It has all come up to a very high level. Whether he’s fielding ground balls right at him, a slow roller going to his right on the backhand, popups into the outfield, balls to his left, the double-play pivot. Break it all down—whatever you want on defense—and try to find somebody better. I haven’t seen any.
Much will be made of Jeter’s newest piece of hardware; many of the places you usually look for instant analysis have already taken their pound of flesh. It’s no secret that Jeter’s defensive reputation has greater range in the media than he does on the field. Indeed, it’s telling that Kelleher, who remarks about Jeter’s improvement defensively, joined the organization in 2006—after Jeter had already won two Gold Gloves.
As an analytical community, we’ve spilled a lot of digital ink about Jeter’s perhaps-unearned Gold Gloves. And we’ve surely wrung our hands plenty about his new contract, which is likely to be a Rowandian overpay, but a knowing and intentional one. But we, as stats aficionados, tune these things out; we’ve come up with our own ways of looking at defense, and we have mostly given up complaining about the Yankees’ spending. Strange awards choices and the financial disparity between the Yankees and their closest rivals—let alone the majority of baseball—are givens at this point.
But I worry some about Derek Jeter. The Gold Glove and his outsized salary are going to lead a great number of people to believe he’s still Derek Jeter, to demand that he is still Derek Jeter. What happens when it becomes obvious to the 100,000 naked eyes at Yankee Stadium that he is no longer Derek Jeter?
A significant portion of Yankees fans and media has an approach to money that is both endearing and aggravating. First, there is often the sense that Yankees fans feel entitled to the best players, because the Yanks can blow everyone else out of the water, both financially and competitively. Which is, on the balance, true. But there’s an insidious second step in this dance: The players are then held accountable for this Faustian bargain, as if somehow the money and surrounding talent should make them better, or at least responsible for being better.
We’ve seen it with countless exotic imports; Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez, for instance, were at times hated for their perceived failures to live up to their salaries. It seems quite apparent, in retrospect, that Carl Pavano was hated as much for his contract as for his inability to take the mound. And, of course, you’ll hardly read a story about A.J. Burnett‘s struggles that doesn’t mention his five-year, $82.5 million contract. And it’s the ability to eat just that sort of contract that gives the Yankees their enormous systemic advantage.
So what happens when that advantage is used not to attract a free agent who might not be worth the money, but on a returning living legend nearly certain to fail to live up to the dollar amount? As the years go by, and Jeter’s inability to perform to his contract becomes obvious visually, will Yankees fans turn on him? Yankees media? With the competition within the division showing no signs of letting the Yankees cruise every year, what happens when everyone knows Jeter is being paid upwards of $15 million annually to cost the Yankees vital runs, both in the field and at the plate?
Mostly, that depends on Jeter himself. It depends on his awareness of his real value as a baseball player. And it depends on his willingness to sacrifice his role before putting his team and its fans in a very awkward position. Jeter has the marketing and bargaining savvy to seek a contract much more lucrative than he’ll be worth on the field. Will he have the public relations and baseball savvy to avoid endangering both a piece of his legacy and his team’s success?
I worry about Derek Jeter today, because another Gold Glove and another monster contract put a great deal of pressure on him to be something he just can’t be. And I worry that, eventually, if he doesn’t recognize his time when it comes, the most famous sports fans in the world might have to choose between rooting for wins and rooting for a legend. Navigate carefully, Derek.