Commentary

Derek Jeter's price tag just went up

The Yanks' shortstop won his fifth Gold Glove, despite the fact his range is shrinking

Updated: November 12, 2010, 9:30 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

If the New York Yankees thought Monday that they were going to overpay for Derek Jeter, just wait until they get the bill for him now.

Jeter was one of three Yankees to win Gold Gloves on Tuesday afternoon, along with Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Charles KrupaJeter is still making his patented jump-throws, but he's not making as many plays in the field.

You really don't need to consult any statistics or advanced fielding metrics to know what your own eyes told you if you watched enough Yankees games this season, which is that there can really be no argument that both Teixeira and Cano are among the best, if not the best, at their respective positions.

And neither did you need any numbers to tell that Jeter is not.

This is not to say he is a bad shortstop. Far from it. At 36, Jeter remains sure-handed and rifle-armed. His instincts, as always, are perfect -- his fundamentals rock-solid. Along with Cano -- and some would say, because of Cano -- he still turns a terrific double play.

Any ball hit right at him is a guaranteed out.

And that is both a compliment and an indictment. Because if it isn't hit right at him, and I mean right at him, then it's a base hit.

That is why, when you look at the American League shortstop rankings according to conventional (read: your grandfather's) wisdom, you will see Jeter's name right at the top. According to those numbers, Jeter had a phenomenal year in the field in 2010. He made just six errors in 151 games, handled 547 of 553 chances flawlessly, and ran up a fielding percentage of .989, the best in the league.

The reason that error total is so low, and the percentage so high, is because at 36 Jeter doesn't get to nearly the number of balls he once did -- or as many as most of his peers do regularly.

A half-dozen AL shortstops handled more chances than Jeter did this season. Some, such as Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox and Cliff Pennington of the Oakland A's, had as many as 200 more in just a handful more games (Jeter played 151, Ramirez and Pennington 156). Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers got to 100 more balls than Jeter in three fewer games.

Every one of them, of course, made more errors than Jeter -- in fact, Ramirez made 20, Pennington 25 -- but the reason should be apparent. Shortstops who get to more balls are going to make more errors.

Jeter gets to comparatively fewer balls, and consequently makes fewer errors. Again, the ones that are hit right at him, he gobbles up. Anything more than one giant step to his left or right is a base hit.

So does that really qualify him as the best shortstop in the league? Probably not.

In fact, those who swear by many of the advanced fielding metrics currently in vogue will try to make the case that he is in fact one of the worst.

One such rating system, the Fielding Bible, ranked Jeter 32nd out of 35 shortstops rated in 2010 based on his diminishing range. According to its measurements, Jeter's numerical score was a minus-12 on balls hit to his right, a minus-11 on balls hit to his left, and a plus-8 on balls hit straight at him.

That means the "average'' shortstop will get to 12 more balls to his right and 11 more to his left than Jeter will. However, Jeter will stop eight more balls than Mr. Average provided the ball is coming straight at him.

I am not in that faction, but even without using advanced mathematics it is impossible to deny what your eye can clearly see. Jeter simply does not have much range anymore -- nor does his partner on the left side of the Yankees infield, Alex Rodriguez. Anything hit fairly sharply between the two of them is a base hit. Period.

That doesn't make him a bad shortstop, just a limited one -- limited mostly by the one factor that will eventually get all of them: age.

And before you pooh-pooh the Fielding Bible's rankings, understand that the same metric reflected Jeter's excellent 2009 season in the field, ranking him 14th out of 35 that year, and plus-2 on balls hit to his left.

The fact is, the voting for the Gold Glove award is about as valid as fan voting for the All-Star Game. Although it is voted on by managers and coaches, who are not allowed to vote for players on their own teams, it is obvious many are voting by name recognition and reputation. Either that, or the men who run baseball are even slower to accept the cutting-edge statistical analysis now available to them than many of the people who cover it.

In any event, for the fifth time in his career, Derek Jeter has been voted the best shortstop in the American League. I'll leave it to the seamheads to debate whether he really deserves it or not.

But this much is beyond dispute: As a free agent, coming off a sub-par offiensive year and facing a tough contract negotiation with an organization not particularly known to be generous or sentimental, this is an early Christmas present for Derek Jeter and a lump of coal for Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman.

They can make all the arguments they want to demonstrate that Jeter is no longer a top-flight shortstop, but once again, Jeter has the hardware that says he is.

And his price, already inflated, has just gone up.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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