The Derek Jeter options as he ages

Brian Cashman admitted in a recent press conference that one of his primary reasons for signing Raul Ibanez (39) during the offseason was so that the younger players would stop calling Derek Jeter “gramps”.  When the reporters asked what the other reasons were, he pointed his finger toward the back of the room and shouted “Oh my God, it’s Bernie Williams and his jazz band!”  When the reporters turned back around, Cashman had disappeared.

When Brian Cashman wasn’t raiding the old folks’ homes for free agents, he was coaxing 40-year-old ex-Yankee pitchers out of retirement and signing 42-year-old closers to three year extensions.  He is designing a team which by 2020, will position Jeter’s age (by then 45) such that it will actually have the effect of pulling the team’s average age down.

It turns out; there is a downside to having a home-grown, future, first-ballot, five-ring-wearin’, Hall-of-Famer on your roster.  It’s easier to obscure his declining abilities by signing others, whose skills are declining even more rapidly, than it is to move “the Captain” to another position.  In fact, it’s easier to part with $51 million over three years (including a one year player option), than it would be to risk having your  email account  overflow with “hate mail” that would ensue in the event that Jeter accomplished his 3,000th hit wearing Diamondback red, or Marlin…. whatever their colors are this week.

Whereas 58% of statistics are made up on the spot, only 33% of people know this.   Traditional baseball statistics, conversely, and their newer, geekier cousin, sabermetrics, result from hours and hours of Dickensian labor and painstaking, but loving, attention to detail.

Middle infielders, especially shortstops, are a sought-after commodity primarily because of defense.  In fact, since the “golden age” of shortstops in the 1970s, the position has accounted for an increasing number of win-shares that come from fielding.  Put another way, since the “Bronx Zoo” era, defense at shortstop has accounted for more win-shares from fielding than any other defensive position except catcher.   It turns out the 2010s are a bad time in baseball history for your shortstop to trend towards awful-dom.  Is it possible to “hide” Jeter at shortstop, as long as his bat remains potent?  If he earns more runs through his bat than he gives up with his glove, especially if he bats lead and is protected by the firepower of the fourth-best offense in 2011, might Girardi have found the panacea?

Maybe not.

A three year analysis of key offensive and defensive metrics reveals a Derek Jeter in steady decline.  2009 was, up to that year, his worst year statistically since 1995, but his best of the last three.  Consider the data below:

2009 334 406 465 871
2010 270 340 370 710
2011 297 355 388 743

Perhaps owing to the pressure leading to his 3,000th hit last season, his pre-All-Star offense was anemic (.270/.330/.353). He hit his 3,000th hit on the day before the 2011 All Star game (a homerun, versus the Rays). His “slash” figures for the second half of 2011 improved markedly (.327/.383/.428). He was one of only three shortstops in the league with a second-half OPS above .811. It is possible that Derek Jeter visited Bartolo Colon’s stem cell doctor and found an antidote to aging and that what we saw in the second half of last season will be the norm for ten more years.

More likely, we should expect a regression to the first half of 2011. Consider his ultimate zone rating, ultimate zone rating per 150 games, and his WAR over the last three years:

2009 6.4 8.0 7.1
2010 -4.7 -5.4 2.7
2011 -6.5 -8.8 2.3

For those of you who would like to learn every taped-up, nose-brim broken, Coke-bottle-bottom, eyeglass-pushin’-with-your-middle-finger, detail of the conceptual framework of ultimate zone rating, I recommend you consult the Fangraphs glossary for UZR or the Sports Ph.D.  For those of you with severe Adult-onset ADD, like me, you’ll find the graph below to be more than adequate:

Gold Glove +15
Great +10
Above Average +5
Average 0
Below Average -5
Poor -10
Awful -15

Unfortunately, Derek Jeter’s best year of the last three places him slightly above the average shortstop replacement player.  In 2010, he was merely poor, but by 2011 he was approaching awful.  To put this in league perspective, Hanley Ramirez’s UZR (11.9) ranked him the best defensive shortstop in major league baseball in 2011.  By contrast, Derek Jeter ranked 19th (11th in the American League).

This would be workable if Jeter’s bat weren’t also on the decline.  In 2009, he led all shortstops with 212 hits and 107 runs, finished second at his position with 24 homeruns and a 7.1 WAR, and tied for third with 66 RBIs.  His .334 Batting Average ranked him second at his position, and his .871 OPS placed him fourth.  He was, even in his worst year since 1995, at least the best shortstop in the American League East.

2011 proved to be a different story.  His decline was fully evident by 2010, but by 2011, he ranked 9th among shortstops in terms of WAR (2.3),  his .270 BA was fourth, his 743 OPS ranked him 8th, and other than his 3000th hit, his six homeruns proved insignificant.

By comparison, Troy Tulowitzki was the best offensive shortstop in the majors in 2010 and 2011. He posted WARs of 6.5 and 6.3 respectively.  Defensively, Brendon Ryan’s 11.5 UZR and Alexei Ramirez’s 11.9 UZR established them as the best shortstops in the league in 2010 and 2011 respectively.  Derek Jeter finished 21st in terms of UZR (-6.5) and 11th in terms of WAR (2.3) in 2011 among shortstops.

Suddenly, Joe Girardi’s early- season experiments with Eduardo Nunez make a lot more sense.

So, what are the “Jeter Options” exactly?

Since Jeter’s got at least another two years on his three- year, $51 million dollar contract, and since the Yankees already have at least $75 million committed to four players (Sabathia, Teixeira, Rodriguez, and Jeter) per year through 2014, my guess is that, barring injury, Jeter will get plenty of playing time.  Joe Girardi seems to be pursuing a Jeter-as-designated-hitter option.  The pros to this option are that he will be well rested and the Yankees’ defense will stop hemorrhaging runs.  The cons are somewhat more glaring; six home runs and 61 RBIs in 201 and, of course, Eduardo Nunez.

This appears to be all but decided.  But there are a few alternatives:

  1. Jeter in Right Field.  I had always thought that Nick Swisher would make a pretty decent DH.  He’s a switch hitter who averages 23 homeruns per year.  He’s a career .253 hitter and his defense is merely adequate (-1.5 UZR).  Right fielders have accounted for less than 20 percent of win-shares since the end of the century – the 19th century! Left field isn’t an option as Brett Gardner is off-the-charts-good. His UZRs for 2010 (24.9) and 2011(25.8) are nothing short of phenomenal.  Jeter’s batting average, even in the midst of his decline, is better than Swisher’s, and Jeter actually shows up during the playoffs.
  2. Jeter at first baseMark Teixeira gets paid WAAAAY too much simply to DH, but he’s also played outfield and third base during his career.  Furthermore, his bat doesn’t show up until May anyway.  Alex Rodriguez goes to DH full time and Tex moves to third base.  The only problem with this is that A-Rod’s defense is actually quite good. His UZR for 2011 was 11.0. Also, the last time Teixeira played any position other than first was when he was 24.
  3. Jeter assumes AJ Burnett’s now-vacated role as “the guy who hits other guys in the face with a pie” after a walk-off homerun.  The only down side to this would be that Derek Jeter would actually have to change facial expressions while on camera.
  4. Leave Derek Jeter at shortstop and put Bartolo Colon’s stem cell doctor on the Yankee medical staff.

Derek Jeter has had a great 2012 so far. His slash scores are .355/.394/.548 and he seems to be in midseason form.  I am one of the few remaining “true believers” in non-measurable attributes, like “intangibles” or “locker room presence” and “playoff leadership”.  He may surprise his critics. Bill James Online predicts that Derek Jeter will play in 151 games this season.  He and other online prognosticators like Marcel, RotoChamp and Steamer all predict Jeter’s Batting Average to be no lower than .281 with a minimum of eight homeruns.  Even in decline, Jeter can still play, he can still lead, and it might very well be that the Derek Jeter we saw after his 3000th hit will be around for another year or two.

That would be great, but it is doubtful that the Yankees return to the World Series with Derek Jeter playing 151 games at shortstop.

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5 Responses to The Derek Jeter options as he ages

  1. Tanned Tom says:

    You miss the obvious choice: move Jeter to LF AND move Gardner to CF, with Granderson moving to RF. If Gardner were a bit more of a hitter he would already be playing center, but with Swisher a likely victim of the 2014 salary cap this is the move that makes the most sense.
    But the real problem is not that Jeter is not too good at SS, but that there is no internal replacement. Sure his range is poor, but who would you rather have make that tough play at crunch time: Jeter or Nunez? Just look back to the Detroit series of 2011 and the throw to the plate from short center field that cut down a runner. Jeter doesn't even have such a great arm, yet he makes a big-time play. No way Nunez even gets into position for that play let alone makes an accurate throw. So until there is a replacement at SS there's no point in any discussion of what Jeter's next position will be.

    • Mike Sommer says:

      I don't think Jeter is going ANYWHERE for this simple reason. Derek Jeter has never played ONE inning at any other position. Not in the majors, the minors, high school. Period. Think it's easy to just learn a new position that you never played before while in your late 30's? Nope.

    • Mark Panuthos says:

      I agree with part one, but assuming that Gardener continues to bat at the bottom of the order – I liked him at leadoff where you can take advantage of his speed – I can't see him moving to CF. Your argument is strong though, especially since Granderson's UZR last year was -6. I could see Jeter at either of the outfield corners and we're probably wasting Gardener's defense in left field.

      On the other hand, my point in the article is that its going to be hard to develop an "internal replacement" who does anything other than part-time work precisely because Jeter is a star player, the "captain", and likely won't "go gently into that good night". I believe Nunez could make a more than adequate SS, especially considering he's got some offensive potential. He made a big error in the opening series but he's got to be allowed a little latitude.

      Swisher likely will be either traded or not resigned, but I was focusing more on this year.

  2. Peter says:

    Well I am not one who worships Jeter. He has a great carreer BA and used to steal a few bases. Does refraining from saying anything stupid count as "leadership"? His range is avg but he has a pretty good arm. My biggest complaint is that he always swings too damn hard and consequently strikes out alot. It's not as if he is going to hit home runs so why doesn't he become more like Wade Boggs and be a contact hitter? It doesn't help if your leadoff hitter is not on base and the team already has free swingers Swisher, Alex, Tex, Cano and Granderson.

  3. RON says:


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