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Monday, November 08, 2010

Irrational Derek Jeter Love/Hate vs. Scott Rolen

The Yankee Captain's underwhelming 2010 season has made the controversy surrounding his impending free agency all the more stressful for Yankee fans...and entertaining for the rest of us.

Already the negotiations have begun in the media, with the House of Steinbrenner vowing not to pay for milestones and sentimentality, and Jeter's agent, Casey Close, reminding them that the Captain's "impact cannot be overstated."  In my view, the more rounds of shenanigans the better.  But there's really only one possible outcome, right?  Who else could be interested in a 37-year-old, defensively-challenged shortstop coming off the worst season of his career and demanding at least an eight-figure salary?  Not my team (I hope).

I am, of course, an avowed Jeter-hater.  My spite correlates more or less exactly in its excess to the hyperbolic man-love that originates from the Bronx and is spews almost daily from the mouths of self-righteous Jeter-ites like Joe Morgan and Joe Buck.  If there weren't such a willful ignorance on the part of the pro-Jeter camp, denying even his most glaring flaws and suggesting he ranks not only among the elite of his era, but is somehow among the best ever, I wouldn't feel obligated to write snarling anti-Jeter rants each and every year.

Can't we be reasonable?  I, at least, am willing to try.  What I want to know is, personal preferences aside, what is Derek Jeter's actual value on the open market?  In order to establish that, we'll need to start by looking at some similar players who've tested the free agent market in the decade since Jeter signed his last contract.

For starters, there's Miguel Tejada.  He's almost exactly the same age as Jeter.  He's been reluctant to accept the fact he's no longer a "Gold Glove" shortstop.  As recently as 2009 he had a year in which he was among the league leaders in hitting (.313) as well as several other categories.  But, in 2010, his production dropped off the table, as he posted a 692 OPS, the worst since his rookie season.  Sounds familiar, right?  Like Jeter, Tejada is a free agent and you can bet, whatever suitors he has (if any), they aren't going to be discussing anything bigger than the $6 Million, one-year deal he had in 2010.

Even I will grant, however, that Derek Jeter is worth more than Miguel Tejada, and not just because of his "intangibles."  Like Tejada, Jeter possesses great bat control, the ability to hit to all fields, sporadic power, and a great knack for situational hitting.  Unlike Tejada, he also has decent speed and a more selective approach, which will help him continue to be an acceptable top-of-the-order hitter, even as some other aspect of his game deteriorate.  Also, although the difference is probably minimal, and not supported by the limited sample size from this season, Jeter is still a noticeably better shortstop than Tejada, at least a more sure-handed one.  And Jeter's athletic skills, especially his speed and his instinct for tracking flyballs, suggest that when he's ready to accept a change of position, the Yankees will have options and Jeter have a better chance of adapting.  While I don't think the comparison is as unfair as Yankee fans would like to believe, Jeter has an apparent edge over Miggy on both sides of the ball.

With few other players playing shortstop at such a late stage in their career, it is necessary to look at other positions for comparable players.  It is at this point when we come to Scott Rolen.  I have to admit, this caught me completely off guard.  On the surface, it's kind of strange comparison.  The natural assumption is that these guys are opposites.  Jeter hits for average, Rolen for power.  Jeter steals bases, Rolen drives in runs.  Jeter is an ironman, Rolen is brittle.  Jeter is gregarious, Rolen is shy.  Jeter plays a mediocre shortstop (if we're being kind), Rolen plays an exceptional third base.  Jeter is a lifelong Yankee, Rolen's already got four franchises on his resume.  

However, when you look closer, you see they've been running more or less parallel as players for nearly two decades.  Jeter is nine months older than Rolen.  Both broke in at age 21, and both won the Rookie of the Year award (Jeter in the AL in '96.  Rolen in the NL in '97.).  They've both been frequent All-Stars (Jeter 11, Rolen 6).  They've both won Gold Gloves (Jeter 4, Rolen 7).  They've both come close to the MVP, but never won it.  They both played their prime seasons with the powerhouse franchise in their league.  And, although you may not have realized it, they are both amongst the premier players of their generation.

From '97 (Rolen's rookie season, Jeter's sophomore season) to the recently completed campaign, they rank #5 and #6 in Wins Above Replacement.  Those in front of them are of impressive ilk:

1. Alex Rodriguez 93.2 (6.7 per season)
2. Barry Bonds 86.5 (7.9)
3. Albert Pujols 83.8 (8.4)
4. Chipper Jones 71.5 (5.1)
5. Derek Jeter 67.9 (4.9)
6. Scott Rolen 66.6 (4.8)

Here's how the pair stack up in some other popular metrics:

                      AVG  OPS  OPS+ WPA
Derek Jeter    .314    837    119    31.6
Scott Rolen    .284    867    124    31.1

That's a pretty remarkable similarity.  And, it should also be noted, it's a pretty remarkable accomplishment to be rated in this class.  Some of the guys who fall just behind them are notable: Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guererro, Jim Thome, etc.  You may not have realized that Rolen belonged in such company.  (And I was reluctant to admit that Jeter did.)  One might be tempted to suggest that Rolen has been more valuable than Jeter over the course of his career because he's gotten to nearly the same WAR, but with less playing time (mainly due to injuries).  Jeter's WAR per 162 game is 5.18, Rolen's is 5.85.  That's a specious argument, of course, considering Rolen's shortened seasons (particularly '05 and '07) came at a severe cost to the Cardinals.

But Rolen's fragility has been somewhat exaggerated.  He's only had one season with fewer than 100 games started and he's averaged over 550 plate appearances per season during his 14-year career.  Whatever lingering damage there is to his shoulder and back, it has only cost him a few weeks over the last two seasons and certainly hasn't kept him from being productive when he's in the lineup.

In 2010, Rolen was the cleanup hitter on a team that led the National League in almost every offensive category.  He was the protection for MVP-candidate, Joey Votto, making his role an especially crucial one for the Reds.  He was a clubhouse leader and again played exceptional defense at third base (his 10.6 UZR ranked third in the NL).  He made just over $11 Million, but, according to FanGraphs, was worth over $20 Million.  Perhaps, as Matt Klaassen has said of Jeter's 2009, this was the "Last Great Season from a great player."  If so, the Reds may live to regret the $13 Million extension they gave Rolen prior to his 2010 campaign.  But, at $6.5 Million per season, Walt Jocketty has left plenty of room to get his money's worth, even assuming a relatively rapid late-30s decline.

Jeter was, again, according to FanGraphs, worth less than $10 Million in 2010 (but more than $6.5).  But, I can already hear pinstriped protestations, "The things Jeter does cannot be quantified."  Okay, let's talk about some things which can't be quantified.  

1.) Jeter is, of course, Captain Intangible, but Rolen isn't exactly a clubhouse cancer.  Walt Jocketty surprised almost everybody in 2009 when he went to great lengths to acquire the aging cornerman and then extended him only a few months later.  Jocketty and Dusty Baker clearly wanted Rolen to be the veteran presence on their young team and thusfar that gamble has paid off handsomely, with the Reds first trip to the postseason in nearly two decades.  Also, Jocketty's avid pursuit of Rolen makes a big statement about who was at fault during the falling out between the third baseman and Tony La Russa when all were with St. Louis.  Jeter and Rolen are both clearly good "chemistry" guys.

2.) Rolen still plays third base at well above par.  There is no reason to believe he'll have to change positions anytime in the near future and probably will retire still at the hot corner.  He provides exactly what you expect from his position - some power, run production, and decent average.  On the other hand, the Yankees must know Jeter is going to stop being an everyday shortstop soon, probably should've happened already.  Not only is there an awkward "Cal Ripken situation" brewing in the Bronx, but even if Jeter eventually accepts a move, it could start a chain reaction of difficult decisions.  Where will he go?  Who else will need to be moved to accommodate the switch?  How will this effect morale?  How will it effect the Yankee defense?  Will he provide enough offense to be a corner infielder, corner outfielder, or DH?  If not, how with the Yankees compensate and how much will they have to spend on that compensation?  Resigning Jeter has potential costs well beyond just the value of the contract.

3.) Although it's quite clear based on the above WAR standings that Rolen has had an extremely impressive career, he's not developed the HOF-caliber cache of Jeter (or anybody else on that list).  Nobody come to the Great American Ballpark with the hopes of catching one last glimpse of Scott Rolen.  They don't ask for their money back when Baker gives Rolen a day off.  Nobody is going to be scalping tickets in order to profit from Rolen's pursuit of 2000 hits or 500 doubles.  When Rolen can no longer produce better than the Reds other options at third base, he will no longer be their third baseman.  At that point, he will either be forced to accept a reduced role or retire.  Can the same things be said of Jeter?  If Joe Girardi decides the Captain is best suited to a super-utility role which gives him three or four starts a week, will Jeter accept it?  Will New York fans?

4.) Steinbrennerdom might say they aren't interested in "milestones," but you can be damn sure they're interested in the millions of dollars in revenue Jeter's pursuit of 3,000 hits and beyond will inevitably generate.  Those "milestones" mean ticket sales, memorabilia sales, television ratings, advertising sales, etc., etc.  Jeter deserves to be compensated accordingly.  I may not understand why he's so popular, but I don't dispute that he is, and popular players are profitable players.  However, the profit motive in this case does not necessarily correlate with the Yankees oft-stated top priority: winning.  Moreover, if the Yankees have proved anything during the last two decades, it's that winning is profitable.  In fact, putting the best team on the field, even if it doesn't include Jeter, might be the quickest and most efficient way to profit.

Jeter's contractual negotiations bring a lot of factors to the table which Rolen's frankly did not.  Even if you are compelled to believe, as I do, that they are comparable offensive players and that Rolen is the superior defensive player, you still have to give Jeter a bonus for his durability and his "brand."  I believe, that if the baseball market were truly perfect, in the Milton Friedman sense, Jeter would get paid  20-25% more than Rolen, at most.  Of course, it isn't perfect, and based on this year's performance, there's a strong likelihood that Rolen is actually underpaid, as he has been for much of his career.

If Rolen had waited until now to negotiate his extension with the Reds, he could've reasonably ended up making about what he made each of the last four seasons ($11 Million/Yr.), probably for the next two, with some incentives and some sort of option for a third.  I think this makes Buster Olney's prediction of 3 yrs./$45 Million for Jeter seem pretty reasonable, perhaps even generous...if this were a perfect market situation.    

But, as one last comparison and point of curiosity, I'd like to know how much each player has made per Win Above Replacement up to this point:

Jeter: $2,930,528 / WAR
Rolen: $1,549,450 / WAR

I think that satisfactorily dispels any notion of a perfect baseball market.

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