In the 2009 Derek Jeter appreciation thread, Ben noted an uptick in Cap’n Jetes’s defensive numbers. While his UZR has been mostly negative since they started tracking the stat in 2002, he’s actually in the positive this year. Not only that, but I don’t remember hearing many instances of “past a diving Jeter” from the broadcast booth. So what gives? How can a 35-year-old improve his defense, something we usually associate with youth and vigor?
At Fack Youk, Jay elaborates on a Bryan Hoch article on this very subject. He asks the same question: “So how is it that Jeter is enjoying this renaissance now?” It sounds like three factors play a major role, with two standing out as major difference makers.
First, and least important, is the Yankees training regimen. Jeter, in his perpetual desire to improve, has followed it and has seen an uptick in his agility — at least anecdotally. Surely he worked out earlier in his career — Jeter doesn’t seem like the type to skimp on exercise and rest on just his natural talent. Still, perhaps a new workout routine has something to do with his increased range. Even so, it shouldn’t affect it that much.
Second is his health. Jeter’s defense seemingly hit a low point in 2007, a year in which he battled leg injuries. Simply avoiding similar injuries in the past two years must have contributed to his range. Yet that can’t be all. There has to be another factor.
The third, and what I think is the most important, factor is Jeter’s positioning. He’s playing deeper, and it’s noticeable. This gives him more time to react, and therefore more lateral range. Jeter’s scouting report in The Fielding Bible noted his shallow play because of poor arm strength. I don’t know where that last bit came from, because by all appearances Jeter’s arm is just fine. He’s definitely been playing further back this year, which allows him to get to more balls up the middle. His arm has been able to handle the throws just fine.
Maybe we’ve been harping on the wrong thing over the past few years. Maybe Jeter was never bad on defense. Maybe it was just the way he positioned himself that led to more balls getting past him. We can’t be sure, of course; the relationship between Jeter’s positioning and his improved UZR are are anecdotal. They also represent a correlation, not a causation. Still, it’s hard to ignore. And it’s certainly for the better, as Jay so perfectly says in his conclusion: “defensive positioning is much easier to control than health or lateral agility.” Damn straight.