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‘Defensive Runs Saved’ Is Bullshit

Okay, no it isn’t. But I got your attention, didn’t I?

In recent years — the last decade, more or less — we have measured players’ defense using a statistic called Defensive Runs Saved (and, to a lesser extent, Ultimate Zone Rating). DRS attempts to measure how many plays a player makes relative to the average player at his position. [For a detailed explanation, check out the fielding bible here. ] DRS has changed our collective minds about many players’ defensive reputation. Sometimes it confirms our beliefs: Ozzie Smith and Andruw Jones rate as two of the best defenders ever, as we would expect. Sometimes it exceeds our expectations: everybody knows that Tom Glavine was a very good defensive pitcher; DRS tells us he was the second-best since WWII (after his teammate Greg Maddux).

And sometimes, it makes us go ‘WHOA! I thought that guy was a better fielder than that.’ Ken Griffey, Jr. was unquestionably the best player in the 1990s not named Barry Bonds, and most of us think of his decline coinciding with his injuries after he left Seattle. Offensively, that’s true. But his defensive decline started a couple of years earlier than that. In his MVP year of 1997, he saved his team an extra 16.8 runs on defense. In his very next season, he actually cost his team 1.1 runs on defense, dropping his WAR from 9.1 in 1997 to 6.6 in 1998 (per Baseball-Reference) despite virtually identical offensive numbers. In fact, Griffey — the guy everybody my age idolized as a kid, the one guy everybody in the country loved to watch hit, run, and play center field — somehow ended up with negative defensive value for his career, with a final tally of -39.6 DRS. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

But that’s another story. Never mind. Anyway.

In the world of defensive metrics like DRS, nobody’s defensive reputation has suffered more than Derek Jeter’s. In the beginning of his career, Jeter’s fielding was lauded by many, and by the eye test it seemed like worthy praise: Jeter came in on weak grounders, went back on pop flies, and made plays from the hole as well as anybody. He was also an incredibly alert defender — how many players have a signature play as memorable as his flip play? Alertness, however, is impossible to measure, and according to DRS, Jeter cost his team more runs on defense over the course of his career than any other player in history. Now, as has been pointed out before, that doesn’t mean he was the worst defender in history; he had to play twenty years at shortstop to accumulate -236 DRS. But with the complete objectivity of a fan who has worshiped Jeter since his rookie year, I will try to explain to you why that is bullshit.

For starters, in all but three of his eighteen full seasons, Jeter made fewer than 20 errors (and he never made 19, so there aren’t any ‘just missed’ seasons here). To put that in perspective, Ozzie Smith made 20 or more errors five times. Yes, errors can be subjective… but so can defensive runs saved. So let’s put any ‘hometown scorekeeper bias’ arguments to bed right now; everybody has hometown scorekeepers and they are all biased. Now Yankee fans are already looking at DRS and going “You’re blind, Ump! You’re blind, Ump! You must be out of your mind, Ump!”

DRS would have you believe Jeter has been one of the worst defenders in history. One problem with that assessment is that DRS compares players across different positions, so an average player who plays one of the most difficult positions, like shortstop, will suffer in comparison to an average player at a less difficult position, like left field. It’s why players like Jason Heyward and Adam Eaton can lead the league in DRS when they play right field, but only rank slightly above average when they play center field. So right off the bat (pun intended), Jeter’s defensive stock rises a little bit.

I could cite many different statistics proving that point, so to save us all some time, here’s just one: the website FanGraphs gives players a Fielding rating and a Positional rating. Combining the two gives you their Defense rating, allowing you to compare players across different positions. If you sort solely by Fielding rating, players at the more difficult positions will rate lower than if you sort by Positional rating. As you might have guessed by now, Jeter rates poorly by Fielding rating but quite well by Positional rating (he’s right around Cal Ripken and Omar Vizquel, in case you were wondering just how well). Predictably, when you combine the two ratings to get Jeter’s Defense rating, he’s right in the middle of the pack. Similar rankings at Baseball-Reference give similar results.

It’s also worth noting just how valuable Jeter’s durability was (it’s still weird to write that in the past tense). How many of his backup shortstops can you name? Luis Sojo. Brendan Ryan. Eduardo Nunez … I’m out. It’s a short list of his backups who got substantial playing time. Jeter led the league in plate appearances five times, and in hits twice, doing both as late as age 38. He played at least 145 games in all but five of his nineteen seasons, and four of those seasons were the last four of his career (the other one was 2003, the year Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby landed on and dislocated Jeter’s shoulder on opening day).

So what do we have? A shortstop who played almost every day for the better part of two decades, had a reliable glove and a strong arm, and made plays other shortstops didn’t make. So he wasn’t great at going to his left and he stayed at short longer than he should have. Here’s the bottom line: it’s Game 7 of the World Series. Bottom of the 9th, one-run lead, bases loaded. Who do you want the ball hit to?

I’ll take the guy who cost his team more runs on defense than anyone else.

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