Last week I tackled the Don Mattingly/Keith Hernandez debate here on Depressed Fan. It wasn't the first time the discussion had come up for me, but this was probably the first time I'd had the debate with some perspective. When Mattingly and Hernandez were both playing they were at different stages of their careers, and we weren't comparing full bodies of work. Today, the New York Post poses the question: "Who's better, Derek Jeter or Jose Reyes?" And we're right back in the mid-eighties, comparing apples to oranges.
Reyes is an exciting young player, who should be entering the prime of his career. Jeter is in his early thirties, with a body of work behind him that Reyes would be very, very lucky to even approach. Leaving out post season heroics and rings, Reyes will still be hard pressed to match Jeter's offensive production.
Defense is much harder to compare. Judging a player's defensive abilities is something I think statistics cannot do. Too many variables go into the compilation of statistics for them to have any meaning. Using attempts to judge a player's range is an unfair measure if you don't take into account the number of groundballs vs. fly balls, number of games played on turf/grass, situations in which balls were batted (was Jeter holding runners on at second with greater frequency than Reyes?), range of the third baseman playing alongside the shortstop (good range means a lot of balls are cut off before the short stop can field them). Without an accurate statistical measure for defense, the observer really has to use his judgment to put a value on a player's defense. I'm leaning toward Jeter on this one, basically because 95% of the time, he's the best shortstop on the field for either team. He covers more ground, makes all the throws, and makes the tough plays. Reyes may have more range, he may have a better arm, but in my view, Jeter makes a lot of plays other shortstops don't make, and he makes all the routine plays look routine. A Mets fan will probably have the exact same feelings about Reyes' defense.
To answer the question at the root of this post, Jeter is the better player right now. From a historical view, when all is said and done Jeter will stand head and shoulders above Reyes. If I was starting a franchise today, and building for the future, I'd have to take Reyes based on age alone. He's only 24 and his numbers last year were impressive. I'd like to see a higher OBP from a leadoff hitter, but his speed and extra-base power make up for his lack of patience.