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Boneheaded Sportswriter of the Month
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Boneheaded Sportswriter of the Month
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
September 6, 2009

We haven’t maintained the Bonehead Sportswriter of the Month as well as we did in the early years, potentially because we have discovered how hard it can be to be sportswriters, and we’re amateurs. Nevertheless, Mike Lupica recently had a classic New York Daily News gush-fest that simply must be pilloried. Needless to say, it involved Derek Jeter. Let's just take it paragraph by paragraph:

This was Paul O'Neill, great Yankee, talking about a great Yankee named Derek Jeter Monday, O'Neill talking about a season in which Jeter has done just about everything right and has been as much an MVP for this Yankee team as Mark Teixeira.

That was literally the first paragraph of the piece. In typical New York Daily News fashion, in one sentence Lupica had called Paul O’Niell a “great Yankee” when he probably isn’t one of the top 50 Yankees of all time, and equated one of the elite combination of power, on-base, and defense in baseball to the light hitting Derek Jeter.

For the record, on the season:

Jeter: 132 games, 97 runs, 62 RBI, .329 average, .866 OPS, 23.4 adjusted batting runs;
Teixeria: 134 games, 90 runs, league-leading 106 RBI, .282 average, .931 OPS, 33.6 adjusted batting runs.

Let’s continue:

"You kind of come into this year thinking, 'Don't let this be the one when Derek starts to slip.'”

Don’t let this be the year Derek starts to slip? Derek is coming off the worst offensive season of his career and has been the worst defensive shortstop in baseball for half a decade.

The game against the Red Sox on Sunday night wasn't one the Yankees needed. . . . Did the game matter a little more than usual, even with their big lead in the AL East? Sure. But they all matter to Jeter. He showed up Sunday night because he always does.

Oh, Derek Jeter. Oh, he always shows up. Oh, he always plays hard. Lipica seems determined to measure whether Jeter “always plays hard” by the fact that he played well against the Red Sox . . . in one game. It seems to me that showing up for a game against your most hated rival, as part of the biggest rivalry in sports, when that rival is still within 10 games out of second place, is not exactly admirable or unique. It should be expected. Also, since this was a comment about the Yankees-Red Sox game on August 23rd, would it be wrong to bring up the Yankees-Red Sox game on August 22nd, in which the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees 14-1, Jeter went 0-3 and came out after the seventh? I guess Jeter doesn’t always show up.

The season that began with people worried more than ever about his range at shortstop has become something quite different, something to remind you just what Jeter has always meant to the Yankees and what he still means now that they have their best chance in years to win it all again.

Actually, this is a good point. Surely, Mike Lupica is about to point out that Jeter clearly heard his critics unanimously point out that he has been the worst defensive shortstop in baseball for years, and that Jeter took it upon himself to improve and has done just that.

"I'm not saying he read all the things people were saying about his defense at the start of the season, because knowing him he didn't," O'Neill said. "But I have a feeling he was aware of them. And you have to know that somebody as good as Jeets has been for this long would take that as a challenge, to show people they're wrong, whether he'd ever admit that or not.”

Ah, excellent segue Paul O’Neill, pointing out that Jeter took it upon himself to prove his critics wrong by improving his defense.

“Or put it another way: It doesn't take much to light a fire under a guy who's had a fire going every single day of his career anyway."

Oh no. I sense where this is going. More platitudes, talk of intangibles, and figurative double-speak where simple statistical analysis would actually be quite relevant. It doesn’t take much to light the pilot light of a Jeter Propaganda Machine whose pilot light has never gone out.

Again, this is O'Neill talking. O'Neill, who did all that winning once he got here from Cincinnati, who was as tough a player and as much of a pro as anybody else on one of the best Yankee teams of all time, the Yankee teams that won four World Series in five years between 1996 and 2000 and came within a half-inning of making it five of six. He knows what he watched with Jeter then, knows what he is watching now.

Ooof. Paul O’Neill won lots of games with the Yankees, so Paul O’Neill is a Derek Jeter expert. Rather than assuming that the guy could possibly be biased as a result of the fact that he is a beloved Yankee talking to a New York reporter about a former teammate who is the Most Popular Yankee of the Century, let’s assume O’Neill is speaking from a position of unbiased, measured expertise. You were saying, Paul?

"The thing about him," O'Neill said, "is that he's always known exactly who he is. He's never tried to be anybody else, or do things he can't do. He doesn't try to hit home runs the way A-Rod does. He knows he's not going to be the kind of run producer that Teixeira is. He's Derek Jeter. He's going to get hits and score runs, and he's going to be the guy you want up in a big spot as much as anybody the Yankees have.

Thank you so much for that insight. Not only has Jeter’s value to the Yankees been the equivalent of Mark Teixeira, not only has he meant so much to the Yankees over the years, not only has he had a fire going every single day of his career, but he has also always “known exactly who he is.” Taken literally, this is true of most people, outside of those members of our schizophrenic population. I know who I am. You know who you are. Taken figuratively, it is an almost meaningless statement, particularly on a team full of superstars. And it gives no indication of how valuable Jeter is. I’ll bet Drew Henson knew exactly who he was too, enough to quit baseball and go to the NFL. But what does that mean in terms of his value to the Yankees?

And for the record, with men on base in 2009:

Jeter: 235 PA: .304/.790 OPS
Teixeira: 318 PA: .274 AVG/.869 OPS
A-Rod: 240 PA: .283 AVG/.912 OPS
Swisher: 232 PA: .265 AVG/.916 OPS
Matsui: 219 PA: .307 AVG/.938 OPS
Damon: 279 PA: .285 AVG/.835 OPS
Cano: 273 PA: .261 AVG/.721 OPS

So, actually, looks like Jeter would probably be, maybe, the fourth or fifth guy you want “up there in a tight spot.”

"The number one part of his game, as far as I'm concerned, is his consistency. He's solid at the plate and in the field every day, and there's no way to put a proper value on that across a season as long as ours is in baseball."

Solid at the plate and in the field every day? No way to put a proper value on that? Look, we’re not sugar coating things here – Jeter’s a good player. But there are many ways to put proper values on his performance. We’ve got, like, a hundred statistics that show Jeter to be a good player. Better than solid, in fact. Why resort to empty praise?

So the captain of the team, the guy who feels like captain of baseball in New York, is on a big rip right now, one so good over the last two weeks you were shocked when he went hitless on Saturday afternoon at Fenway. He is hitting .332 for the season and has 16 home runs and 57 RBI and has scored 86 runs and has nearly a .400 on-base percentage and has made a grand total of six errors.

See, this is where the difference between being a good sportswriter and a bad sportswriter is just blindingly hard to ignore. Rather than telling us in quantitative terms how good the rip Jeter has been on over the last two weeks has been (for the record: from August 10th to August 25th, over the course of 14 games, Jeter hit .509 with 29 hits, 14 runs, four homeruns, 10 RBI, and a 1.297 OPS, which is amazing), Lupica instead said that Jeter going hitless in a game was shocking. In truth, a player going hitless is never shocking. But Jeter’s numbers over that span were nothing short of amazing. Lupica actually sells Jeter short in this description.

Then, Lupica decides to astound us with Jeter’s statistics. But – these stats aren’t impressive. 16 homeruns and 57 RBI? 86 runs scored? “Nearly” a .400 OBP? These aren’t amazing numbers, but what IS notable about these numbers is how much of an improvement they represent over last season, when his numbers were down across the board. Jeter’09 is killing Jeter’08. Again, Lupica has undersold Jeter to us.

As for the remark about “a grand total of six errors,” it is enough to make you want to shoot Mike Lupica. One of the underrated stories of the 2009 season is Jeter’s improvement on defense. He has proven rangier this year than in the last several, and actually leads the league in a couple of defensive metrics. It is truly amazing.

But what does Lupica do to laud Jeter’s defense? He cites his low errors total, which is the number one way to cover for a guy with bad range – fielders with bad range make fewer errors because they get to fewer balls. Again, underselling Jeter.

He even gave you one of those plays in the hole the other night against Victor Martinez, backhanding the ball and spinning and getting airborne and getting the slow Martinez easily at first.

Is this praise? He had to do his patented Jeter-jump to throw out a slow running catcher? Really?

He is having the kind of all-around season for the Yankees that Dustin Pedroia had last season for the Red Sox, when Pedroia ended up MVP. There was nobody on a contending team having enough of a banging offensive season to take it away from Pedroia, the way Teixeira will probably take it from Jeter.

False premise – Jeter is having the same year that Pedroia had last year. Playing on a team that traded away Manny Ramirez and suffered a down season from David Ortiz, Pedroia led the American League in runs scored, hits, and doubles. He also posted a .345 average and .949 OPS in the second half of the season. Jeter leads the league in none of those categories and plays on a team that has no shortage of offensive weaponry.

If I were Mark Teixeira, I’d probably also be a little annoyed at the implication that my statistics weren’t MVP caliber, and that I would be stealing something from Jeter.

But then Justin Morneau beat Jeter out of an MVP a few years ago even though Jeter hit .343.

Did you guys see that? Lupica just argued that Jeter should have won the MVP in 2006, citing only Jeter’s batting average to support the proposition. Is batting average the standard bearer for value in major league baseball again? Ironically, I think a real good case could have been made for Jeter in 2006, but by Lupica’s standard, the award should have actually gone to Joe Mauer, who hit .347.

People will look at the Yankees and see what a game changer Teixeira has been, and you can throw in the way he's played first base. It doesn't change how valuable Jeter has been to the Yankees, in all phases of the game.

Well, I’m pretty sure that this is a true statement – Teixeira’s performance does not, in fact, change how valuable Jeter has been in phases of the game – but I am not sure what the point is. Teixeira has been a better, more valuable player for the Yankees in 2009 than Jeter has. Teixeira is one of the elite defensive first basemen in all of baseball (having made “only” three errors), he leads the AL in RBI and total bases, and has a higher OPS than Jeter. Plus, last season, when Teixeira wasn’t batting third on this team, Jeter kinda sucked. Connect the dots.

But the real travesty here isn’t the disrespect being paid to Mark Teixeira – at least Lupica acknowledges the fact that he is probably better than Jeter. The real disrespect is being paid to Johnny Damon and Robinson Cano, both of whom are having very similar seasons to Jeter in terms of overall value. In fewer games, Damon has more runs scored, more doubles, more homeruns, more RBI, more walks, and a higher OPS than Jeter. Meanwhile, Cano has almost as many runs, more doubles, triples, homeruns, RBI, and an OPS just under Jeter’s. If Jeter is having such an amazing season, aren’t Damon and Cano having amazing seasons as well? Of course, if you are just looking at batting average, this wouldn’t be the case, so never mind.

At the age of 35, he has even stolen 21 bases.

Logical fallacy – a player’s age makes his stolen bases more valuable. Jeter has stolen 21 bases (now 25), which is neat. Let’s not start citing it as some indicator of how on top of his game he is.

He performs at the highest level of his game the way Mo Rivera still does, all this time after 1996.

Oh man, not content to merely insult Mark Teixeira, Johnny Damon, and Robinson Cano, Lupica is now compelled to insult Mariano Rivera. Alright, I’m gonna have to give you the numbers:

In 2009, at the age of 39, Mariano Rivera has 39 saves in 57 games with a 1.72 ERA. His ERA+ is 260, the fourth best of his career and currently the 68th best single season ERA+ for a pitcher with over 50 innings of all time, and also happens to lead the league amongst all pitchers with 50 or more innings pitched.

Oh, and Rivera is performing at one of the best levels of all time at an age where pitchers, particular closers, tend to have faded.

Jeter, meanwhile, is having a very good year in which he ranks in the top five and/or top ten in several offensive categories while leading the league in none and not being amongst the top five overall players in the American League, let alone the majors.

Oh, and it is easier to hit in the AL and harder to pitch in the AL, so there’s that.

Do we really want to compare Derek Jeter, a player being outperformed by other players on his own team, with Mariano Rivera, who continues to be the greatest relief pitcher of all time.

The last word on this comes from O'Neill.

Oh goodie!

"The easiest way to describe it is this: Derek Jeter is still great at being Derek Jeter."

Well, that certainly does say it all, doesn’t it?




Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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