Revisiting Derek Jeter’s Performance

On May 13th, I wrote a fairly brief but cautionary piece on Derek Jeter’s poor start to the season. My concluding paragraph:

I hope I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before (cough Brett Gardner cough), and I’ll be wrong again. But once the dust settles, and [Javy] Vazquez is pitching acceptably well, and [Curtis] Granderson is back, and [Mark] Teixeira has settled in, and all that stuff, I think Jeter’s performance will be the lingering but unmentioned issue. This certainly bears monitoring, particularly with Jeter’s contract expiring at the end of the season.

To my total surprise, that finishing comment might actually have been somewhat prescient. We’re one week into July, and the Yankees are in first place in the AL East. After a strong June and early July, Javy Vazquez’s ERA sits at an acceptable 4.81. Granderson is back and playing well (unless he’s being asked to do something he simply cannot do, which is hit lefties). Teixeira’s numbers are creeping back up to his lofty standards; he’s hitting .280/.377/.517 since June 1st. Generally speaking, things are pretty rosy for the Yankees right now.

Of course, this leaves us with “the lingering but unmentioned issue,” which is Jeter’s still-uninspiring performance. Before continuing, I want you to know that I know that Jeter is a 36-year-old middle infielder with tons of extra games on his odometer. My intent is not to beat up on a guy who has (a) performed at an incredibly high level for nearly 15 years or (b) cannot reasonably be expected to continue at that level at an advanced age. What I am trying to do, however, is point out that Jeter is unquestionably declining, and that his upcoming contract negotiations with Brian Cashman are going to be awfully interesting. Despite some chronic bad habits (neglecting the bench, overpaying for veteran relievers) and some high-profile busts (Kei Igawa), Cashman is not an idiot. He understands the aging curve and is familiar with emerging and non-traditional metrics. He knows that whatever the Yankees ultimately pay Jeter, it will be more for what he’s done than what he will do. And believe or not, I would probably do the same thing. But if the following numbers are any indicator, it’s going to be a long and often painful end to the Derek Jeter era.

On May 13th, Jeter:

  • was hitting .269/.314/.407
  • was walking in 4.6% of his PAs (by far the lowest number in his career)
  • was swinging at 33.2% of pitches outside the strike zone (by far the highest number in his career)
  • was swinging at 52.4% of all pitches (highest in career)
  • was seeing 3.54 pitches per plate appearance (fewest since 2004)
  • had a GB/FB of 3.83 (highest in career)
  • was hitting 12.6% of batted balls for line drives (lowest in career)
  • was seeing the most fastballs he’s seen since 2006

Today, Jeter:

  • is hitting .281/.347/.404
  • is walking in 8.2% of his PAs
  • is swinging at 28.7% of pitches outside the strike zone (still by far a career-high)
  • is swinging at 48.6% of all pitches (in line with career norms)
  • is still seeing 3.54 P/PA
  • has a 4.15 GB/FB (far and away a career high)
  • is hitting 17.7% of batted balls for line drives (still a career-low)
  • is still seeing the most fastballs he’s seen since 2006

The data paint a pretty clear picture: Jeter isn’t hitting the ball hard anymore. Even with a flukey (and career-high) HR/FB, he’s still only slugging .404. And all the batted-ball data (GB%, LD%, etc.) indicate that he’s simply not making solid contact. Unfortunately, this isn’t an instance of data not matching up with what our eyes see. Jeter is hitting more weak grounders than ever before in my 15 years of consistent Yankees-watching. Luckily, he has regained some measure of his plate discipline and the standard for AL shortstops this year is painfully low, so Jeter’s performance is still a competitive advantage. But the 2011-2016 Yankees can’t count on Jeter’s peers continuing to play so poorly, making his upcoming re-signing particularly onerous.

You certainly won’t hear anyone whose checks are signed by George Steinbrenner mention this objective data or make subjective comments about Jeter’s declining play. The most you’re likely to get is Michael Kay saying something like “Jeter had a tough June, hitting only .243.” But I think it’s pretty clear at this point that 2010 is the beginning of the end of All-Star-caliber performances from the Yankee shortstop. We are not, however, anywhere near the end of his Yankee career.

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2 Responses to Revisiting Derek Jeter’s Performance

  1. sasoc says:

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether his place in the batting order affects him at all, and whether you recommend moving him to a different slot.

  2. Kevin says:

    I think spot in the batting order has a near-zero effect on a player’s performance. Sure, being in the 3-4-5 spots will result in greater RBI totals, but we know that that’s a function of placement rather than ability. So, no, I think Jeter’s problems are purely skills-related. He had a wonderful season last year hitting almost exclusively leadoff.

    As you probably guessed, I do think it’s time to drop Jeter in the lineup. While studies have shown that ideal lineup construction produced only a handful more runs for a team during the course of the season, it is also one of the few factors over which managers have total control. As a result, the smart move would be to drop Jeter in the order against righties (he’s still killing lefties).

    Against righties, the lineup should be: Gardner/Swisher/Teixeira/Cano/Rodriguez/Posada/Granderson/Jeter/Cervelli.

    Against lefties, it should be: Jeter/Swisher/Teixeira/Rodriguez/Cano/Posada/Thames/Gardner/Cervelli.

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