I got a great question in my chat session about two weeks ago:

Dan (Brooklyn): Better player when their career is over: Jeter or Reyes?

It sat in the queue for a while, because I really had to think about it. The initial reaction is “Derek Jeter“-who is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in waiting-because we’re familiar with his entire body of work. Then you realize that Jose Reyes entered the league at such a young age, is still just 25, and he does a number of things better than Jeter ever did, and you hesitate. My brief in-chat answer-Jeter-cried out for expansion.

So using the same approach we did a few months back in comparing Russell Martin and Brian McCann, let’s look at the two year-by-year. This isn’t going to get us all the way to an answer, but it’s a way of putting the two players’ careers on the same scale.

Age 20     PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes     292  .307  .334  .434   13   3     14    3.1
Jeter                       N/A

With the sixth pick of the 1992 draft-yes, the Yankees used to draft in the top ten-the Yankees selected a high-school shortstop out of Michigan. Two years later, he shot through the system, batting .344 with 50 steals at three levels. Jeter wouldn’t reach the majors until he turned 21, but he was clearly a top prospect. Reyes, having signed with the Mets just after his 16th birthday, was two years younger than Jeter when he became a pro, and was promoted to the majors a day shy of 20 years old on June 20, 2003. He served as the Mets’ starting shortstop until August 31, when an ankle sprain ended his season. The .307 batting average, speed, and power showed him to be a star in the making, walk rate be darned.

Age 21     PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes     229  .255  .271  .373   19   2     11    1.4
Jeter      51  .250  .294  .375    0   0      1    0.1

Jeter would come up as a midseason replacement, covering for a Tony Fernandez injury and not embarrassing himself in two weeks of play. Reyes suffered a disastrous season, beginning with the ill-fated attempt to make him a second baseman-so that free agent Kazuo Matsui could play shortstop-and continuing through a series of hamstring injuries and adjustment problems that led to an execrable five walks in 228 plate appearances. I made the mistake of putting a ceiling on Reyes on that point, due largely to the Dunstonian walk rate. In retrospect, it was just a lost season.

Note the value of the earlier signing. Reyes, through age 21, already had an edge in WARP on Jeter larger than four.

Age 22     PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes     733  .273  .300  .386   60  15     15    3.5
Jeter     654  .314  .370  .430   14   7     18    4.7

One of the counterfactuals I always love to put out there is this: What if Tony Fernandez hadn’t gotten hurt in March of 1996? He was in line to be the Yankees’ starting shortstop, and we know that Joe Torre preferred veterans during his Yankee tenure. Had Fernandez not suffered a season-ending neck injury, Jeter would have started the season in the minors, and it is entirely possible that his life would look much different today. Would the Yankees have gone on to win four titles in five years, with all of the hype and controversy that caused? Would the game itself be different without the structural changes put through in the wake of cries of “competitive imbalance” that followed? I have no idea, but I do know that had Fernandez not been hurt, Jeter likely would not have been Rookie of the Year, and might well have ended up an Angel or Cub or Brewer.

Reyes played his first full season at 22 as well, bouncing back from injury and the aborted second-base experiment to have a credible campaign. He was still learning how to apply his considerable skills at the plate, however, drawing just a walk a week and posting an unacceptable .300 OBP. In the 2003-04 offseason, few players generated as much discussion or controversy as Reyes did.

Age 23     PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes     703  .300  .354  .487   64  17      8    6.0
Jeter     748  .291  .370  .405   23  12     11    4.6

The haters lost. Reyes was a reasonable down-ballot MVP candidate in 2004, nearly doubling his walk rate, raising his OBP 50 points, and showing the jump in power that is not uncommon in 23-year-olds. Jeter had essentially the same season he had in 1996. Note that neither player is all that special defensively in the Davenport system.

Age 24     PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes     765  .280  .354  .421   78  21     32   10.2
Jeter     694  .324  .384  .481   30   6     23    7.8

Both players improved with the glove at 24, and both were in their leagues’ MVP discussion for much of the year thanks to their complete games and the success of their teams. Reyes established himself as the pre-eminent basestealer in a game that has moved away from the tactic, and he improved to 77 walks drawn against 78 strikeouts, an amazing development over two seasons. Jeter’s rep as a leader and clutch player was cemented as the Yankees won 114 regular-season games, 11 more in the postseason, and their second World Series in three years.

It is virtually impossible to separate the performance of the two players’ teammates from the reputations of the players. Reyes was a key member of the 2007 Mets, who had one of the more famous late-season collapses in history, largely because the team’s pitchers fell apart. Jeter was at the center of the game’s first championship dynasty since the early 1970s. But through age 24, Reyes had outplayed Jeter at all but one age, and by more than seven wins all told.

Age 25     PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes*    762  .298  .362  .493   52  15     20    7.9
Jeter     739  .349  .438  .552   19   8     15    9.5
*projected as of 7/31

I don’t know who should have been MVP in 1999, other than that the guy who won, Ivan Rodriguez, was the wrong choice. Whether you favor Jeter or Pedro Martinez, you’re more right than the BBRAA was. This is the signature season in Jeter’s career. When his lack of an MVP award is cited as reason for him to not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, remember how he got jobbed in ’99, finishing a ridiculous sixth despite doing everything but the Yankees’ taxes.

Reyes is on his way to yet another solid season, headed for career highs in walks, OBP, and SLG. Hanley Ramirez’s power has made him the “It Boy” of MLB, but Reyes’ better defense means that he’s just as valuable, arguably moreso, than the Marlins‘ shortstop. It is likely that the age-25 campaign will be the second one in which Jeter outplays Reyes. Taking a look at their comparative career totals through their age-25 seasons adds up to:

           PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS   FRAR   WARP
Reyes*   3484  .286  .335  .436  268  68    100   32.1
Jeter    2886  .318  .389  .465   86  33     68   26.7
*projected as of 7/31

Yeah, I was pretty surprised, too. Reyes has a six-win edge on Jeter through age 25. If you throw out Reyes’ two-season head start, the gap slips to one win, but Reyes still stays ahead. For the first four full seasons of their careers, Jose Reyes has outplayed Derek Jeter. Reyes’ edges with the glove and on the basepaths-a ridiculous 112 net steals ahead of a very good basestealer-manage to outweigh Jeter’s 50 points of OBP. You might argue that Jeter can make that up in non-steal baserunning, at which he has been among the best in baseball, but Reyes is one of the challengers to his throne. These guys are probably the best two in the game at running the bases.

After 1999, Derek Jeter’s defensive performance dipped dramatically. The debates about his defense are a decade old and I won’t rehash them here, but to make this point: every single statistical system shows that Jeter was a below-average shortstop during a period in which he had a good defensive reputation and even won a couple of Gold Glove Awards. As long as Reyes maintains average defensive performance, he’s going to extend the performance gap between him and Jeter as he goes through his peak.

It is fair to give Jeter credit for his post-season performance, which has been good. In the modern era, post-season baseball is a larger part of the game than it has ever been before, and the emphasis on the postseason is greater than ever before. Jeter has had opportunities, because of the teams he has played on, to play in these high-leverage games, and you cannot ignore that in assessing his value. This isn’t an intangibles argument, it’s a high-leverage performance argument, and it’s still a difficult one to quantify.

Perhaps Reyes will have those opportunities going forward. For now, what we can say is that he has outplayed Jeter in the regular season, and on a by-age basis, is likely to continue doing so on a by-age basis through his peak. Dan from Brooklyn, I take it back: I don’t know which of these players will have the more impressive career, but I am going to enjoy finding out.

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