Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The most over-rated play of all time

For years I've been hearing people gushing about the play in the 2001 ALDS in which Derek Jeter caught a throw coming in from the outfield and flipped it to the catcher for the out. I'll bet if you asked 10 people to list the top ten plays of all time, at least five (and probably more) of them would include this play.

Here's the thing: it's not even a good play!

How did I arrive at this heresy? Let's break it down in terms of pros and cons.

Pros for the play:

(1) It was unexpected.

(2) It looked cool.

(3) It came at a big moment.

(4) It achieved the desired result.

Note that not a single one of these pros says anything about the quality of the play. They're really about the quality of the viewing experience. That's a very different thing.

Cons for the play:

(1) The reason it was unexpected was that Jeter seemingly came out of nowhere to make the play. Since the fielders all have assignments on plays like this, this means that he either wasn't where he was supposed to be, or he was where he was supposed to be but was late getting there. Either way, he should get no credit for the unexpectedness, and actually should get a slight demerit.

(2) The hop was pretty easy to handle, and the running flip to the catcher, while difficult for the average citizen, is within the capability of most any high school middle infielder, and is not difficult for a major league shortstop. It does look cool, and at least he didn't screw it up, but every day there are ballplayers making much more physically demanding plays. No demerits here, at least, but if we're looking for one of the greatest plays ever, we need something a lot better than this.

(3) I just watched it for the umpteenth time, and this time on YouTube so I could run it back and stop it as often as I liked. (The link I found was shut down in short order by MLB as a copyright infringement.) The footage I saw showed once again that the throw was right on target. The rightfielder, Shane Spencer, threw from well into foul territory down the right field line, and the ball bounced just on the right edge of the basepath. By the time Jeter intercepted it, it was in the middle of the basepath, and it was headed for the inside edge of the basepath, on a perfect path for the catcher to make the tag. The ball had lost some speed, but Jeter's flip was not fast, either, and even the brief transfer of the ball from the glove to his hand cost a valuable fraction of a second. What does it all mean? Jeter actually slowed the ball down, did not improve the angle, and in fact put the play at risk by injecting himself into the situation. The baserunner was dead meat even if Jeter never came close to the ball. By catching and flipping it, he made a hero of himself and made Spencer a forgotten man, but he did absolutely nothing to help the Yankees win.

So to sum it up, Derek Jeter was somewhere between slightly and grossly out of position, made a not-too-difficult physical play, and put the game in jeopardy by making himself a hero at the expense of a teammate. If you don't buy my argument about the difficulty of the play, fine -- but note that the more difficult his part of the play was, the more he put the overall play at risk!

Greatest play ever? Not hardly. If you care about winning, it was actually a bad play. Sure looked cool, though, huh?

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