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Smalstig: Derek Jeter and Yasmani Grandal, case studies in the evolution of statistical perception in baseball

| Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Derek Jeter. A name synonymous with professionalism, consistency and a jump-throw from the 5.5 hole. A player who fell just one vote short of becoming the second player to be unanimously inducted into the Hall of Fame. An icon of one of America’s greatest cities, who kids around the country now call … the most overrated player in baseball history?

If anyone would have thought to have uttered those words just a decade ago, they probably would have chastised themselves for lack of a conscience. Now, with every member of Gen Z scouring the internet for the most comprehensive look at players, both past and present, some important discoveries have been made.

The average fan would look at his basic stats and spot the .310 career batting average and 3456 career hits, both marks that put him among the best to ever play the game. Now, a nerd like me will scroll down the Baseball Reference page for some more context. There, I find a 115 career OPS+. This is a weighted stat that takes into account on-base percentage and slugging where 100 is league average for that year. Objectively, OPS+ gives a better look than batting average at the value that a player adds at the plate, as it takes into account valuable outcomes like walks and extra-base hits which average simply neglects.

Now, a 115 career OPS+ is nothing to scoff at, but some context puts light on the situation. This mark puts Jeter tied for 534th all-time, and among the likes of other retired players like Dave Kingman, Grady Sizemore and Lucas Duda. Good? Yes. First ballot worthy, on the other hand …

Well, what about his impact on defense? Not many can say that they have five Gold Gloves, especially at the shortstop position. As it turns out, Jeter was much better in highlight reels than he was on a day-to-day basis. According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), a stat that uses multiple advanced defensive metrics to compute defensive value, he might be one of the worst defenders in MLB history. In his career, he had -165 DRS and even won a Gold Glove in a season where he had -24 DRS. To be frank, that is a disgrace.

But, this doesn’t mean you should look down on Derek Jeter. It simply means you should see him for what he truly is. He is a cultural icon that was very good, but maybe not great, for a very long time. He had so many magical moments; he dated superstar after superstar, and he won 5 World Series, all in New York City. This was a recipe for a level of fame that perhaps no other baseball player has seen. That’s why Derek Jeter is viewed as he is, despite the fact that advanced metrics cast a shadow on his illustrious career.

While Jeter is an example of a household name whose performance doesn’t live up to the hype or the counting stats, there are plenty of examples of just the opposite. One of the best is Yasmani Grandal. A name that many casual fans would struggle to conjure up when asked who starts at catcher for the Chicago White Sox. What would that fan think when first seeing his .237 batting average this year?

I expect they wouldn’t bat an eye, assuming that they were looking at another average catcher. In reality, Grandal has easily been the best backstop in the league for all of 2021.  He has some of the best plate discipline in the league and makes the best of his limited swings, creating a 160 OPS+. 

Additionally, while it hasn’t shown in recent years, Grandal is historically an elite pitch framer. Using data collected by Statcast, we can see that Grandal got strike calls on 52.5% of borderline pitches from 2015-2018, compared to the league average of 47%. 

These are the types of things that often cannot be observed while watching just one game, and in some cases cannot be found on the most popular statistical reporting apps and sites. This, in many ways, is an example of what makes baseball so beautiful.

The general public wants to believe that baseball is boring, but I know that it is just wonderfully complex. The deeper you dive, the more you get out of every inning you watch, or piece of statistical information that you consume. A 10-pitch walk drawn by Juan Soto becomes just as impressive as a Brett Gardner home run that snuck into the Short Porch in Yankee Stadium.

This may not be the best pitch to someone who’s thinking about starting to watch baseball, but I hope it makes the casual fan want to learn more. To progress from looking at batting average, to on-base plus slugging, to OPS+, to WRC+, and beyond. Really, I promise being a baseball nerd isn’t as bad as it sounds.

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