The Odd Couple
By Richard Lederer and Alex Belth
With Andy Pettitte leaving New York to pitch for the Houston Astros, only four Yankees remain from the 1996 Championship team: Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, all products of the Yankee farm system. Although it may seem as if the Yankees are a candidate for the TV show “Extreme Makeover”, no other team can claim a quartet of players who have been together longer.
Rivera has been an ace closer and one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time. Posada is among the premier catchers in the game and arguably the Yankees’ best since Yogi Berra. Williams and Jeter have been the two most valuable everyday players during the Joe Torre Era, yet they are rarely paired like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, let alone Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Perhaps the reason why Williams and Jeter have not been linked to the same degree as Bagwell and Biggio is because they have not developed a catchy nickname like the Killer B’s. Regardless, they will be associated together even less now that Alex Rodriguez has joined the team. It’s going to be all about DJ and Alex; Bernie Williams will be by himself in the corner strumming his guitar. Over time, the connection between Jeter and Williams is likely to lose even more relevance.
But Williams and Jeter—along with Rivera—symbolize the current Yankee run. Williams is a product of the transition period during the early nineties and the championship years of the late nineties. Jeter is symbolic of the Yankee Dynasty under Joe Torre. Both players have been serious-minded professionals in the quiet Yankee tradition of Gehrig, Roy White, Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly as opposed to flashy stars like Hal Chase, Ruth, and Jackson. And yet they are entirely different players. Williams looks like a wandering gazelle in the outfield—grounded, but perhaps lost in a daydream—while Jeter is the stalking cheetah or a preening peacock in the infield. In that sense, Williams is the typical outfield personality and Jeter is the ultimate infielder.
Jeter is a major star, a sex symbol. Williams looks like a bookworm and is a family man. Jeter is Spiderman and Bernie is Peter Parker. Jeter is the cool extrovert and Williams is the thoughtful introvert. Jeter does little things that get noticed while Williams is easy to overlook. Recall the infamous Jeffrey Maier game against the Orioles in the 1996 ALCS which made the rookie Jeter a household name. It was Williams’ home run in extra innings that actually won the game for the Yanks, but who remembers that? Many of us just remember that’s the night that some lucky kid made another lucky kid a star.
Since his rookie year in 1996, Jeter has been a relentless and driven competitor. For Yankee fans, his enthusiasm has been contagious. Jeter smirks. He smiles. He engages the fans while he’s on the on-deck circle. No matter how tense the situation, he looks like he is having a good time out there. Watching Jeter, you feel invited along to enjoy in his fun. (If you hate the Yankees, it makes it easier to despise Jeter.) Jeter is a natural. It’s as if he were built to be a ballplayer–mentally, physically and emotionally. Jeter personifies Tom Boswell’s description of “a gamer.”
Baseball has a name for the player who, in the eyes of his peers, is well attuned to the demands of his discipline; he is called “a gamer.” The gamer does not drool, or pant, before the cry of “Play ball.” Quite the opposite. He is the player, like George Brett or Pete Rose, who is neither too intense, nor too lax, neither lulled into carelessness in a dull August doubleheader nor wired too tight in an October playoff game. The gamer may scream and curse when his mates show the first hints of laziness, but he makes jokes and laughs naturally in the seventh game of the Series.
Jeter has an edge, too. He’s just careful to keep it in check, but it’s definitely there. It was evident in Jeter’s unforgiving treatment of Toronto catcher Ken Huckaby last season, as it will likely crop up again in relation to Alex Rodriguez and who should play shortstop. But it is this edge, Jeter’s icy arrogance that has gotten him this far. And it serves him well on the field. Leo Durocher once asked:
If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what’s the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he can’t get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don’t, what have you lost? I don’t call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.
Jeter has not only been a “heads-up” player from the get go, but he has also been a realiable one, participating in 148 or more games every year except 2003 (when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder on Opening Day). Only Garrett Anderson, Chipper Jones, and Rafael Palmeiro have had more seasons of 148 or more games since Jeter’s rookie year in 1996.
Although Jeter’s defense leaves a lot to be desired (placing at or near the bottom of his peers in almost every advanced metric), he has been one of the three best offensive shortstops in baseball over the course of his career. Since 1996, Jeter ranks first among shortstops in on-base percentage (.390), third in slugging (.462), and third in OPS (.853). Derek is fifth on the all-time Yankees list (500 games or more) with a .317 batting average, behind only Ruth (.349), Gehrig (.340), Earle Combs (.325), and Joe DiMaggio (.325).
The Yankee shortstop had a career year in 1999, leading the league in hits (219) and times on base (322), placing second in runs scored (134), and fourth in total bases (346). In the area of rate stats, Jeter finished second in batting average (.349), third in on-base percentage (.438), fifth in OPS (.989), and second in OPS+ (161). He was clearly the team’s best player, playing an important defensive position and ranking at or near the top in every offensive category. Jeter, in fact, became the first shortstop in club history to hit 20 home runs in a season in 1999.
Jeter’s reputation may have peaked the following year, becoming the first player in Yankee history to be named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star game and capping off another magnificent season by capturing MVP honors in the World Series. Derek led the Bronx Bombers to their fourth World Championship in his first five seasons, batting .409 with two home runs in the five-game subway series with the Mets. That year, Jeter became the third Yankee to compile three consecutive 200-hit seasons, joining Gehrig (1927-1929) and Mattingly (1984-1986). He also reached the 1,000 hit mark at a younger age than any Yankee not named Mickey Mantle.
Jeter is generally thought of as a “clutch” hitter, a player who elevates his game during the postseason when the stakes are highest. Does the perception match the reality?
In comparison, here are Bernie Williams’ regular vs. postseason rate stats:
Jeter’s numbers are freakishly close, and while Williams trails Jeter in postseason batting average, he nudges him out in OBP and SLG. What’s truly remarkable about Jeter isn’t that he is such a clutch hitter after all; rather, it’s that he is so consistent. (Rob Neyer made the point that neither Williams nor Jeter are necessarily clutch performers, but that Rivera is most certainly Mr. Clutch.) Derek is a steady ballplayer who plays at a high level during the regular season and the postseason. The simple fact that he performs on Broadway rather than some community playhouse theater is what brings Jeter the notoriety and the favorable critical reviews. He is the biggest star the Yankees have had since Reggie and probably the most beloved since Mantle. But according to baseball historian Glenn Stout, the author of Yankee Cenutry, Jeter is more like DiMaggio:
I think Jeter is the quintessential Yankee for his time, just as DiMaggio was. Like DiMaggio, he was the precise player the Yankees needed for his time, the player who made the Yankees the Yankees—and so was Mantle. Another interesting point with Jeter is that, like DiMaggio, he gives very little of his personality off the field, so that we tend to consider him totally and completely for what he does on the field, which sort of makes it easy to project special qualities onto him. He’s “touched” in a way very few athletes are in a way that transcends any way of measuring it—it’s not that Jeter’s play doesn’t reach statistical thresholds, but that stats just don’t contain him, or the right stat hasn’t been created yet.
Jeter is not an icon at this point, but the DiMaggio analogy is apt. It’s hard to blame sportswriters for being duly impressed. Furthermore, Stout hits on what people love and others hate about Derek Jeter. You can’t judge him entirely with quantitative analysis. His value is more far-reaching than that. The irony is that Bernie Williams is often under-appreciated because he lacks the same qualities that make Jeter famous. But his numbers more than compensate for his demur disposition; perhaps that explains why he’s popular with sabermetricians. In fact, when compared directly with Derek Jeter, here is what Bernie’s career averages (per 162 games) look like:
And if you compare their average seasons since the start of the Yankees championship years in 1996, Williams looks even better:
If this is the case, then why has Williams been overlooked? Is it that he just doesn’t have the personality of a big star? In a recent telephone interview, television analyst Tim McCarver said:
Bernie’s a track star playing baseball. And Bernie will tell you that. [As a hitter] Bernie has very powerful hands, and that allows him to almost read the ball at the last minute, to pick the ball up at the last instant. Very few people can do that. They have to start earlier. But as far as his effect on the team, Bernie is just a wonderful guy, but in no way does he have the leadership characteristics that Jeter does. He’s just not that kind of player.
Williams is somewhat like Roy White, a player who, according to Glenn Stout, “by himself couldn’t really turn the team around, but who got better and whose talent was more appreciated when surrounded by better players. Like Bernie, when White was young there was a lot of bitching about what he wasn’t rather than what he was.” Bill James has another take on why Williams is underrated in