Sunday, 10 July 2011


Derek Jeter's 3,000 hit yesterday reminded me of an essay I'd written twelve years ago, and I thought I'd go back and look at it to see how accurate I'd been about his position vis a vis the other two great young shortstops of 1999. A little background: after I stopped working for Major League Baseball, and was doing baseball comentary on Sky and other satellite channels (as well as the Olympic finals, twice, for RTE Ireland!) I used to self-publish a baseball preview annual. The following essay appeared in the 1999 edition, along with previews and predictions of each team, and essays on Cuba (the Orioles went to Havana to play and I wrote a piece for the FT), the first-to-worst phenomenon (selling off great players wasn't a new thing in baseball), and an early look at 'weight training' and power hitting titled 'Popeye Arms And The Man'.

The way Jeter reached his 3,000, with a homer at the end of a 5 for 5 day, reminded me that, although the stats have often ranked him below the top, especially in the field, he has had the knack, especially useful playing in New York for the highest-payroll, highest-profile team in baseball, of rising to big occasions where his current teammate ARod has been his virtual opposite. Hence the Yankees leaving Jeter at short, when the younger ARod has more range. But ARod has less of what a NYTimes writer might call 'the right stuff'. Consider the difference in ARod's trying to slap the ball away from Bronson Arroyo, or 'Jeter the Cheater' doing a soccer-style fake of an injury to draw a HBP against Tampa. Jeter (who scored on ARod's slap) isn't tarnished, even after admitting his gamesmanship.

What I couldn't predict, of course, was that Jeter and ARod would become teammates, and ARod would move to third base, thus taking himself out of that 'greatest shortstop' equation. One thing I should point out too, as you watch various stats about Jeter's place in the 3,000 hit club, is that for various reasons there are lots of great hitters who never reached 3,000 hits (especially all those Yankees, plus Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx) while Craig Biggio, Al Kaline, and Yaz did (Yaz being the first American Leaguer with 400 homers among the 3,000 hits). Longevity is, in itself, a sign of quality, particularly at shortstop (second only to catcher in the way it takes a early toll on bodies). Nomar, whose overly developed frame soon broke down as I speculated it might, is a good example. The length and relative consistency of Jeter's career will argue covincingly for his spot in the Hall of Fame; ARod, with all the side issues, will certainly justify my rating of him, but make the vote a harder call.

I should also point out that I wrote some snide things about Mariah Carey, and eerily anticipated ARod's dating Madonna. All three sportsters have moved on, in a sense, Jeter to Minka Kelly (via Jessica Biel) ARod to Cameron Diaz (via Madonna and whatever), and Nomar to the soccer star Mia Hamm. Why should multi-millionaire star shortstops be attractive to celebrity actresses?

While you ponder that one, here's what I wrote in March 1999:


There may not have been a time in baseball history when three young shortstops of the quality of Alex Rodriquez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra have emerged together in one league. In fact, based on the past two seasons, you’d be hard-pressed to find three veteran shortstops putting up similar numbers. Most of the great hitting shortstops have stood out by a long margin from their colleagues: Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, maybe Arky Vaughn. Most shortstops, even the good hitting ones, weren’t there for their sticks anyway. In the American League just after the war you had Lou Boudreau, Junior Stephens, and Eddie Joost (who generally outhit Phil Rizzuto by good margins), but Joost never put two big years in a row together (his 1949 was a dinger, though: .263 23-81, 149bb, 128r). Stephens in 1949 hit .290 39-159 but Boudreau had an off year after his 1948 line of .355 18-106, 98bb and 9k. That’s right, nine.

But right now you’ve got three guys putting up numbers that are close to MVP quality, and they’re doing it every year. Two of them are already their club leaders, and all three are among the wave of new young players who bring back that everyday hard work and respect for the game which many of us believed the NBA/MTV generation had lost forever.

The highest profile, because he plays in New York, belongs to Derek Jeter. The other guys don’t get to date Mariah Carey. To me, she looks about as attractive as Governor Carey, but I’m old and jaded (2011 update: Minka, right, looks much better). Jeter is the middle of the our three guys in terms of age (turns 25 in June) and is already in his fourth year in the bigs. He shows the least power of the three (19-84 last year) but in the offseason this year he has worked on his hands to add more power to his swing, and I’d look for his power numbers to jump. Not that they need to, if Knoblauch becomes a great leadoff hitter again. He’s an excellent base runner (30/36 in sbs, 83%), and he managed a .384 oba despite walking only 57 times (119 Ks). Listed at 6-3 185, Jeter is big for shortstop, but doesn’t look it on the field.

Defensively, Jeter had his best season last year, cutting his errors to an amazing nine, and fielding .986. He’s got the least range of these three, and there are questions about him going to his left, but they aren’t serious ones. Given the pop in his bat, I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually moves from the shortstop position, to second or third, but that would depend a lot on who the Yankees come up with in the future. Bernie Williams was quoted this season as saying that Jeter was the leader of the Yankees and their MVP. Given the talent on that team, and the quality competitors, that is an amazing compliment.

The oldest of the three is Nomar, who turns 26 in July, and he’s only in his third season. He too is his team’s leader, if somewhat by default since Mo Vaughn lumbered out of town. But from the first day he hit the Red Sox lineup, Garciaparra has breathed a fresh attitude into the team, and moving from leadoff to cleanup hitter he proved he would do what it takes to help the team win.
Unlike Jeter and Rodriquez, Garciaparra is a contact hitter: he walked only 33 times and struck out only 62 last season. He’s the smallest of the three at 6-0 175, but looks bigger because he’s so skinny. His power (35-122) is generated by the whip he gets in his bat, and the more I look at him the more he reminds me of hitters like Henry Aaron. He’s a good baserunner, but batting in the middle of the Sox lineup he’s not going to rack up steals.

Last season Garciaparra made 25 errors, fielding .962, but part of that was because the Sox tried to get him to set before he threw, rather than complete the throw on the run as he likes to do, and once he went back to his own style, his errors slowed down. When you watch him closely, you’ll see his whole approach to picking the ball up is consistent, and lets him get the throw away so quickly he saves at least a step on the baserunner. He’s got more range than Jeter, but like Jeter he uses his arm to make up for the ground he can’t cover. Like Jeter, I see him moving off shortstop eventually (particularly if he’s injured, which he seems likely given his body type). Whether it will be an Ernie Banks type move to 1b or a Rico Petrocelli-type move to 3rd I don’t know: but I’d guess it could be tied into the development of SS Adam Everett in the minors.

Rodriquez is the youngest of the three, turning 24 in July, and has already hit 106 home runs in the majors. He may have quicker hands than Gary Sheffield, which gives him phenomenal ability to punish good pitches by waiting on them. His season, .310 42-124 123r 43sb was an MVP calibre performance, especially from a shortstop, and you could argue that could’ve been his second MVP. And don’t think that ARod is feasting in the Kingdome: last season he hit .286 18-54 at home but .335 24-70 on the road. Defensively, I’m not convinced he’s second to Omar Vizquel in range, but I won’t argue with the strength of his arm, which will keep him at shortstop even if he starts to slow down. He’s 6-3 195, which again is big for a shortstop, and you’ve got to worry when he gets hurt on the step exercises, but basically, he’s done nothing wrong thus far in his career. You’d like to see him stop chasing bad pitches (121Ks, only 43bb) but that will come.

I think we owe a lot to Cal Ripken here. When Earl Weaver was the only person in baseball who thought Cal could play shortstop, everyone laughed. Maybe Earl was remembering Ron Hansen, a big shortstop who’d played well defensively for the Orioles in the early 60s, or Junior Stephens on the Red Sox, or even Ernie Banks. For whatever reason, Ripken proved that positioning, athletic ability, and a strong arm could overcome whatever balletic quickness he gave away to the Ozzie Smiths and Luis Aparicios of the world. Traditionally, the best young baseball players all start off (if they don’t pitch exclusively) as shortstops or, in the old days, as center fielders if they were big. Nowadays, they look at shortstop as a place they want to stay, and the additional offense they provide really can change the game of baseball.

So who’s the best? In the field I’d rate them 1. ARod 2. Nomar 3. Mariah’s boyfriend. At the plate, the rating stays the same. In intangibles, it goes 1. Jeter 2 Nomar 3. ARod, but of course he plays second fiddle to the Paganini of the bat in Ken Griffey Jr. It's so close, I find it hard to drive a wedge between Jeter and Nomar, and I suspect we may have a Ted Williams/Joe DiMaggio type argument going on here for years to come. I’d give the edge to Nomar right now, but I suspect that Jeter’s bat will continue to improve, and he is a year younger with an extra year’s experience as well.

But neither guy is ARod. If this guy played in New York he’d be pushing Madonna out of the way to get to the ballpark (2011 note: or not, we can say now. Boy was that a prophetic line!). I think he’s more valuable this season than either of the other two, and remember, he’s both the youngest of the bunch AND has the most big league experience. He’s probably the guy I’d want to start with if I were building a team from stratch, and that means I consider him the most valuable property in baseball.

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