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Ozzie Smith and Derek Jeter Take Different Paths to Greatness

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Derek Jeter began to make his mark in baseball just as Ozzie Smith ended his playing career. Both players ended up making great impacts for their teams, Jeter with the bat and Ozzie with the glove.

Nobody beats him
Nobody beats him
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Ozzie Smith and Derek Jeter are similar baseball players. They are both shortstops. Both had Joe Torre as manager. Ozzie is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and Jeter is likely to be the same. Jay Jaffe at (he did excellent work in previewing the Hall of Fame candidates this year), recently discussed Jeter's retirement announcement and showed a chart of the best shortstops of all time. He used his JAWS system to rank them. Since Honus Wagner's retirement in 1917, the rankings for players who played at least 50% of their games at shortstop come in as follows:

Player Career Peak JAWS

Cal Ripken, Jr. 95.6 56.1 75.8

Robin Yount 77.1 47.3 62.2

Arky Vaughn 73 50.6 61.8

Ozzie Smith 76.5 42.3 59.4

Luke Appling 74.5 43.8 59.1

Alan Trammell 70.3 44.6 57.5

Derek Jeter 71.6 42.3 56.9

Barry Larkin 70.2 43.1 56.6

If you set a reasonably low 60% bar for games at shortstop, Yount fails to make the cut. If you want to play with numbers, Ozzie Smith has the highest bWAR of any player in the last 100 years who played 80% of his games at short. Here is the cumulative bWAR for both players

Now, the cumulative fWAR for both players.

Take a look at this graph.

Now we see where they differ. As you no doubt know, Derek Jeter is one of the greatest hitting shortstops of all time. Ozzie Smith was not. The two players played in different run environments. During Ozzie's career, the seasonal average for runs scored per team in the NL was 4.19. During Jeter's career, the seasonal average for runs scored per AL team was 4.86. During Ozzie's prime, he was a decent offensive player. From 1985-1992 he generated 20.8 batting runs above average on offense plus 32.9 runs above average on the basepaths for an average of 6.7 runs above average per season. This is impressive given the expectations for the average hitter are greater than the average shortstop. That's what makes Jeter's offense so great. He had a 121 wRC+ over the course of his career which takes into account the higher scoring environment. Ozzie's 90 wRC+ is not great, but decent for a shortstop. Where Ozzie makes up ground, of course, is on defense. Here are the two players' cumulative graphs for defensive runs above average.

Unless you just really like debating (guilty), arguing who was the better shortstop all-time is not a productive exercise. Jeter was great offensively. Ozzie was great defensively. Ozzie has the higher bWAR. Jeter has the higher fWAR. Their peaks are equivalent. Both had outstanding postseason moments. Jeter won more pennants and titles. Ozzie never played with Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, or Alex Rodriguez. Some argue that Jeter is better than his defensive statistics indicate. It is also possible that regressing defensive statistics to the mean robbed Ozzie of even greater fielding numbers.

Yesterday on twitter, Craig Calcaterra asked who was the face of baseball before Jeter. He received very few responses. There is a case to be made for Ozzie. Looking back, it easy to remember the superlative playing career and his 1985 home run. Almost the opposite of the tweet above, Ozzie was more famous at the time and perhaps less so looking back. Ozzie's trademark flips made highlight reels before ESPN's domination. There was the unforgettable Simpsons appearance in 1992. In 1988, he was the highest paid player in the game. Ten times in a row he was voted the starter at the All-Star Game. In a sport with Mattingly, Schmidt, Ripken, and Rickey, it was Ozzie Smith who received the most overall votes in 1987 and 1988 for baseball's signature event. Calcaterra may be right. Before Jeter, there may not have been a face of baseball. If there was a face of baseball, it was likely Ozzie Smith's.

A year from now, for the first time in nearly 40 years, baseball will begin playing a season in which neither will take the field. Sometimes it's fun to argue overrated and underrated, best and worst, but sometimes it's enough to step back and simply marvel that we witnessed greatness. Either way, Yankees fans will now be saying the same thing that Cardinals' fans have been saying for two decades. We were lucky.