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February 13, 2014

The BP Wayback Machine

Derek Jeter's Career in Player Comments

by Baseball Prospectus


While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

On Wednesday, Derek Jeter announced his intention to retire after the 2014 season. Like Jeter, the BP annual has been around for 19 seasons, so until his career comes to a complete stop, we can think of no better retrospective than the collection of comments our annual authors (including Joe Sheehan, Steven Goldman, and Ben Lindbergh) have written about him over the years. (Don't worrysomeday, we'll tell you what we think of his defense.) As a reminder, annual comments through 2013 are available to BP subscribers on our player cards. Baseball Prospectus 2014 is on sale now.

Year Comment
2014 Prior to Jeter joining the group in 2012, only a select ensemble of six Hall of Famers (plus Rafael Palmeiro, if you give him credit for a strike year) had posted streaks of at least 17 consecutive seasons with 500-plus plate appearances. Given all that good fortune, the Yankees can’t curse the gods that the days Jeter didn’t miss as a younger man seemed to hit him all at once in 2013, but his struggles were still tough to watch. The ankle fracture that he vowed to be back from by Opening Day delayed his debut until just before the All-Star break, and it continued to bother him as he was struck by a series of cascade injuries caused by age and lower-body weakness. It’s possible that he’ll look like the old Jeter, as opposed to an old Jeter, after an offseason of rest; the last time he was healthy, he hit. It’s equally likely that he’ll stumble off the stage instead of taking a Rivera-esque curtain call. If Jeter is healthy, he’ll make history one way or another: Either he’ll join Honus Wagner, Luke Appling and Omar Vizquel on over-40-shortstop Mount Rushmore, or we’ll finally see him play another position, something sabermetricians have been clamoring for since he was still in his 20s.
2013 It’s rare enough for someone Jeter’s age to play a full season at shortstop, let alone hit well while doing it; as Mike Axisa of River Ave. Blues observed last October, Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Luke Appling were the only full-time shortstops 38 or older to have qualified for a batting title as at least league-average hitters before Jeter joined that exclusive club in 2012. And he did it with plenty of plate appearances to spare: Jeter equaled his career high in games played, led the league in PA, and had his highest TAv since 2009. As usual, Jeter rarely hit the ball in the air—only Ben Revere had a higher groundball rate—but he recovered some of his lost power, and not only did he destroy southpaws, he held his own against right-handers, who had made him look like Luis Sojo in the previous two seasons. He also swung more often without sacrificing much contact, posting career-low walk and strikeout rates. Jeter fractured his ankle in the ALCS, but that shouldn’t prevent him from another attempt at boldly going where only Wagner and Appling have gone before at age 39.
2012 Jeter's production collapsed in 2010, and 2011 was initially even worse; he was hitting a powerless .260/.324/.324 in 62 games when a strained right calf sent him to the disabled list for nearly three weeks. Shortly after returning, he reached 3,000 hits with a flourish, smacking a home run, and found the Fountain of Youth thereafter, stroking a classically Jeterian .331/.384/.447 over the remainder of the season. While baseball's most stubborn megastar finally made adjustments to his slowing hands that allowed him to hit with renewed authority, there are still limitations: over the last two seasons, the Captain has hit just .261/.321/.327 against right-handers (versus .332/.405/.499). Even in his post-3,000 surge, he slugged just .376 against same-side pitchers. Defense also remains the same problem it ever was. Still, the glass half-full interpretation of his comeback is that the old man might now give a good-for-a-shortstop offensive performance over the two guaranteed seasons remaining on his contract, and that would be a far more dignified ending to a great career than 2010 seemed to portend.
2011 Jeter led the majors in ground-ball percentage. This was not just a mechanical failure, but a seeming inability to drive the ball. Perplexingly, Jeter got off to a great start, hitting .330 in April. By the end of the season, the little September hot streak (.342/.436/.392 in Jeter’s final 19 games) that followed his reluctant turn to Kevin Long was the subject of great rejoicing throughout the land—in between, the shortstop had hit only .247/.321/.337, and the cheering for a few paltry singles should have been embarrassing to all involved given the heights from which Jeter had descended. The same reticence should have been observed by coaches and managers who voted for the Gold Glove; though Jeter made few errors, he also reached relatively few balls. Even if one makes the optimistic assumption that Jeter can turn his offensive game around, a third rebirth of his glove would be unprecedented. For years, Jeter’s bat more than made up for the singles he allowed with his leather. That is still true, but the margin is shrinking and will soon vanish altogether. Despite this, as the offseason commenced, Jeter pushed for a contract of four years and up, which suggests at least one of the following: (A) while Jeter may be the closest thing the modern Yankees have to Joe DiMaggio, he lacks DiMaggio’s sense of dignity; (B) never mind winning, it’s money that matters; (C) the emperor has no clothes but doesn’t know; (D) the emperor has no clothes but doesn’t care. The Yankees more or less satisfied him, giving him three years and a player option for a fourth, in the hopes that he will play as no aged shortstop has played before.

Why is it each is the last to find
That his legs are gone—that his eyes are bad,
That the quicker reflexes have left his mind,
That he hasn’t the stuff that he one day had,
That lost youth mocks, and he doesn’t see
The ghost of the fellow that used to be?
—Grantland Rice, “To Any Athlete.”
2010 Only a handful of shortstops 35 or older have had great offensive seasons, and most of them are named Honus Wagner. To the Honuses (or Honi) you can now add Jeter, who bounced back from a lackluster 2008 to take third place in the MVP voting and become the first Yankee to receiveSports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year citation. The Captain started slowly by his standards, then hit his stride in May and raked for the rest of the season. New Yankee Stadium helped him rediscover his home-run stroke after a few years of relative dormancy, with 12 of 18 round-trippers coming at home. A new flexibility regimen undertaken prior to last season got the bulk of the credit for re-energizing the veteran shortstop, especially on defense. Jeter now enters the last year of his contract; it is a certainty he'll be re-signed to continue his march to 3,000 (or more) hits with the Yankees. Now all we need to hear are answers involving those three little words, "How many years?" How many years will the Yankees give him? How many years does he want to play? How many years can his professionalism, dedication, and training stave off the effects of age?
2009 Slowed by age and nagging injuries, Jeter had his least productive offensive season in a decade. He was hitting .306/.349/.419 on May 20 when he was hit on the hand by a Daniel Cabrera pitch; Jeter selfishly insisted on playing though it, and his production cratered, as the Captain batted .203/.297/.278 over his next 20 games. He slowly recovered, but by some accounts he wasn't 100 percent until after the All-Star break. Regardless, Jeter's power never manifested, his .107 ISO being by far the lowest mark of his career, and his speed is ebbing. He's signed through 2010, a year short of when he'll be near the 3,000-hit mark; the Yankees will have a tough decision to make, because famous-player milestones sell tickets and merchandise, but as veterans of the Astros' Biggioquest '07 can tell you, subjugating team goals to the greater glory of a fading star isn't conducive to winning. By 2010, Jeter's glove won't play in the infield and his bat won't play anywhere else. His 3,000th hit will have zero benefit to the winning effort.
2008 On the surface, it was another typical Jeter season, with rates right on his career marks. However, while he never went on the DL or sat out more than one game in a row, the strain of playing every day seemed to tell a little more than it did when he was younger. Particularly troublesome was a sore right knee that struck in August, dramatically slowing Jeter on defense and weakening his ability to drive the ball. While Jeter never hit less than .301 in any month, he became more of a singles hitter, grounded into a career high in double plays, and was caught stealing more often while stealing fewer bases. It says something when even the Gold Glove voters, who confer something like tenure on anointed winners, notice that you look like you're carrying a piano on your back when going after grounders and give the award to someone else. For years, Jeter's offense has made him a net positive at shortstop despite his defense. The second half of 2007, taken together with his age, suggests that the day of reckoning has finally arrived.
2007 Derek Jeter is your AL VORP leader, regardless of MVP controversies, and, less convincingly, the AL`s Gold Glove shortstop for 2006. An argument can be made that Jeter`s 2006 was even better than his shoulda-been-MVP 1999 because he was more problematic defensively in the earlier season. Metrics that once condemned Jeter are more complimentary now, though the initial edition of John Dewan`s Fielding Bible made a convincing case that the statistical progress has not been mirrored in Jeter`s real-world performance. A more intriguing question, and one more easily answered, is, do we expect an encore from a player who will turn 33 this year and just had his second-best season? From 2003 to 2005, Jeter batted .307/.377/.458, in line with his career statistics to that point (.314/.386/.461). He`ll be closer to that level this year. Jeter`s a strange case; most players gain power and lose batting average as they age, but he seems to be doing the opposite.
2006 It`s been taken for granted among beat writers and broadcasters that Jeter is miscast in the leadoff role, and that the Yankees instead need a `traditional` leadoff man--someone like Vince Coleman. Let`s be blunt: it`s rank stupidity. Jeter ranked seventh in the American League in OBP and was the highest ranked hitter to bat leadoff, which is why he scored 122 runs in 2005 (he missed tying for the league runs lead by two). The suggestion seems to be that the Yankees would be better with a leadoff man who stole more bases but scored fewer runs. Only in professional sports journalism, where many of the writers make Judith Miller look like a paragon of evenhanded, informed reporting, could that make sense. Johnny Damon will make for a good test of these folks and Joe Torre: will reality win out, or will the batting order be based on a shared foolishness?
2005 For those of us in the performance analysis biz, Jeter is a difficult problem because any realistic evaluation of his skills, no matter how flattering, seems like a slight when compared to his reputation. In the eyes of true believers, Honus Wagner and Superman combined couldn't do half the things Jeter does. In truth, he's terrific at going back on shallow pop-ups and executing the jump throw in the hole. Other aspects of the job—fielding grounders to his left for instance—elude him, and it doesn't take an MS in scouting or statistics to see it. When watching a Yankees game,simply pay attention to the opposing shortstop. He will routinely get to balls that Jeter cannot. As for the Gold Glove, peel back the foil on the award and you'll find there's some tasty chocolate underneath. That's about what it's worth, though at least Jeter was better this year. On offense, Jeter walked less than ever before and doubled his previous high in sac bunts, perhaps because he lost confidence after a shockingly poor April. Jeter is a Hall of Famer to be, a key player on a great team, an inspirational leader, a fine hitter…and he gives up a lot of singles with his glove. In light of the rest, why is that last part so difficult to accept?
2004 The debate over Jeter's defense would seem to be the debate over defensive evaluation writ small, a battle between observation and statistics. It's not, though; in addition to having awful numbers, Jeter looks bad defensively. While he's athletic, which enables him to make two specific types of plays--a jump throw from the 5-6 hole, and any play on which he dives and reaches the ball--his lack of a first step or good footwork causes many, many balls to get past him, especially to his left. How so many people watching Jeter cannot see him for the poor gloveman he is would make a tremendous research project for a psychology journal. That's one butt-nekkid emperor, folks.
2003 That’s right, we’ve got a trend on our hands: Jeter is in his third year of losing slices of offensive value. That doesn’t make him bad, any more than his consistently execrable defense makes him “bad.” But these things do start adding up to become problems. The way the various third base suspects look, moving Jeter to the hot corner would make sense, or he could follow the Yount career path and move out to center, letting Bernie Williams move to an outfield corner. The problem is, who do you replace Jeter with at short? As long as the choices are limited to the Almontes of the world, you can forgive the Yankees for ignoring the problem, although Jeter’s glove killed the Yankees in the postseason. But if his offense keeps slipping while his contract escalates...A-Rod’s contract looks like a bargain in comparison.
2002 We give Jeter a lot of flack about his dismal defense, and he deserves it. That being said, he may be one of the most UNDERrated ballplayers ever, which is unimaginable for a young, happening Yankee. Jeter's offense is truly outstanding. He hits for a very high average despite playing in a tough ballpark for right-handed hitters; he has the best base-stealing technique this side of Tim Raines; and he will, over the next three to five years, develop significantly more home-run power. Is he Alex Rodriguez? No, but he could be a guy who hits .350/.460/.590 with 35 steals in 40 attempts and plays in 150 games a year for eight years in a row. So he may be 20 runs worse than average with the glove. Big deal.
2001 Yes, his defense really is that bad. No, it doesn't mean he should be moved. His offense is still more than enough to make him a championship-caliber player, and none of the Yankees' shortstop prospects are superior fielders. Derek Jeter still has a power spike coming; like Barry Larkin, his plate discipline and power will keep improving into his thirties.
2000 Analysts can argue all day about his defense, but the fact is that his reputation is very good, so he’s not moving off shortstop anytime soon. It’s not like he’s Howard Johnson, and he may improve slightly as he continues to learn positioning. His pivot is still poor, but his arm makes up for some of that. This is all just nit-picking: Jeter is one of the best players in baseball, four years into a Hall of Fame career.
1999 Took the big step forward this year; the Brosius signing means he won't be moving to third base anytime soon, but his defense at shortstop warrants the discussion at least. He has excellent hands and a strong arm, but isn't anything special on the pivot, and seems to struggle going to his left. The arm hides some of this. Jeter could improve the same way Ken Griffey, whose defense was overrated for many years, did. Even with a below-average glove, Jeter is a special player.
1998 We’ve been very critical of his defense, so we should note that his range factor and Defensive Index are both average to slightly below. He didn’t make the great leap forward offensively, but improved marginally in most areas while staying healthy. He’ll be a reasonable MVP candidate a couple of times in the next six years.
1997 Impressive debut, overshadowed by the historic season of Alex Rodriguez. Jeter hit a little better than expected and his defense, questioned in the minors, was steady all year. Odd development during the year: he hit .277 with a good walk rate and very little power in the first half, .350 with more power but few walks in the second. I expect him to keep the average and power, improve the strikeout and walk numbers and be a great player. Idle thought: could a Rickey Henderson/Tim Raines thing develop between Rodriguez and Jeter?
1996 Another young turk shortstop, and most definitely the real thing. Does everything well except walk, and he's shown flashes of doing that for a few weeks at a time. Will win an AL batting title right around the turn of the century or so, and twenty years from now, people will be arguing over whether or not he or Rodriguez was a better player. Supposedly has a problem making the long throw from the hole to first, but who cares, and how much of problem is that anyway? I've seen him make that throw, and I don't see an appreciable difference between his arm and a dozen other shortstops.

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