Selection bias with Derek Jeter’s fielding: bad stats, memorable moments

As Derek Jeter’s career winds down, one baseball pundit wrestles with how Jeter’s defense numbers are so bad even as we remember some of his great fielding moments:

Data-mindful observers couldn’t figure out why the decorated Yankee kept winning those Gold Gloves and garnering raves for his defense. Stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved didn’t merely suggest that Jeter was overrated; they pegged him as downright terrible. Even the best glovemen lose range as they age, which means Jeter actually hurt himself by playing past his 40th birthday and seeing his career defensive totals dip as a result, but the figures are unnerving regardless. Based on Baseball-Reference’s Runs From Fielding, which is based on DRS, Jeter’s combination of subpar defense and exceptional longevity don’t merely make him a defensive liability; they make him the worst defensive player relative to others at his position in baseball history.

That ranking is incredibly hard to fathom because of a very human weakness: selection bias. People remember a few extraordinary events, then ignore or even repress the information that might contradict that initial impression. With Jeter in particular, it’s nearly impossible to make the visceral reactions agree with the data, because Jeter has pulled off some of the most incredible defensive plays we’ve ever seen.

How to put this all together?

So really, it’s OK to agree in part with both sides of the argument. Even if we acknowledge the flaws of advanced defensive stats that aren’t yet based on play-by-play data or dispute the claim that Jeter was the worst ever, we can comfortably say he was overrated defensively by many people for many years, and cost the Yankees their share of outs. But we can also say that every huge-leverage play like The Flip negated a handful of squibbers through the infield during random April games in Cleveland, even if they left him as a net-negative defender on the leaderboards. Jeter might not have deserved five Gold Gloves, but he does deserve credit for crafting memorable plays that can’t simply be chalked up to coincidence or luck.

In other words, memorable plays that lead to key victories can go a long way to wiping out more objective data over a longer period of time. Of course, this is true across a broad range of contexts beyond baseball; showing unusual urban crimes and police responses as “normal” could have a similar effect on television viewers. In the long run, perceptions may have less of a shelf life as people who witnessed those events – like “The Flip” – stop remembering them or die and the data lives on.

Derek Jeter as an example of the kind of world MLK envisioned

A sociologist argues that Yankees star Derek Jeter is an example of the kind of world Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned:

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O’Connor, Jeter received a “racially-tinged threat” in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate…

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter’s appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country,” Edwards said. “When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter.”…

Derek Jeter’s way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

Tiger Woods, pre-scandal, may be another good example.

At the same time, this analysis makes me a little nervous. As some examples from Jeter’s own life suggest, we still have a ways to go. While it is notable that we now have visible multiracial leaders who appeal to a broad swath of America, at the same time, Jeter is a role model because he is successful at what does, going to multiple All-Star games and winning multiple World Series championships. Would Jeter be revered in the same way if he was from the Dominican Republic or from the south side of Chicago or from a farming community in North Dakota? What if he spoke about racial issues or wasn’t such a classy figure and “acted out”? In the end, does his celebrity make it easier for the average multiracial American? Are Americans only willing to look past Jeter’s background because he is a classy winner?