Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Great Divide

The subject of Derek Jeter's defensive ability has long been a contentious subject among the more objectively inclined baseball analysts. There has yet to be a defensive metric, no matter how sophisticated, that can show Derek Jeter to be one of the best fielding shortstops in the league. Very few show him to be above average.

Yet, Derek wins award after award and draws rave reviews from many commentators, players, and managers. In the latest round of this puzzling affair, Derek has been voted the best defensive shortstop in a survey of American League managers by Baseball America (hat tip to RLYW for making me aware of this).

Before I dissect why this divide exists, allow me to make three disclaimers:
  1. Derek Jeter is my favorite baseball player of all time. On a related note, The Flip is probably my favorite baseball play of all time.
  2. I am not qualified to gauge Derek Jeter's defense with my eyes. I am only slightly more qualified to talk about his performance in various statistical measures.
  3. My personal belief is that Jeter's defense is somewhere around league average, probably below it. His strengths are his awareness of the game situation, reading pop-ups, charging slow hit baseballs, and perhaps making that cool jump throw from the hole. His weakness is fielding groundballs hit up the middle. It is a very sizable weakness.
With that out of the way, I want to explore not the value of Jeter's defense nor his true talent at fielding, but rather why it is the this divide exists. I can think of a few reasons.

First, I really don't think that American League managers are very qualified to make these judgments. This has nothing to do with their ability to judge talent. It has to do with a simple reality: an opposing manager will see an opposing shortstop as many as 19 times during a season and as few as six. That's just not a very large sample on which to draw.

Secondly, managers are human beings just like the rest of us. They are aware of Derek Jeter's reputation. They've seen the highlights. They saw The Flip. It is impossible for them to completely separate this reputation, largely created by media members in need of an image to sell and a story to write, from their own observations. Confirmation bias and peer pressure set it. When an opposing manager sees Derek execute a jump throw against his team, that registers as evidence for Jeter's greatness. If a groundball rolls past a diving Jeter, that registers as evidence of Jeter's hustle and grit.

Finally, I can't help but shake the feeling that objective measures of Jeter's defense underrate him. Most of these measures are based primarily around the concept of range, Jeter's biggest weakness. These metrics have a harder time with pop-ups, for example. That's one of Jeter's strengths. I don't think that these metrics are wrong enough to justify the opinions of the AL managers, but I do think that it is enough to move Jeter from atrocious to simply below average.

Then again, you should go back and read my disclaimers. I really, really, really don't want Derek Jeter to suck. At anything. Accepting that he probably wasn't a Gold Glove caliber shortstop, despite the adulation, is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I don't mean this to sound sappy or to equate it with decisions and actions that are both difficult and important. Certainly, baseball is unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Certainly, this is not one of the most important things I've ever done, not even close.

However, forcing yourself to accept something that you wish weren't true, to which you have a sizable emotional attachment, even though there exists a large body of people willing to confirm your bias, is a monumentally difficult task. For me, it represented a commitment to making sure that my opinions and beliefs were never based on what I wanted to be true, but only on that which could be shown to be true. The inability to do this is perhaps the cause of the majority of the problems in society today. I can only pray that my efforts to discover and accept the truth are successful, even if it is about something as silly as baseball.


E. W. Lynch said...

Your blog has been officially spammed. That's just awesome.

John Lynch said...

And now I have officially unspammed it. And, no, it is not awesome.

die Amerikanerin said...

I searched all over youtube trying to find a clip of this play, but all I found was a video that looked as if it had been taken off someone's cell phone. They catch the play in the last fifteen seconds of the video, but it's really hard to see. Here:

Also, if you search for "The Flip" on Wikipedia, it will direct you to the 2001 American League Division Series. I thought that was funny.

(Oh, hey, I googled it, and here you are!)

Jack Lynch said...

Absolutely amazing to me that Wikepedia has it in there as "The Flip". But it was one of the greatest plays I've ever seen, maybe the greatest.
John - your comments on seeking the truth are most profound. John Paul II I think would be proud.