By Scott Flinchum
Although the Roberto Clemente Award stands as the only annual honor presented to an MLB player that is not based on on-field performance—valuing service above play—many of the awards recipients, like Clemente himself, have been among the game’s finest. This begs the question: how would one of these players stack up when compared to “The Great One”?
The Silent Era vs. Generation X
There are many great names to choose from among former Clemente Award recipients, but one name that stands out to me as a late Gen X’er is “The Captain,” Derek Jeter. The face of one of the most dominant teams in Yankees history, and a true baseball legend.
Before we move to the analysis though, let’s acknowledge the obvious: yes, they played different positions. However, it’s equally true that each position has its own set of challenges and nuances that value one thing: results. So, let’s run the numbers and find out what those results are. We’ll first look at how The Captain of 2009 (the season Jeter received his Clemente award, at age thirty-five) would fare against The Great One of 1970 (Clemente’s age thirty-five season).
The Great One
Despite the intersectionality he endured, Clemente was already an established force in MLB during his fifteenth season. By 1970 he was a nine-time all-star, had nine gold gloves, four NL batting titles, a league MVP award, and was a World Series winner—having taken down Mickey Mantle’s Yankees in 1960. At age thirty-five, he was a bonafide superstar.
His slash line for that year was .352/.407/.556, one of the best of a career that saw him carry a lifetime slash of .317/.359/.475. He held a WAR of 5.5 (the highest among his Pirate teammates). His fielding was equally stellar as he committed only seven errors over 108 games en route to his tenth Gold Glove and his tenth All-Star selection. In addition to these individual achievements, he also led his Pirates to their first NL East division title.
Entering his fifteenth, age thirty-five, season, Jeter was also among the game’s best. He had won five World Series trophies, been named World Series MVP, All-Star Game MVP, he had three gold gloves, three silver sluggers, and ROY in his inaugural 1996 season.
The year 2009 proved to be yet another banner year for Jeter in an already impressive HOF résumé. Not only did he win the aforementioned Roberto Clemente Award, but he also took home the Hank Aaron Award, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, was selected for his tenth All-Star game, won his fourth Gold Glove, his fourth Silver Slugger, and his fifth World Series trophy—all while becoming the Yankees all-time hits leader (2,722), surpassing the legendary Lou Gehrig.
His slash line for that year was .304/.406/.465 and his WAR was the third highest of his career at 6.6 (a team-best). Even legendary bench coach—and former big-leaguer—Don Zimmer said of Jeter that year that The Captain, “…might go down, when it’s all over, as the all-time Yankee.”
It’s plain to see that Jeter obviously has the edge in hardware plaudits and post-season excellence, but does that mean he was really the better player? Let’s open up our analysis now and go beyond their respective age thirty-five seasons.
Why the Great One is so Great
For context, much of the era in which Clemente played was known for having dominating pitching. A change to the rules assisted this rise in pitcher dominance. From the years 1963-1969 the strike zone was re-defined (read, ENLARGED) to include the top of the batter's shoulder to the bottom of the knee. And that’s without taking into account fluctuating mound heights throughout that time period.
In spite of this, during the entirety of the sixties, Clemente hit well above .300, having only one year where he dipped below that line: 1968 when he hit only .291. The Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, when asked about how one goes about pitching to Clemente, had this pithy reply: “Roll the ball.”
Clemente eventually made it to the 3,000-hit club before his tragic passing, which is remarkable considering the era in which he did it. While Jeter surpassed Clemente’s mark of 3,000–amassing 3,465 total hits—and did so without ties to PEDs (during the steroid era) amidst an improved MLB talent pool, he still had the benefit of a standardized strike zone and mound, a luxury not afforded to Clemente.
What about total offensive value?
Clemente’s lifetime WAR is 94.8, in contrast to Jeter’s 71.3. And, if we continue down the offensive metric line for a moment, we see that Clemente bests Jeter in BA (.317 vs .310), SLG (.475 vs .440), OPS+ (130 vs 115), and Avg Total Bases Per Game (299 vs 290). Meaningful hitting numbers go to The Great One.
What about defense? Also, Clemente.
Clemente’s DRS (or Rtot) stands at 205. Jeter’s is an abysmal -186. Meaning, that he allowed an additional 186 extra base runs to be scored over what an average MLB SS should. Even if we choose a different defensive metric, like UZR for instance, it still gives Clemente the obvious edge at 201 while Jeter’s is a paltry -71.
And while there’s no denying the fact that Jeter earned his Mr. November moniker—he’s the all-time leader in postseason games (158), plate appearances (734), hits (200), runs (111), and total bases (302)—when looking at the total breadth of their careers, Clemente’s on-field greatness just seems to be, well, greater.
No matter which side of the fence you’re on when it comes to their play, Clemente and Jeter both share something that advanced metrics just can’t quantify: a perspective of service. Whether to their teammates or the communities impacted through their philanthropic endeavors, both of these men have epitomized what it means to be a servant leader. And that’s something we should keep in perspective during this upcoming awards season.
Scott Flinchum is a writer based in Virginia. He is interested in telling a wide range of stories. His work can be found at eephus.Substack.com.