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Derek Jeter’s great, but let’s compare to Alan Trammell


SOCHI, Russia — Well, the overwhelming thing that is the Winter Olympics has completely thrown me off my 100 greatest baseball players ever schedule. So it goes. We’ll pick up where we left off after I return and recover and get back on U.S. time. I predict this will be sometime in July.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about one big mistake I made in the Top 100 list, I’m sure I’ve made dozens of mistakes but one in particular stands out to me. And it relates pretty directly to the biggest baseball news of the last week.

I left Alan Trammell off my Top 100. That’s just not right. And I’ll need to correct that.

When Derek Jeter announced his retirement a couple of days ago, I wrote about how amazing it is — in these times of Twitter and 24-hour sports talk and mean-old defensive statistics and smark-aleck bloggers who invent words like Jeterate — that Derek Jeter will walk away from the game almost universally admired. It is a happy fate that eluded almost every great player of his time. Derek Jeter was a fantastic player, a sure Hall of Famer, a man who played hard every day. For the next six months, people will come to dedicate a portion of baseball immortality on him. It is altogether fitting and proper that they should do this.

But in a larger sense …

In the last last few days someone wrote how there will never be a Yankee who mattered more than Derek Jeter. Someone wrote this tripe about how stat nerds need to shut up because Derek Jeter was, like, the awesomest thing ever. Someone wrote that the Hall of Fame shouldchange its induction rules because Jeter should go in early with his buddy Mariano Rivera. Red Sox players were effusive, Bud Selig, after spending months breaking Alex Rodriguez, wrote the most glowing statement about him. Albert Pujols said he was “pretty close” to Jesus.

And I it hit me: Oh yeah, THAT’S why I invented the word Jeterate.

He was a fantastic baseball player. But you know what? Alan Trammell was just about as good.

Here are Alan Trammell’s and Derek Jeter’s neutralized offensive numbers.

Trammell: .289/.357/.420
Jeter: .307/.375/..439

Jeter was a better hitter. But it was closer than you might think. They had similar strengths offensively. At their best, they were .300 hitters with some power and some speed. Both lost deserving MVP awards to players who hit a lot of home runs and had a lot of RBIs. Jeter played in a historically high scoring time which inflated his numbers. Trammell played in a low-scoring time, which depressed his. So their actual numbers diverge. Plus Jeter was much more dependable which is no small thing. Jeter played in 300-plus more games. He played 140-plus games in 15 seasons. Trammell because of injuries and such managed only eight 140-game seasons.

But Trammell has his advantages too — namely defense. Trammell was a much, much, much, much, much, much — can’t put “much” in here enough times — much better defensive shortstop.

By Baseball Reference’s defensive WAR Trammell was 22 wins better than a replacement shortstop. Jeter was nine runs worse.

By Fangraphs, Trammell was 76 runs better than a replacement shortstop. Jeter was 139 runs worse.

You can buy those numbers or you can partially agree with them or you can throw them out entirely, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Trammell was a better defensive shortstop. It’s only a matter of degree. And where Jeter’s offensive strengths and longevity give him a cushion over Trammell, the defense unquestionably cuts into the lead.

More: They were both widely respected players. They were both leaders on excellent teams. They both had great years. It’s fascinating to look at their five best years by Baseball Reference WAR.

Jeter: 8.0 (1999); 7.5 (1998); 6.6 (2009); 5.5 (2006); 5.1 (2001).
Trammell: 8.2 (1987); 6.7 (1990); 6.6 (1984); 6.3 (1986); 6.0 (1983).

And by Fangraphs WAR:

Jeter: 7.4 (1999); 6.8 (2009); 6.2 (1998); 6.1 (2006); 5.5 (2002).
Trammell: 7.7 (1987); 6.9 (1984); 6.2 (1990); 5.7 (1986); 5.6 (1983).

By both of those measures, Trammell was at least as good, and perhaps a tick better, than Jeter when they were both at their best. That’s because Baseball Reference and Fangraphs WAR weigh defense pretty heavily. Like I say, you might not think Trammell’s defense makes up that much ground. You might not even think Trammell was a better defender than Jeter. Baseball is fun to argue about.

All of this can lead to the easy conclusion that Derek Jeter was wildly overrated … and when people are saying he’s pretty close to Jesus or that he belongs on Yankees Mount Rushmore(worst tourist attraction EVER!), yeah, it’s hard to argue. But my point is different. My point is that Alan Trammell was criminally underrated.

There are only a handful of shortstops in the history of baseball who transcended the position. You look at the Hall of Fame shortstops — many of them couldn’t really hit. Aparicio … Ozzie … Pee Wee … Scooter … all of them were, in total, below average hitters. Cal Ripken is viewed as one of the most powerful offensive shortstops ever … but he had lower slugging percentage than Ruben Sierra and Eric Karros. The position is so demanding defensively, so demanding physically, so demanding mentally that very, very few players could play the position and stay on top of their games daily and be great offensive players and run the bases and lead their teams.

Jeter deserves to be celebrated for being one of those shortstops. He was probably the best player on four of the five Yankees World Series champions he played on (he wasn’t in 1996; there’s an argument that Jorge Posada or Bernie Williams was better in 2000). He helped his team in countless ways. I wouldn’t say he was the best modern shortstop but his career has been wonderful.

And so was Alan Trammell’s. Criminally underrated doesn’t even do his career justice. And I’m one of the people who underrated it.

Will Kyle Schwarber play in the field in Chicago?

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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In his comments after last night’s game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon would not rule out the possibility of Kyle Schwarber playing left field as the World Series shifts to Wrigley Field.

The issue, though, is that it’s not yet his call to make. Schwarber will receive a medical exam today to determine whether his surgically-repaired left knee is sound enough for play in the field. Probably in left field, with Ben Zobrist likely moving to right. It’s a dicey proposition even if he’s healthy, given that he’s a defensive liability even at 100%. And given that his injury happened due to an outfield collision in the first place.

But even if Schwarber isn’t available for the lineup, he can still be a pinch-hitting threat. In Game 2 on Wednesday he hit two RBI singles and drew a walk. His presence could alter Terry Francona’s strategy, even if it’s limited.

What would be a good new name for the Cleveland Indians?

SYDNEY, NSW - JANUARY 23:  A Redback Spider is pictured at the Australian Reptile Park January 23, 2006 in Sydney, Australia. The Redback, probably Australia's best-known deadly spider is found all over Australia and is a close relative of the Black Widow Spider from the U.S. Only the female Redback is considered dangerous, with their venom containing neurotoxins, which works very slowly. Fatalities, even from untreated bites, are rare. Australia is home to some of the most deadly and poisonous animals on earth.  (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
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All of the Chief Wahoo talk of the past few days inevitably leads to talk about the Indians changing their nickname as well, not just their mascot.

I’ll grant that there is an argument to be made that they are somewhat different issues as Wahoo is so patently and facially offensive while “Indians” is not quite as viscerally repulsive. I’m not sure I buy that argument — I’d like to see all Native American names, Braves included, go away just to be neat and tidy about it all — but there have been discussions in other sports leagues that have led to accommodations in which Native American names and sports have continued to live on respectfully together, so it is theoretically possible.

But let’s leave that for another day. For now, let’s assume for the sake of off-day argument that Major League Baseball and Indians owner Paul Dolan decide that, in addition to Chief Wahoo going, the “Indians” name is going to go too. I don’t think they’ll actually do this — my guess is that the Cleveland baseball team will be called the Indians for a long time — but let’s just pretend that the two of them have a beer at the Winter Meetings and it’s decided that, going forward, “The Cleveland Indians” will cease to be.

If that happens, what do we call them? Let’s run down some possibilities:

The Cleveland Spiders

The overwhelming answer most people give when the subject of renaming the Indians comes up is “The Cleveland Spiders.” This is understandable, as there was once a Major League team in Cleveland called the Spiders and because no other North American professional sports team has a spider as a nickname or mascot somehow. I don’t like it, though, for a couple of reasons.

A primary reason is that it just seems really 1990s to me. I’m shocked an NBA expansion franchise didn’t use it, actually, complete with black and teal and a ridiculously over-aggressive cartoon mascot because, in the 1990s, everything had to be all grim and gritty and hardcore like that. I can see “Spiders” being treated better than that now than it may have been then, but I could still see all kinds of aesthetic missteps being taken, turning the Indians into a low-level laughingstock.

We’ll leave that aside for a moment, however. A bigger reason is that the name “Spiders” is a reminder of abject failure when it comes to Cleveland baseball.

Contrary to what many believe, the Cleveland Spiders were not a direct ancestor of the Indians. The Spiders started as an American Association team known alternatively as the “Forest Cities” — a mostly disused nickname for Cleveland — and the “Blues.” When they moved to the National League in 1889, they became known as the “Spiders.” Ohio’s own Cy Young starred for them and they had some pretty decent success in the NL in the early 1890s.

The Spiders were most memorable, however, for their ignominious end. They declined from 1895-1898, becoming a middle of the pack club. 1899, however, saw the Spiders experience the worst debacle a major league club has ever experienced. The Spiders owners purchased the St. Louis Browns the offseason before — which is clearly a conflict of interest — and transferred most of the good Spiders players, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. They then turned the Spiders into a sideshow, quite literally, actually, moving most of the team’s schedule to the road. The Spiders were the jobbers of the National League. The Washington Generals without the sympathy. They finished 20–134, which will forever stand as the worst record in baseball history. They finished 84 games out of first place and 35 games behind the next-to-last place team in the league.

The Spiders were so bad that year that they, along with three other NL teams, were contracted out of existence at the end of the season. Ironically, this cleared out some markets and paved the way for the Western League to ramp up to major league status and become the American League we all know today. Which means that the Spiders pathetic futility is the very reason the Cleveland Indians exist.

People usually aren’t thinking about that futile end when they talk about calling the Cleveland team the Spiders. I think most just like the brief nod to history and believe that spiders are badass animals. But it’s hard for me to not think of the Spiders as a relic of one baseball’s darkest chapters. And I’m sorta freaked out by spiders, so they’re not my first choice.

The Cleveland Blues

The Spiders were known as the Blues at times in the 1890s. Nicknames were a lot more fluid then. The name returned to Cleveland baseball when the American League expanded to Cleveland in 1901. For one season, the club that would become the Indians was referred to as the Blues.

There are pros and cons to “Blues” as a name. On the pro-side is an actual connection to the current franchise. Another is the fact that colors-as-nicknames work really well in sports. This goes back to chariot racing in Roman times, by the way, when fans at the Coliseum would root for their favorite chariot driver based on the color of the cloth hanging from his chariot. You were a partisan of the “red” or the “blue” or what have you. In baseball we have the “Reds” and the “Red Sox” and “White Sox.” It’s an extension of that. We see this in soccer and rugby and a lot of international sports too. Blue is a pretty popular color for baseball teams and the Indians already wear a whole lot of blue, but if they change their name to the Blues they could claim it in baseball more affirmatively than other teams do.

The con is one of concrete identity, in that the modern sports economy really pressures a club to have something that can be easily slapped on logos and merchandise. There are some super venerable nicknames like “Dodgers” and “Yankees” which do just fine not being reduced to an actual mascot — the name or initials and a distinctive font is enough — but I’m not sure if the Blues could pull that off so easily. If forced to choose between selling caps with a spider on it and caps with a some vaguely 19th century concept of blue on it, MLB and New Era and all of the stakeholders are gonna pick the Spiders every time, I suspect.

Some Actual Tribe Variant 

Many older Native Americans call themselves “Indians.” “Native Americans” has been taken up by non-indigenous people to refer to indigenous people, but my understanding is that indigenous people don’t often walk around calling themselves “Native Americans” among themselves. They call themselves “Blackfeet” or “Cherokee” or “Navajo” or “Chippewa” or what have you. The link way up at the top of this page goes to the Florida State Seminoles webpage. Florida State may have begun calling themselves that for the same reasons the Indians and Braves and other teams started using Native American nicknames and mascots, but there has since been a dialogue and endorsement from the Seminole Tribe and the university which has rendered the nickname acceptable to most and has seen to it that people and their iconography are not treated disrespectfully.

I don’t know how that has been received by the larger Native American community — I could imagine it still being seen as controversial — but I suppose it’s at least possible for the Indians to take that tack and see if some positive can be made out of so many years of negative portrayal. It’d be a pretty dicey proposition, though, as it would be a process driven by the Indians and Major League Baseball that would be, in essence, asking people for permission that they are in no way entitled to. It’d make Major League Baseball’s century of tone-deafness on the matter of nicknames someone else’s problem, which seems rather rude and presumptuous. And that’s before you realize that, because of the United States’ policy of removing Native Americans from their lands and screwing them over royally for a couple of centuries, there aren’t exactly a ton of Native Americans left in northern Ohio to bestow such permission. I could see it happening in theory, but there may be too many obstacles and too much water under the bridge to even consider it. And that’s before one asks why it’s so important to keep Native American names associated with professional baseball to begin with. Which I don’t think it is. Just throwing it out there.

Cleveland BC

Major League Soccer screwed up in the 1990s by immediately assigning nicknames to every club. They did it, I suspect, because clubs in all other North American professional sports have set nicknames and that’s just what is done, right? But that wasn’t always the case. Many of them developed organically, with the name being suggested by the press or the fans or as tributes to some local idiosyncrasy. MLS has backed off that now, with new teams being allowed to just be identified as the city and “SC” or “FC” or what have you, tracking the habit of international soccer. For teams that were given a nickname — my local Columbus Crew, for example — the nickname is being deemphasized and an organic identity, driven by fans, is being allowed to take hold.

There’s no reason baseball couldn’t do this. Heck, the Indians have their own history of this, as they were known as the “Naps” for the years between the Blues and Indians monikers. That was to honor the club’s biggest star at the time, Napoleon Lajoie, and it went away after he did. There is no way that specific method happens today due to free agency and clubs having no interest in tying their identity to one player (the “Cleveland Klubers? Eh. No), but some natural evolution of a name could come about.

Maybe you start with the “Blues” as an unofficial/official nickname. Call them “Cleveland BC” and refer to them as “the Blues” and see what happens over the course of a couple of years. Maybe that can’t work in the modern era. Maybe those cap sales would suffer too much. But it seems worth a try.

That’d be my choice, anyway. “Cleveland BC. — Go Blues!”

Any ideas of your own?