On Friday night Derek Jeter became the all time Yankees hit leader.
The immediate significance of this is obvious when scanning the list of Yankee greats and realizing that Jeter now – if he wasn’t before – deserves to be considered in the class with greatest players that have passed through the most storied franchise in baseball history. But like Pete Rose, who stands atop the all time MLB hit list and yet is rarely mentioned when considering the greatest hitters of all time, what does Jeter’s franchise-leading hit total mean for him among the greatest Pinstripers of all time?
Obviously the answer holds a certain level of subjectivity to it but the statistics seem to show that Derek belongs in the top five, hence our list; the Top 5 greatest Yankees of all time. This was understandably not a hard list to compile or justify so the idea here is to examine these players’ merits always considering Jeter (and the greater pantheon of Yankee players) in a comparative sense.
1. Babe Ruth (1914-1931): Placing Ruth at the top of this list is the easiest pick as he is unquestionably the greatest ball player off all-time period. The man’s .342 life time average (9th all time and 25 points higher than Derek’s) and .474 OBP (2nd all time, and far better than Jeter’s .387) show he was a phenomenal contact hitter and his 714 home runs (second all time, screw you Bonds), 2217 RBIs (2nd all time), and 1.164 OPS (1st all time) paint him as the greatest power hitter that ever lived. Ruth is like The Beatles; you acknowledge the axiom that nothing compares and move on to the other considerations from there.
Jeter does have 13 more doubles and 290 more stolen bases than the Bambino but that's probably more attributable to hot dogs than any skill advantage for Derek.
2. Lou Gehrig (1923-1939): The player Jeter just passed for the all time lead in hits by a Yankee, Gehrig held the record for 70 years before the new Yankee captain surpassed him. Lou is not only a top five Yankee but likely a top five hitter in baseball history, especially when placing a high value on completeness. Although Jeter tops Gehrig in hits, his .340/493/1995 traditional stats all best Jeter as does his .447/.632/1.080 peripheral stat line. Gehrig did have the luxury of hitting behind Ruth a large portion of his career but when considering that he was likely sick almost two years before he retired from the illness that killed him shortly after, his stats are all the more astounding.
3. Mickey Mantle (1951-1967): The big debate between Yankee centerfielders inevitably comes down to DiMaggio or Mantle. For the third slot I’m going Mantle by a wider margin that many would think. The one black mark on Mickey’s stat line is his .298 batting average (19 points under Derek’s), pulled under .300 by the ridiculous pitching of the pre-mound lowered late '60s and Mantle’s own deteriorating body. His career was cut tragically short by injuries and booze but his peripherals tell the full story of his greatness. His .421/.557/.977 line is stellar for his era, shown by his 172 OPS + (7th all time and 3rd on the Yankees list behind Ruth and Gehrig). Add to that his 18 home runs in 12 World Series appearances (7 wins) and Mantle’s placement at 3rd on this list seems more than justified. DiMaggio may have been a more consistent hitter but when Mantle was healthy his superiority in the Yankee universe is rivaled only by that of Ruth.
Jeter and Mantle had totally different styles at the plate but that doesn't take away from the fact that Jeter has struck out 256 less times than Mantle in 491 more at bats.
4. Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951): DiMaggio, like Mantle, saw his career cut short (by service time, not whiskey and misplaced drain caps) but he still managed to put together one of baseball's greatest careers. A legend in the field and at the plate, DiMaggio is fourth on the Yankees all-time list in batting average (one place above Jeter at .325), 7th in OBP (.398), and 4th in total bases (3948, again one spot ahead of Derek). The most comparable player to Jeter stylistically on this list, DiMaggio’s power numbers put him above Jeter for now (361 to 223 HRs).
But by the time Jeter calls it a career he will have, at the very least, surpassed Joltin' Joe in total bases and possibly batting average (he's eight points back at .325 and is hitting .333 after going 2-for-4 in Friday's game). Derek will also be the only Yankee in history with 3,000 hits, possibly moving him ahead of DiMaggio on that statistical merit alone, especially if he maintains his batting average and can even better Joe in that category.
5. Derek Jeter (1995-Present): In addition to now placing first in hits, Jeter is fifth for the Yankees all-time in batting average, 12th in OBP, 5th in total bases, 4th in doubles and second in stolen bases (only 26 behind Rickey Henderson). The captain is even 7th in walks which is pretty incredible when considering the power hitters that have passed through the Bronx throughout the history of the franchise (many of whom hit behind Jeter).
There have been many other great Yankees one could make a valid argument for inclusion on the list in this 5th spot including Earl Combs, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, etc., but Derek Jeter, the all-time Yankee hit king, is truly one of the greatest ball players to ever wear the pinstripes, and the rest of his career should only reinforce that assessment that he is one of the 5 greatest players on the most legendary franchise in sports history.
Jeter surpassing Gehrig on Friday was a great moment for baseball, period. Even non-Yankee fans can appreciate Jeter; a player of integrity that has never shamed himself, his team, or the game that he so obviously loves and reveres.
Sometimes it takes moments (like a three-minute standing ovation acknowledging the historic accomplishment of a player who embodies the unrealistic ideals baseball purists still have for the game) to remind all fans that baseball does possess a rich history far before steroids clouded the game. It is those roots that always have and always will ensure the game’s survival, even in its darkest moments, whether in 1919 or 1998.