Derek Jeter played in his final All-Star Game on July 15, 2014, and the scene in Minneapolis was nothing short of a love-fest. That was to be expected, of course, since The Captain has been the face of the New York Yankees for two decades and is on the brink of retirement. Talk show fodder following the big night centered around how overrated Jeter has or has not been over his career, and all of the banter made Riverfront Ball think about the Cincinnati Reds’ own legendary shortstop and how he compares to Jeter. So, the question is: who was better, Derek Jeter or Barry Larkin?
Let’s jump in and try to come up with something concrete.
(All statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.)
As of this moment, Jeter has 3408 hits and is still climbing up the all-time list. He has also smacked 258 home runs and stolen 354 bases, while slashing along at .311/.379/.443/.882 (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS) for his career. By comparison, Larkin logged 2340 hits, 198 homers, 379 stolen bases and slashed .295/.371/.444/.815.
That looks like a decent disparity in favor of Jeter, but the less lively era in which Larkin played actually make his numbers a bit beefier than they might initially seem. Indeed, both players sport an OPS+ of 116, which means they were several ticks above league-average shorstops during their careers. If we hop over to Offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR), though, Jeter has a clear advantage at 95.2-67.5, a large part of which can probably be chalked up to better longevity for Jeter (see below).
This has been a hot-button topic throughout Jeter’s career, and the debate continues. Jeter has won five Gold Gloves, and could conceivably add another if the voters get clouded by emotion at the end of the season. Regardless of that fact, the numbers say that he has been bad at shortstop, maybe historically so. Looking at Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR), Jeter has been in positive territory only three times in his career, and only once in a Gold Glove season. All of the peripheral numbers also seem to support that he is below-average in the field.
Larkin, on the other hand, shows some interesting splits. Through age 35, he was decidedly above average in the field and touched elite territory in a couple of seasons. For his efforts, he garnered three Gold Gloves at the end of the Ozzie Smith era and before Rey Ordonez established himself.
Larkin won the National League MVP award in strike-shortened 1995, an honor that escaped Jeter during his career. Still, that was back in days when Barry Bonds was not yet BARRY BONDS and did not always get the respect he deserved, including winning the hardware that Larkin nabbed. Larkin was actually better in a couple of other seasons, peaking at 7.2 WAR in 1996 and finishing seventh in the 1990 MVP balloting.
Jeter, though never an MVP, finished in the top 10 eight times, peaking at third in 1998 and 2009. His WAR topped out at eight in 1999.
Given that Jeter played in more games during his best season, I have to say …
At first blush, this looks pretty even, given that Jeter has played 20 seasons and Larkin played 19. Larkin was hurt, or at least banged up, a lot, though. As a result, Jeter will end up with nearly 600 more games played that Larkin, and that discrepancy balloons well over 700 games if you include the postseason.
And now we come to the squishy part of our evaluation: intangibles.
Both of these guys spent their entire careers with just one team, making them rare birds. Larkin facilitated a long stay in Cincinnati by working under contracts that kept him well below the highest-paid players of the time. While Jeter’s negotiations never got contentious, at least publicly, he has made north of $250 million in his career. That could have only happened with the Yanks, so we might discount the hometown notion a bit. Also, given that Larkin is from Cincinnati, he wins the the homer points.
But there is so much more to consider with Jeter, from his well-publicized romances, to his charitable work, to his deft handling of the spotlight. He also has shown and flair for making the big play in big moments, whether he is “clutch” or just has more opportunities to cash in on those Q-builders than someone with, say, the Reds would have had.
Could Larkin have handled all the pressures of being Mr. Yankee and still have flourished? Would Jeter have hung around Cincinnati and carried the star-power load, largely devoid of big-name teammates?
Who knows, which is why I can only call this one …
Drawing all of these pieces together and looking objectively at the whole, I have to give a slight career edge to Jeter, based largely on his stellar durability and consistency. It’s a lot closer call than some may believe, though, and it’s closer than I thought it would be when I sat down to examine the two Hall of Fame shortstops (see Jeter, 2020). You couldn’t have gone wrong having either of them front your favorite team for twenty years or so, and Jeter’s retirement just gives Reds fans one more reason to reflect on the greatness of Barry Larkin.