Who’s better: Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter?
BY BRANDON J. SMITH, Couchsideshow.com blogger
As of this writing, Derek Jeter is only 6 hits away from tying Cal Ripken Jr. at 3,184 for 14th on the all time hits list.
It’s a bit surprising that this story hasn’t been bigger in terms of the ESPN media conglomerate, or elsewhere, everyone is too busy dissecting the NBA Finals to fully appreciate great contextual moments in baseball history no doubt. In fact, Jeter hasn’t been that a big story since his 3000th hit last July, so maybe the shock and awe of reaching 3K hasn’t carried over to passing up these hall of fame players this season:
Dave Winfield- 3,110
Tony Gwynn- 3,141
Robin Yount- 3,142
Paul Waner- 3,152
George Brett- 3,154
Three of the most successful hitters in baseball history in Gwynn, Yount, and Brett and Jeter speed past them without looking back. Once Cal is passed, Jeter’s next big hurdle will be Willie Mays at 3,283 (of which I suspect will be a big deal coverage wise) and Carl Yastrzemski at 3,419, much to the chagrin of Red Sox fans.
Back on topic, now that Jeter will have the most hits by a shortstop in history, how should we properly compare him and Cal? Be sure to check your bias at the door, because objective analysis is about to unfold.
Relative to the eras they played in, Jeter’s OPS+ is 117, while Cal’s is actually lower at 112, more on this in a moment. A few things immediately stand out when comparing their statistics; Cal, for all his defensive ability simply did not ever steal, which is likely a byproduct of playing for Earl Weaver, who wasn’t into bunting or stealing that much. It’s still hilarious to see that Cal stole 36 bases and was caught 39 times. Jeter meanwhile has 344 thefts and 92 arrests, with some seasons attempting more than others, but maintaining a decent ratio overall.
Jeter having a higher OPS+ is strange considering Cal hit 431 home runs with 603 doubles while Jeter has 504 doubles with just 246 dingers, but as this compares both players across all eras, Jeter singles hitting frequency is likely the difference here. I’m not going to bother bring up the postseason success, because Jeter has obviously won more on better teams, such things shouldn’t be the forefront of this discussion. The same with the RBI totals, as Jeter and Ripken batted in different spots in the order, making RBI opportunities different for both players.
The most important part of this topic is whether or not Jeter overall trumps Cal is a matter of defensive ability, which according to Bill James’s defensive spectrum, shortstop is one of the more important and difficult positions to play.
Using baseball reference’s defensive wins above replacement, Cal accumulated a 34.5 mark, which by virtue of the WAR stat, means he was worth almost 35 wins in his career above the league average shortstop (mind you, league average was different in 1984 as it is today), whereas Jeter rates as a paltry -7.9, well below league average. Defenders and common fans will say that critics of Jeter’s defense are wrong due to inaccuracies in defensive statistics, which by no means have been perfected yet, and that his breathtaking plays show great defensive ability.
However, the large consensus in the saber metric community insists that Jeter’s lack of range can cause him to make routine plays look heroic, as he simply lacks elite ability to range up the middle.
While Jeter is still the more valuable and productive offensive player than Cal in his career, the huge disparity on the defensive spectrum keeps Jeter from being greater than the Iron Man.
Of course, Ozzie Smith is likely the greatest shortstop in terms of skill and longevity, as his 43.4 defensive WAR makes him potentially the best defender in baseball history at any position. So in terms of overall shortstopping, Cal has an edge over Smith because he was simply a better hitter than Ozzie, so you’d have to think Cal, Smith, and Jeter for all time ranking, correct? In case you’re wondering, I have Honus Wagner fourth, because playing shortstop in the early 1900s shouldn’t make you better than those three, and possibly Omar Visquel.
I doubt this topic has been particularly eye opening, “of course Ripken is better than Jeter,” you might say, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at for sake of perspective and entertainment. I do sincerely hope however, that Jeter is properly congratulated throughout the sports world when he passes up the Iron Man next week at home.