When New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter played in just 17 games last season as a result of injuries, his future seemed uncertain. The 38-year-old Jeter was playing in his 19th season, and it was the most time he had missed his entire career. But after rehab and working out in the offseason, Jeter decided to return this year. It wasn’t that simple, though. It would be his swan song — he announced on February 11 that 2014 would be his last as a Major League Baseball player.
Throughout his career, Jeter has been a fixture in New York. You don’t think of the Yankees without thinking of Jeter. He has also been the best — at least one of the best, if you’re picky — shortstops in the game for a long time. During Jeters’ reign, there have been better offensive and defensive shortstops than him, but no one has equaled his impressive balance of offense and defense. That’s what this list is: the five best all-around shortstops to ever play the game from the bottom to the top, taking into account more than any single facet of the game.
5. Ernie Banks
To start, Banks was the first African-American player on the Chicago Cubs, and that’s not even a testament to his ability. Playing the more defensive-minded shortstop position, he wasn’t expected to produce tons of runs — he did exactly that. He’s one of just 25 players ever in the MLB to hit 500 career home runs, and he did that all while wearing a Cubs jersey for his entire 18-year tenure from 1953-71. Though he played first base towards the end, Banks would go down as one of the best (and first) power-hitting shortstops ever. During the peak of his career, he won back-to-back MVP awards, which all but set his legacy in stone.
4. Ozzie Smith
Whereas Banks was known more for his offense, Smith was a defensive legend. His .978 fielding percentage (according to Baseball Reference) is one of the best ever. The ease with which Smith moved around the infield and made almost impossible plays look easy is a quality that set him apart from even the best infielders. In 19 MLB seasons, he played for two different teams and racked up 13 Gold Gloves at the position.
Whereas some shortstops are hindrances to a team’s batting order (see Adam Everett) because they’re needed more for their defense, that wasn’t the case for Smith. Sure, he didn’t have the most powerful bat in the league — he still managed to leave baseball with a .262 batting average, and an average of 50 RBIs per every 162 games played. Again, he didn’t wow you with his bat, but put that next to his wizardry at shortstop, and there wasn’t a team out there that wouldn’t have signed Smith in a heartbeat.
3. Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken was better known for his league-record 2,632 consecutive games played, but he wasn’t too bad, either. In 21 years in the majors, he played only for the Baltimore Orioles — an impressive feat. Maybe not the league’s best fielding shortstop, his ability to hit for power and average easily made up for any defensive deficiencies (albeit he won two gold gloves in 1991 and 1992, so his defense was well above subpar.)
Similar to Banks, Ripken was a power hitter: especially for a shortstop at that time. He won two MVP awards, was a 19-time All Star, and won eight Silver Slugger awards (given to the best offensive player at each position.) Playing at a time when it mattered much more for a shortstop to be good on defense than good at the plate, Ripken helped change the position. Oh yeah, and he also accrued a ridiculous 3,184 career hits and 431 career home runs.
2. Derek Jeter
As the only active player on this list — though for just one more year — Jeter will assuredly be in the Hall of Fame when he’s eligible. Ever since his first season with the Yankees in 1995 where he won the AL Rookie of the Year award, Jeter has won the hearts of New Yorkers with his glove and bat. Sure, he has never won the league’s MVP award, but that’s because Jeter isn’t a power hitter; he’s a contact hitter with an impressive .312 career average.
Defensively, Jeter has been a rock in New York for almost two decades. Some players on this list switched positions later in their careers as a result of age and becoming too slow to man the middle of the infield, but that’s not the case for Jeter, who’s still the Yankees’ field general this season. Jeter isn’t known for driving in a lot of runs or being the best hitter in the game (though his 3,316 career hits speaks for his consistency.)
Yet when the postseason rolled around, he never failed to amaze. He’s contributed to five World Series victories, and during those trips, maintained a career .351 batting average. Ripken Jr. was much better statistically than Jeter, but in terms of overall success (albeit Jeter played with some pretty good Yankees’ teams), he far surpassed Ripken. Jeter epitomized playing well when it doesn’t matter, and great when it does.
1. Honus Wagner
Wagner played for 20 seasons as a baseball player between the years 1897 and 1917 — making him by far the oldest player on this list. It’s difficult to compare a player from that era to even one from the 1990s because the game was so different. Wagner’s numbers don’t lie, though. He finished with 3,420 career hits, had 1,733 career RBIS, and won eight batting titles. When you consider that Wagner was playing in the dead ball era where RBIs and home runs were rarities, his numbers are that much more impressive — and also the reason that he is at the top of this list.