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Prospect Retrospective: Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees

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Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter

Prospect Retrospective: Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees

Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile for someone you might have heard of: Derek Jeter. Jeter is an interesting case, a Hall of Fame player who was not an immediate success in rookie ball.

Derek Jeter was drafted in the first round in 1992, sixth overall, out of high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was considered to be a fine defensive shortstop and a terrific overall athlete, likely to hit for average and show good glovework, though there was some uncertainty about how much power he would show with wood.

Jeter was sent to the Gulf Coast Rookie League after signing but performed poorly, hitting just .202/.290/.312 in 47 games. He did not make Baseball America's Gulf Coast League top prospect list. The guys who did: Johnny Damon, Brandon Cromer, Edgar Renteria, Jim Pittsley, Jose Silva, Rafael Guerrero, Trey Beamon, Danny Clyburn, Jose Vidro, and Jason Kendall.

This was several years before I evaluated prospects for a living. However, someone like that now, a cold-weather high school player with premium athleticism but a weak debut would probably get a "high ceiling B- pending more data" grade from me.

The Yankees remained high on Jeter however, moving him up to Greensboro in the Low-A South Atlantic League for 1993. He did much better, hitting .295/.370/.394....he hit just 5 homers, but contributed 14 doubles, 11 triples, and 18 steals, with 56 walks against 95 strikeouts in 515 at-bats. He ranked 11th in the league in hitting, and impressed scouts and managers enough to be named the Number Two prospect in the Sally Circuit by BA. On the negative side, he struggled with the glove and made 56 errors, but scouts thought that his reliability would improve with experience.

Given the rapid offensive improvement he showed compared to rookie ball and continued praise for his tools, but troublesome defense, I'd probably go with a strong Grade B+ for a similar player nowadays.

Jeter began 1994 with Class A Tampa, hitting .329/.380/.428 in 69 games. This earned him a promotion to Double-A, where he hit .377 in 34 games. He followed that up by hitting .349 in 35 games in Triple-A. Although he hit just five homers all season, he knocked 27 doubles and 11 triples. He also made 25 errors, cutting his '93 rate in half, while showing promising range. His plate discipline was excellent, and he greatly lowered his strikeout rate, fanning just 61 times in 540 at-bats. Eddie Epstein gave Jeter a Grade A in the 1995 Minor League Scouting Notebook, and rated him the Number Two prospect in baseball behind Alex Rodriguez. I would not have disagreed.

Jeter spent almost all of 1995 in Triple-A, hitting .317/.394/.422 in 123 games. He hit just two homers, but 27 doubles and nine triples with 20 steals was good, and his MLE showed him as a .295 hitter at the major league level, excellent considering his age. He drew 61 walks against only 56 strikeouts. I gave him a Grade A in the '96 book and rated him as the Number Four prospect in baseball, behind outfielder Johnny Damon, doomed pitcher Paul Wilson, and outfielder Andruw Jones.

Jeter hit .314/.370/.430 with the Yankees in 1996, including 10 homers, winning Rookie of the Year. He got progressively better as a hitter, developing substantial power to go with his speed and on-base abilities. You know the rest of his history from here: a career .313/.382/.448 line, 117 OPS+, 3304 hits, 13 All Star games, 77.6 WAR, post-season heroics.

Although there was no way to predict his longevity, Jeter's batting average and OBP development were in line with his minor league record and age-relative-to-league factors. He developed a bit more home run power than you might expect, granted that the offensive context of the late 90s and early `00s helped in that department. As you also know, there's been a lot of controversy about Jeter's defense in recent years. However, I find the whole topic of Jeter's glovework to be a tedious proxy for Yankee booster-ism and Yankee hatred and for our purposes I'm just going to ignore it.

Jeter's list of Sim Score comps through age 38:

Craig Biggio (should be HoF)
Charlie Gehringer (HoF)
Cal Ripken (HoF)
Pete Rose (gambler)
Johnny Damon
Ivan Rodriguez (huh? comp, will be HoF)
Frankie Frisch (HoF)
Ted Simmons (huh? comp)
Paul Molitor (HoF)
Lou Whitaker

Sort of a strange list with two catchers and an outfielder, but there are four Hall of Famers, Rose played like one, Biggio and I-Rod belong, and both Whitaker and Simmons have cases. Jeter is an archetype in any event, with his highest Sim Score being Biggio at 778, which is not high at all. There are not many players comparable to Jeter, simply because so few players have been as good as Jeter.

If Jeter's career ended now, his 77.7 career WAR would rank him seventh all-time among shortstops. The shortstop WAR list currently goes Honus Wagner (147.6), Alex Rodriguez (114.6), Ripken (99.7), George Davis (85.6), Luke Appling (84.6), Bill Dahlen (79.7), Jeter, Joe Cronin (75.4), Arky Vaughn (74.1), Ernie Banks (74.), Robin Yount (74.0), Barry Larkin (70.5), and Ozzie Smith (70.1).

The key lessons for me as a prospect watcher from Jeter:
Rookie ball stats are not necessarily predictive.
High error rates in the lower minors are less important than range and athleticism
Lowering your strikeout rate as you move up is a key positive marker