Time to talk baseball. As the Red Sox are currently in the middle of a series in the Bronx, it comes as little surprise to find an article over-stating the abilities of Derek Jeter. Full disclosure: I am an ardent Red Sox fan. However, I do not hate Jeter. I think Jeter is a terrific player, has always played the game hard and played "the right way," has always conducted himself with class and dignity on and off the field, and will rightly be inducted into Cooperstown exactly five years after he retires. I would have loved to have had Jeter on the Red Sox (probably not starting now, given that he's about to turn 37 this month).
On ESPN's site today, something named Mark Simon wrote about Jeter's true legacy being his career BABIP. I was a devotee of the old website firejoemorgan.com, and enjoy sabermetrics as much as one can while still maintaining a family and numerous friendships, but BABIP as a true measure of a player? Really? Okay, for those who don't geek out on baseball I should explain that BABIP is the number that represents a players batting average on balls hit into play. That is, you take the number of hits and subtract home runs and then divide that number by at-bats minus strikeouts and homeruns but add sacrifice flies. The result is a player's batting average for balls that he hit that landed somewhere in the park. Very exciting.
BABIP is mildly useful as a tool to better understand a pitcher or hitter's numbers. However, what it is indicative of is somewhat of a mystery, which is to say that it is not a very useful tool in evaluating a player's worth, and there are many other metrics that give a clearer insight into a player's stats. For example, let's look at Jeter's 1999 season, without question his best season at the plate. In '99, Jeter had a batted .349, hit 24 home runs and drove in 102 rbi's. His OBP was .438. His BABIP was .396 - the highest in his career. Compare that to Mark McGwire's 1999 season. (Yes, I know Big Mac was juiced up and cheating at the time, but we are comparing numbers, not the man). Mac batted .278, with 65 hr's and 147 rbi, and a .424 OBP. His BABIP was .250. The MLB average BABIP is .300. You can argue all you want about who you would rather have on your team, but you cannot escape the fact that Mac's numbers were huge! Of course, if you want to subscribe to the theory that BABIP is important, then clearly Jeter had the monster season, while Mac's was below-average. So we see that BABIP does not reflect reality.
Interestingly enough, if one looks at the 1999 MVP voting, Ivan Rodriquez won the AL MVP and had a BABIP of .324 - that's 72 points lower than Jeter! In fact, Jeter came in 5th in MVP voting that year. I can now tell you that BABIP had not been introduced in 1999. But that doesn't change anything. If we look at 2009, the NL MVP Albert Pujols was not among the top 30 players for BABIP. Further, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Gonzalez were among the 8 lowest BABIP, yet each received MVP votes, With AGonz coming in 12th. The players who are able to achieve a high BABIP are generally among the better hitters in the league, but be aware of the distortions. David Wright, in 2009, had a BABIP of .394. Of course, he also struckout 140 times. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio stuckout 13 times, hit .357, but his BABIP was .327. In that same year, Ted Williams famously batted .406, struckout 27 times, but had BABIP of .378. In fact, Ted Williams complied a career batting average of .344, but a career BABIP of .328. Ted Williams is generally considered one of the three best (if not THE best) hitters of all-time, particularly for power and average. Derek Jeter is not considered one of the best hitters of all-time. Not even close.
To try to fluff Jeter's stature in baseball via BABIP is disingenuous, and ultimately undermines the player Jeter has been for his career. BABIP is little more than a fantasy number, because it ignores a hitter's propensity to strikeout. You can't hit safely in 56 straight games if you are prone to striking out, nor can you bat .406 if you whiff 100 times. A close examination of Jeter's BABIP does little more than remind us of how much he resembles David Wright. And frankly, Jeter deserves better.