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February 4, 2009

Captain, Oh Captain

Prestige, D, and Derek Jeter

by Christina Kahrl

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One area in which the present really shouldn't compare poorly with the past is in legend-making. However much how the story gets told might be different, we still have heroes on the diamond whose reputations transcend what they do and how well. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the case of "The Captain," obvious Yankee great Derek Jeter, future Hall of Famer.

A long-running debate over Jeter's virtues as a defender has been a basic touchstone of the sabermetric landscape for almost as long as Jeter has been a major leaguer, and assessments of his value with the glove mark one of the most startlingly specific divisions between analysts and scouts, between performance and anecdotal observation, between documented statistical evidence and reputation. In his prime, the argument was relatively pointless, as Jeter's tremendous position-relative value helped power the last Yankees dynasty. When Jeter was able to provide a Wins Above Replacement mark of 6.9-a mark that includes his defense-as recently as 2006, the debate was puerile, if not downright academic. Ask any GM if he'd like a seven-win player at shortstop, and he'll say yes. Players this good, statistically or in the flesh, don't grow on trees.

However, with Jeter's WARP down to 3.5 in 2007 and 2.5 last season, and with his overall offensive contributions coming down from MVP-worthy to "merely" very good, especially in the power department, we start getting into questions over whether or not his recent decline as a defender might really re-spark the question of whether or not Jeter really belongs at short, or if the Yankees might not be better off putting him at another position. While the arguments over how descriptive and effective different contemporary defensive metrics are rage for good reason, their near unanimity on The Captain's limitations should be damning. Clay Davenport's new play-by-play metric that debuts in this year's edition of the BP annual sees Jeter's work with leather costing the Yankees 18 runs in 2007, and another 12 in 2008. John Dewan's Plus/Minus system from the Bill James Handbook rates Jeter the worst shortstop in total Plus/Minus of the last three years. Other metrics have seen his fielding value move around a bit, but what they have to say about Jeter's leather work is rarely complimentary. On a scouting level, as strong-armed as he is, his range afield has become an obvious issue, just as it did for Cal Ripken in his mid-30s.

The problem with suggesting such a thing, of course, is that playing shortstop for the Yankees has become a thing of celebrity unimagined in the days of Alvaro Espinoza or Bucky Dent or Gene Michael, and that's because Jeter has been so good for so long that there shouldn't be any question that he's the best shortstop in the history of the franchise. This association of a high-profile player-indeed, a celebrity ballplayer in his own right-with his position is seen as a major factor militating against even suggesting that Jeter move to some other spot on the field.

Where this over-developed sense of some slight being associated with recognizing the obvious and moving a great player to another position came from, I don't know. The recent controversy over the Rangers asking Gold Glove winner Michael Young to move from short to third in camp this spring makes it clear that players of lesser stature than Jeter can, after all, be asked by their teams to do something that fits within the ballclub's long-term planning. If prestige associated with position is the problem, since when did playing center field for the Yankees become an indignity? What, Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio or Bernie Williams were nobodies playing nowhere? Perhaps only until very recently, center field in the Big Apple used to be baseball's highest high-profile piece of real estate, going back for generations.

There was a point in time when Robin Yount was every bit the signature franchise player for the Brewers that Jeter is for the Yankees today, a winner of the AL MVP Award in 1982, and one of the game's trinity of great shortstops of that period, along with Ripken and the Tigers' Alan Trammell. By 1985, however, persistent shoulder problems forced Milwaukee to start thinking in terms of moving Yount to the outfield, and by the age of 30, he'd settled in as their center fielder, filling a position at which the team had an obvious need. (Skip rhyme schemes, there's a reason why nobody's singing songs about where Paul Householder has gone.) This wasn't the downslope of the man's career or a case of his being put out to a figurative pasture as well as a literal one, as Yount won another AL MVP Award in 1989.

There are risks, of course. There's the cautionary tale of the Brewers' attempted shift of infielder Bill Hall to center in 2007, which inspired them to go get Mike Cameron (a name that coincidentally seems to come up a lot as a proposed short-term solution for the Yankees' problem in center). Also, asking a player in his age-35 season to move from shortstop to center very obviously isn't like the storied switch of Mickey Mantle as a teenager in the minors, or even Bobby Murcer's move from short to the outfield in the late '60s. But maybe just framing the proposition within the context of those switches and their place in Yankees history might help engender some acceptance of a move certain to elicit months of howling on sports radio or on sports pages. (If fear of that howling is a factor in not making a change, that would be an unfortunate abdication of responsibility from the people paid to make these kinds of calls.)

Obviously, getting Jeter's buy-in is a real-world problem for a team with a real-world need for a center fielder, because the margins are too thin in the tough AL East for the Yankees to really rely on the wrong Cabrera in the lineup. Crying over last year's spilled Melky won't help you catch up to the Rays and Red Sox, but signing Orlando Cabrera, providing the team with a useful-enough hitter and a slick-fielding asset at short could make a small but important difference to a bad defensive ballclub. Last season's Yankees ranked 25th in the major leagues in Defensive Efficiency (their ability to convert balls in play into outs) and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and no positions see more chances than the middle infield.

Swapping Jeter out at short to address the team's need for a center fielder would be the sort of win/win move that can let the Yankees return to the top of the standings while breaking in their new stadium, and it does nothing to damage the Captain's place in franchise history. If Yount or Ripken, MVP winners and top stars in their day, could agree to help their teams and themselves to make these switches, you need to ask yourself why Jeter should be any different, especially when the need has gone from debatable to obvious.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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