith—.422.
Phil Rizzuto—.446.
Pee Wee Reese—.477.
Alan Trammell—.488.
Robin Yount—.495.
Derek Jeter—.505.
Barry Larkin—.520.
Cal Ripken, Jr.—.539.
Ernie Banks—.565.
Average RBA for postwar/post-integration/night ball shortstops—.486.

Derek Jeter’s .505 is the fourth best among the group. It’s nineteen points above the average for the Hall of Fame shortstops, and only Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks are ahead of him. He’s third in walks behind Ripken and Reese; he’s second only to Ripken for total bases; he’s third to last (ahead of only Phil Rizzuto and Luis Aparicio) for intentional walks; he’s fourth to last in sacrifices (Larkin, Ripken, and Banks are behind him), but boy did he take more for the team getting plunked. (Nobody else among those shortstops has more than 70; Jeter got 170.)

In other words, Jeter’s a bona fide, above average, Hall of Fame shortstop, and collecting more hits than any Hall of Fame infielder counts even if the total offensive picture lines him up fourth among postwar/post-integration/night-ball shortstops.

We know Jeter’s defense leaves him a little overrated. He was Ozzie Smith-dazzling, and not just with The Flip in the 2001 American League division series. But he did have more limited range than you remember, and for all those highlight reel plays he did make he wasn’t quite as good at saving runs as you expected. Lifetime, Jeter in the field was 155 defensive runs saved below average. The Wizard of Oz was a Flying Wallenda and the greatest defender at the position, ever. The Captain didn’t have to be Ozzie Smith-great afield to become a Hall of Fame shortstop. Nobody else at the position was, either.

Marcus wanted to argue for legends alone. Well, not every legend becomes a Hall of Famer (hello, Roger Maris), and not every Hall of Famer is necessarily a legend, either. (Nice to meet you, Bobby Wallace.) Bulletin: The BBWAA ballot this time around included a few legends, named Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa. Never mind their controversies for now.

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If Marcus and his like think the Hall of Fame belongs only to bona fide legends, then Bonds (who didn’t get in this time around), Clemens (who didn’t get in either), Schilling (whose big mouth probably prevented his election this time, too), and Sosa (who didn’t make it now) are as overqualified as Jeter. If they think those guys aren’t legends, they’ve been asleep longer than Rip Van Winkle.