Whatever you might think of Derek Jeter—with 72 career Wins Above Replacement, averaging the two sources—he’s rarely been the best player in his league for even one season. In 1998 and ‘99, perhaps. And if you’re really careful, you might find another season in which he deserved the MVP Award. But even in his best seasons, he’s always had some competition, while Wagner usually didn’t. Strictly by the numbers, Wagner wasn’t just the greatest shortstop who ever played the game; he was one of the five greatest players, period. You can look it up.
...Still not ready to give up on Derek Jeter? Well, here’s how you get him past Cal Ripken and perhaps even Honus Wagner ...
First, you give him a big dollop of extra credit for the Yankees’ success since he arrived in the majors back in 1996. And he deserves some extra credit. There’s an intangible benefit to his steadiness over all those years, and his postseason numbers are right in line with his regular-season numbers ... which of course is impressive because he’s typically faced better pitching in the postseason.
Second, you assume that every single sophisticated defensive metric is just flat-wrong; that he’s been not a poor defensive shortstop for most of his career, but that instead he’s been average, at least.
If you want to award Jeter 10 extra Wins Above Replacement for his intangibles and his postseason play, and make him an average defensive shortstop, you’ve got him at roughly Cal Ripken’s level. And if you want to assume that the roughly 90 years separating Jeter from Wagner practically invalidates Wagner’s performance, then ... Well, then you can make the argument that Derek Jeter really is the best shortstop ever to play baseball.
I can’t make that argument. But to a lot of people you and I know, maybe even some of our friends, it’s not crazy.