Quite a few noticed early in the season that Derek Jeter looked different. No, he didn’t get in the best shape of his life, receive Lasik eye surgery or anything like that — but his hitting approach was decidedly odd. No longer did you see the lithe future Hall-of-Fame shortstop with his trademark lashing of baseballs to the opposite field for a hearty helping of singles and occasional doubles. You didn’t see the trademark patience either; there was no working deep into counts.
Instead, we surprisingly witnessed first-pitch swings that ended up eliciting weak groundballs to shortstop. Some of this was masked by his inordinately high slugging percentage, which gave a big boost to his line. Still, at .330/.354/.521 coming into May, this was not the Jeter of old.
At the end of April, Jeter’s walk rate was at 3.5% (career rate is 9.0%), his pitches per plate appearance was 3.54 (it’s usually in the high 3’s) and his swing percentage stood at 53.5%, roughly 5 percentage points higher than his career average (h/t Matt Imbrogno at TYU). Perhaps the most egregious notation is by my calculation, Jeter was swinging at the first pitch in 53.9% of his at bats by the 1st of May. For a leadoff hitter, that’s dastardly and for the Cap’n, uncharacteristic.
Even if the initial results were positive (his average was a robust .400), it doesn’t often bode well for future success, as pitchers will adjust and the lower amount of pitches seen generally means the more length the starter can give the opposing team. It led me to wonder if his bat was slowing down, which, if true, could be big trouble for a player bound to get a new contract and whose value is largely derived from a plus bat with positional dearth. (His decline against fastballs instills such fear in me.) With suspect defense, he needs to hit.
On the positive side, Jeter’s walk rate, which climbed marginally in May at 6%, has jumped since then. In June and July he’s walked 12.7% of the time and 14.7%, respectively. Jeter’s now within his normal walk range, checking in at 8.3%. His swing percentage has since dropped to 48.1%, directly in line with career averages. With 296 pitches seen on an 0-0 count since 5/1, Jeter’s swung at 87 of them for a first pitch swing percentage of 29.3%. All in all, there are some encouraging signs that Jeter’s starting to get back into his former approach in batting discipline, if slowly.
Still, it’s not all peachy. Jeter’s still swinging at a lot of balls out of the zone (28% this year compared to his career average of 20%) and though he’s making contact, it seems a safe bet that most of those swings are going for easy groundouts. The groundballs are really the crux of the issue.
Jeter’s a career .260 hitter when putting the ball on the ground. This year, however, he’s at .222. Earlier in the season Jeter had been hitting an absurd number of ground balls — 71% of the time for the first month. He’s since dropped that percentage to a still-high 63.1% in May and 63.9% in June, finally falling back to 76% (!) in July (albeit, a very small sample). You’d expect better luck with BABip for groundballs moving forward for Jeter given his career rates and no noticeable loss of speed. Still, this has to be the most perturbing aspect of what we’ve seen out of #2 this season.
In spite of the ground-bashing, he’s upped his line drive rate to 17.2% on the season (still 3 percentage points lower than his career average), which has come largely at the expense of fly balls, down to 15.2% on the year. Perhaps some of the irony in his hit data is that Jeter’s been fairly successful hitting the ball in the air — of the scant few times he’s hit a flyball, he’s hitting .362/.354/.915 with a .244 BABip. For his career, he’s a .241/.235/.636 hitter with a .155 BABip. So really, he’s had phenomenal luck when lifting the ball and fairly poor luck when hitting the ball on the ground.
On the defensive side, the longtime Yankee captain was coming off a year in which his normally below-average to fringe-average defense was seen as a plus, registering an 8.0 UZR and a 4 on Total Zone, the former a career high and the latter just the third positive TZ score he’s had in his career. No one expected this at age 35. If interviews and media are to be believed, his success with the glove in 2009 was chalked up to a new exercise routine borne out of Jeter’s desire to improve after being called out by GM Brian Cashman. This year, while not a complete meltdown, it seems Jeter’s defense has again eroded to bare mediocrity. There’s no way to tell if there are nagging injuries or just general deterioration of quickness and agility.
But it does seem strange that he’d have such a spike after years of relative incompetence, then right back down again, no? Was 2009 an aberration? Seems like it, though one season’s worth of defensive metrics is hardly a sign of much (and certainly not one half-season, by that token). It’s no mystery Jeter has trouble ranging to his left, and the jump throws from his right are a sign of poor range. I’d love to see some data on the amount of jump throws Jeter does per season — it may give us a better sense of how his overall range is moving forward, a key piece of data as he’s in line for another contract. All in all, this can’t be considered a plus moving forward.
Reports of his ultimate demise may be exaggerated — he’s had poor first halves before, he’s suffered from some poor BABip luck and his increase in walks, a better swing percentage (particularly on the first pitch), higher line drive rate must provide some solace for more success later this year — but with a possible four-year contract on the horizon, his July resembling his April approach (albeit in a small sample), and the death-by-groundball, even the most die-hard Yankee fan must be nervous about what Jeter will look like going forward.
Read more of the stupid things I write on Mystique & Aura.