Editor's note: Fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal
This article was published in the Fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal.
I had an extraordinary experience at the end of the 2014 baseball season. I attended Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium. The extraordinary thing wasn’t merely Jeter’s unbelievable, Hollywood-scripted storybook ending, but that it came at the end of an unbelievable storybook career. All throughout, Jeter has given us moments that have made us in the stands and press box turn and ask each other, “Did you see that?” “Can you believe that?” You literally don’t believe it sometimes. “He did what?”
But we’ve been here, bearing witness to these moments, his whole career. We try to leave a written record for the historians who will come in future generations, who didn’t see him play, trying to explain what he was like—not “how good” he was or “how bad” he was, but how he was.
Simple, right? No. It’s difficult to strive for accuracy when a player continually defies belief. We find ourselves constantly swept into the realm of emotion—of course, because if we didn’t care we wouldn’t bother to research, analyze, and write about him. But when belief comes into the equation, now we’re talking about faith. It was a Tinkerbell moment in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014. The fans were there to say goodbye to their idol regardless of the game’s outcome. The Yankees had been eliminated from contention the day before.
In the seventh inning we thought we saw the last of Jeter, in a broken-bat, RBI-producing at-bat that gave the Yankees the lead. Kinda clutch. But David Robertson, the closer, coughed up two hairballs in the ninth. Two homers let the Orioles tie the game and let the Yankees bat again in the bottom of the inning. With Jeter due up third.
So here’s a piece of history. I saw it. It happened like clockwork: Jose Pirela led off with a hit, was replaced by pinch-runner Antoan Richardson, who was sac-bunted to second by Brett Gardner. Up came Jeter. I call these moments “Tinkerbell” moments because it feels like if the fans clap loud enough, the magic will happen. It doesn’t always; sometimes Mighty Casey strikes out. But this time, with his classic inside-out swing, Jeter laced the first pitch into right, for a completely Jeterian walk-off game-winner. What happened in that game is not in question: the world witnessed it. Yes, that really happened.
But we witnessed Jeter’s whole career. And yet the debates about him are only getting started. At the very first SABR convention I attended (2002 in Boston), one of the first presentations I attended was about who was the better shortstop: Jeter or Nomar. (Results were inconclusive at the time.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the elements we debate about Jeter-as-player represent the things we debate most hotly in sabermetrics overall. Was he a “good” or “bad” fielder? We’re still trying to figure out the best way to answer that question for all players. Advanced defensive metrics—that’s the cutting edge.
Jeter was often knocked for not being a power hitter. But how much weight to give to power in overall player evaluation metrics like WAR, total player rating, et cetera—that’s the stuff that top sabermetricians are tinkering with right now, not just in Internet debates, but in the Decision Sciences departments of MLB front offices.
One thing that no one ever knocked about Jeter was his sportsmanship, his demeanor, his “intangibles.” Can psychological “intangibles” be made tangible? Can they be measured? I predict that’s the frontier in player evaluation and development that will be bushwhacked next.
As historians and sabermetricians, our role is dual: both record and interpret. We don’t just write down numbers and names. That doesn’t tell the story. We tell the story.
Sometimes we re-tell the story in light of new information or new insights. In this issue, Bryan Soderholm-Difatte looks back 100 years to how George Stallings eked a championship from the 1914 Braves. David E. Skelton, meanwhile, looks at how the events at the end of the regular season in 1966 might have cost the Dodgers the World Series.
At the other end of the spectrum we have several papers on the subject of predictions and probability itself. What were the odds that Douglas Jordan, Stanley Rothman, John A. Richards, and Matt Haechrel would all have their papers ready for publication at the same time? Slim odds. But sometimes that’s how things work out.
Sometimes amazing things happen. I’m honored to bear witness.
CECILIA M. TAN is SABR's Publications Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.