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What development can learn from Derek Jeter’s poor defensive skills

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter
Keith Allison

What does New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s ability to play shortstop have to do with development? Turns out plenty.

Jeter is regard as among the best shortstops in the history of baseball. The captain of the New York Yankees has the wins (5 World Series titles), the stats (more than 3,000 hits) and the awards (five Gold Gloves, Rookie of the Year, World Series MVP). The signature jump-throw from a ground ball to his right side was held up as evidence of his skill as a fielder.

Jeter is by most accounts among the greats in the history of professional baseball (that is not purely the bias of a Yankee fan). He is also not a very good shortstop.

Despite winning awards that confer Jeter as the best fielder at his position, it turns out that he is one of the worst. It is not necessarily news at this point. The part of the game that was once believed to be the hardest to measure, aside from errors, is now quantifiable. By comparing players against each other, calculating distance covered for a play and so on, there is now a way to determine who is best.

The story of Jeter’s defense was recently chronicled by Ben Lindbergh for ESPN’s Grandland.

According to two historical play-by-play-based systems, Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average and Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone, Jeter has cost his team more in the field than any other player in history, with both methods assessing the damage at 230 to 260 runs.

By all appearances Jeter excelled in every aspect of the game. Without more sophisticated analysis of his fielding, the myth of Jeter the great fielder would have continued.

Jeter’s jump-throw is a result of his poor range. 

Development and aid programs, even the ones that succeed may have aspects that are better than others. Some may be like Jeter, great by appearances, but with significant flaws. Information currently available could hide significant problems that are in plain sight. Determining what is not working well does not mean that entire programs should be shelved, much like Jeter should not be benched.

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman sat down with Jeter a few years ago to discuss his fielding. The evidence was overwhelming that the starting shortstop was a liability in the field.

Jeter apparently took the advice to heart by training in the offseason to improve his lateral movement. The results of the work were seen in the next season when Jeter went from a negative to a positive rating. Problem is that he is aging and cannot undo the previous seasons for poor field work.

Had the Yankees known better at the start of his career, it stands to reason that Jeter would have been a better overall fielder. That would have certainly help save a few runs that could have led to even more wins. Because Jeter did not commit many bobbles or errors, it looked like he was an elite infielder.

A much better Brendan Ryan sets his feet for a harder throw.

Even the best looking development interventions can learn from their work. Having the appropriate tools to determine what is working well and where shortcomings exist can maximize impact. Basketball courts are now equipped with cameras to record every action of every player on the court with the hope that the data will provide insights into strengths and weaknesses of every player in the NBA.

The randomized control trial is meant to provide a capture of what happens to people who do and do not participate in a given program. There are other less expensive tools that are employed and developed so that governments and organizations can learn.

Lindbergh ends his story with a series of what if questions. The same can be asked of the development industry. What if things were done differently? That matters less than asking this: are organizations willing to take a hard look at their own programs? Can then admit problems and make changes? Or, like Jeter, make changes too late?


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]