If you are a baseball fan, you’ve probably seen Keith Olbermann’s tangent against Derek Jeter. Olbermann delivered an opinion piece on his ESPN2 show last week and it has gone viral in a big way. Some of this is because of the backlash against the amount of attention the Yankees and MLB are giving to Jeter’s final season (and now his final week). For others, Olbermann’s take down of Jeter appears to have substantiated their long-held beliefs that Jeter is overrated. Mike Mussina got a few mentions in the Olbermann segment, which you can watch here.
Personally, I have a few issues with what Olbermann said. His unnecessary hyperbole, selective use of statistics and his arbitrary cut-off points (i.e. only looking at players with more than 12,000 at-bats) weakens his argument and there’s a good article to be written which could refute some of his claims (i.e. Jeter’s greatest asset is that he did everything well on the offensive side of the game which is why he never dominated in one category) . But this is a site about Mike Mussina, so what follows addresses some of what Olbermann said about Mike Mussina and Derek Jeter.
Olbermann mentions that Mussina averaged 4.4 Wins Above Replacement during his Yankee tenure. While this is true, Mussina’s greatness with the Yankees is disproportionately due to how great his first three seasons in pinstripes were. More than half (18.2) of Mussina’s WAR with the Yankees (35.1) was generated in those first three years. In three of the eight seasons Mussina spent in New York he produced a WAR of less than 3.5. Derek Jeter spent more than a decade (11 seasons: 1997-2007) giving the Yankees seasons of 3.5 WAR and above. During those seasons he averaged a WAR of 5.0.
It’s not easy to compare pitchers and hitters. WAR is about all we have that allows us to do this and even then hitters are expected to do more than just hit. They have to field and be effective base runners. Pitchers, well, they pitch and, with the exception of a Madison Bumgarner or Zack Grienke, they don’t need to do anything else well. To me this demonstrates that Jeter was a better player than Mussina during their respective Yankee careers. That’s mostly because Jeter played his prime in New York and Mussina struggled some after turning 35. But this is where Mussina does have a case against Jeter. From age 35 to 39, Mussina produced a WAR of 16.9 or 3.4 per season. From age 35 to 40, Jeter produced a WAR of 16.7 or 2.8 per season.
Patrick’s take: Ryan’s take on Jeter/Mussina is misguided, in my opinion, because it compares the decline phase of Mussina’s career to Jeter’s whole career. The truth is, Mussina’s was better, and WAR empirically proves it. I’ll show you three different methods.
Career WAR B-R: Mussina: 82.7 (18 seasons) Jeter: 71.7 (20 seasons*)
Fangraphs: Mussina: 82.3 Jeter: 73.5
Even if you take away the two seasons Jeter barely played in (’95 and ’13) and make the years 18 to 18, Mussina comes out half a win better per season
Method #2: Mussina’s Yankee career represented the last eight seasons of his career.Compared to the last eight seasons of Jeter’s (using B-R WAR because it easily calculates the total):
Mussina: 35.1 WAR Jeter: 17.8
WAR Method #3: Mussina’s Yankee career represented his year 32 season through his year 39 season. Again, using B-R’s WAR, to compare to Jeter’s age 32 to age 39:
Mussina: 35.1 WAR Jeter: 23.2 WAR
Mike Mussina: Better than Derek Jeter
Ryan’s response: But do you think Mussina was a better Yankee than Jeter? Does this debate even matter? Is there a foolproof way to compare pitchers and hitters? Is this why the Internet exists?
Patrick’s nearly two years later rebuttal to Ryan: Of course Mussina wasn’t a better Yankee than Jeter. But that’s not really a pitcher vs. hitter issue. It’s an issue because we’re comparing a guy who spent half his career in pinstripes to a guy who spent his whole career there. That extra decade is a little hard to overcome. Of course this is why the Internet exists. If we’re not going to spend hours arguing over minor details about sports, then I don’t know what we’re doing here.
The most fascinating thing about examining Jeter’s career, to me at least, is that advanced defensive metrics have been absolutely brutal to him. If Jeter was just an average fielder he would have a WAR above 80, but the advanced metrics say he’s been truly awful. They say he’s been one of the worst defense shortstops of all time. If he was a C- at fielding he’d be okay, but for most of his career the advanced metrics say he’s been an F.
It is the defensive metric part of WAR that really damages Jeter’s career if you are evaluating him based on Wins Above Replacement. Jeter’s career offensive WAR is 20th all-time, ahead of guys like Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett. Offensively, he’s one of the best shortstops to ever play baseball and even with the defensive issues, he ranks 4th since 1900 in career WAR for shortstops.
Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs tried to put Jeter’s defense in context this April, comparing him to the “worst beer from an excellent brewery”. There are a lot of good stats in the article and Sullivan makes the point that Jeter’s consistency and relative health has made him more valuable of a defensive player than he gets credit for. I’ll let Sullivan’s conclusion speak for itself:
Jeter has had his on-field shortcomings. But it’s also important to not get carried away. For his position, Jeter’s been one of the game’s worse defensive players. His position has included some of the very best defensive players in baseball. In terms of overall value, those about negate one another. In the end, the most correct opinion of Jeter’s defensive ability is, `Hey, he’s been all right.’