But what about the previous generation? Iron Cal Ripken was the flagship shortstop of his generation. How does Jeter stand up next to Ripken and which was the better shortstop?
Ripken, by the end of his career, had played in 900 more games than Jeter has played through today. Also, towards the last quarter of his career, Ripken played 3B, not SS That said, let’s check the stats and compare.
Ripken is known for being a power, slugging-type shortstop—breaking the image of Pee-Wee Reese or Phil Rizzuto image of shortstops. Jeter, on the other hand, is known more for his singles and slapping balls the other way. And while it was true, Ripken could thrash, his slugging percentage is actually lower than Jeter’s—.458 to .447. He does have far more home runs than Jeter has, and averaged 23 a year to Jeter’s 17. Still, even considering Jeter playing another 900 games, he still probably wouldn’t catch up to Ripken’s HR number.
That said, Jeter is a far better hitter for average, batting .317 to Ripken’s .276, and should have way more total hits than Ripken by the time his career is over. Ripken’s adjusted OPS+ of 112 trails Jeter’s 121. Jeter’s win percentage is .617 compared to Ripken’s .536.
In fielding terms, neither were outstanding fielders. One problem in comparing them, is that there weren’t the same stats for Ripken’s era that their are now. Using fielding percentages, error totals and Gold Gloves, the total results out that both Ripken and Jeter are all roughly equal. However, both won those Gold Gloves later in their career when reputation, rather than actual play, probably accounted for the award. So using FanGraphs.com’s best mathematical guess, Ripken’s fielding number match out a far bit better than Jeter’s. Which is what eyes that have seen both players would say. One thing that should be noted, however, is that by his 36th birthday, Ripken was already a fulltime 3B while Jeter is still playing shortstop every day.
Ripken won the ROY Award as did Jeter. Ripken won 2 MVP awards—though for his first one, it could be contended that Eddie Murray should have won it, but that the writers hated Murray and gave it to his young teammate—and Jeter never won one—although he has been in the top 3 of voting 3 times. Ripken has won an All-Star MVP, as has Jeter. Jeter has won a WS MVP.
But what one really notices when comparing these 2 HOF shortstops is that while Ripken probably hit a few higher marks in his career (368 TB in 1991, 47 2B in 1983, 102 BB in 1988, 2 MVP), Jeter is remarkably more consistent throughput his career. After 1991, his 2nd MVP year, while still playing some good ball, Ripken became a much more average-type player. After that 2nd MVP season, Ripken had an above 100 OPS+ season just 3 more times in his career—and one of those seasons was a year in which he only played in 86 games. By the time he turned 36, Ripken never hit 20 HRs, never had 100 RBI, and was never a MVP factor again.
Jeter meanwhile, turning 36 this month is still playing as well as ever. Last year, Jeter won a Silver Slugger Award, had 212 hits (3rd best for his career) and was 3rd in the MVP race. Jeter has never had a season below a 100+ average—last year, his 132+ was tied for 2nd best in career. He had 30 steals last season. Jeter batted 344 in the postseason last year and had 3 HRs and 6 RBIs.
Who’s the better shortstop? Frankly, and this is sure to sound like a cop out, but it’s a wash. Ripken was the better defensive player, the better home run threat and had better single seasons; Jeter is faster (averages 23 steals a season to Ripken’s 2), the better overall hitter and is amazingly consistent even into his older playing days.
After writing this article I found an article by David Schoenfield over at ESPN.com Insider, which states that Derek Jeter could be the 2nd best shortstop of all time (behind Honus Wagner), beating even Cal Ripken. Schoenfield’s conclusions are similar to the ones found here.
And there's this: Yes, maybe we all tire of Jeter's fist pumps from the top step of the dugout, but he plays hard, plays nearly every game, by all accounts is the consummate teammate, and he has been a terrific postseason player. Ripken, of course, played every game as well. But isn't it worth considering that maybe he should have taken a few games off from that mental and physical toll? Why wasn't he nearly as good a hitter (other than 1991) after turning 26? Did he place the streak above the team?
Look, Jeter still has some work to do to catch Ripken. He needs to maintain his offensive production into his late 30s, no sure thing. But as of now, I'll take Jeter with the bat, Jeter on the bases, Jeter with the consistency and Jeter on the top step of the dugout. Ripken rates a big edge with the leather.
Agreeing with Schoenfield, Jeter, overall, is probably the better player. Of course, this is not to knock Ripken, who got 98.5% of the HOF vote, and you have to wonder what the heck the 1.5% of those who didn’t vote for him were thinking. Jeter is also, a first ballot guy, and should his level of play remain even somewhat close to what he has been doing, Jeter will retire as the better shortstop than Ripken.