2011 Season Preview: Derek Jeter

Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 Prospects List
Observations from the first weekend of games

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Mark Humphrey/AP)

When, at age 36, a player produces career lows in basically every offensive statistic, one word comes to mind. There is a real possibility that Derek Jeter has entered an irreversible decline. Yankees fans don’t want to admit this. The 2010 season was just a down year, and everyone experiences down years. Considering Jeter’s previous low came during his sophomore season, he was due. Right?

If we’ve learned one thing about Jeter during his 15 years with the club, it’s that he won’t simply accept declining numbers. This off-season he signed a contract that rewards him handsomely for his contribution to a championship team, and he’s going to take that seriously. He already has, as we’ve read frequently this off-season. A new, shorter stride is supposed to help him stay in front of the ball, so that he’s not hitting dinky grounders to second every other at-bat. But will this one change lead to a more productive 2011?

Best Case

Those are some good looking swing mechanics (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In seasons past, pegging Jeter’s ceiling was pretty easy. Lately the answer has been simple: 2006. That year, riding a near-.400 BABIP, Jeter hit .343/.416/.483 (.399 wOBA) and nearly won the AL MVP Award. In 2009 he came close to those numbers, .334/.406/.465, so in 2010 that appeared to be his ceiling. Instead we got what was in essence his floor. At a younger age we could probably reset his ceiling to that 2006/2009 level. But at age 37 I’m not sure we can do that.

Maybe Jeter’s shortened stride will indeed allow him to get his bat around faster. Maybe, as we’ve heard reported this spring, that he’ll also pull the ball with a bit more authority this year. And maybe that turns into a BABIP around .360, which would put him well above the .300 batting average mark. Since we’re talking best case, that could be in the cards. It’s also possible that, with a bit more reaction time, he can again eclipse a 10 percent walk rate, which would put his OBP around .400. He could also pop a few cheapie homers over the right field porch.

In that way, there is a chance that Jeter could hit somewhere around .330/.400/.450. I wouldn’t call it a good chance. If he did that, he’d essentially be Honus Wagner exactly a century later. In 1911, his age-37 season, Wagner hit a league-leading .334, with a .423 OBP and .507 SLG. The only other shortstop, aged 37 or older, who qualified for the batting title with a .300 or greater average is Luke Appling. Jeter, in other words, is either in decline or in elite company. His best case is pretty clear, given his and baseball’s history.

Worst Case

(Charles Krupa/AP)

This is the part that no one wants to discuss. What if Jeter’s bat slows even more? What if the stride doesn’t help him get out in front of the ball and he ends up hitting a deluge of grounders to second? What if — gulp — he performs even more poorly than last year?

When we discuss worst case scenarios for players, we’re usually talking about an injury or a string of horrible luck. For Jeter, neither of these is the worst case. The worst case is that he hits poorly and looks old doing it. The worst case is that he plays an even more noticeably poor shortstop. The worst case is that he keeps saying he can get himself out of it and delays his drop from the top of the lineup. These might all be worse than an injury. At least with an injury he has something to blame.

It’s tough to imagine just how bad matters could get for Jeter, and I don’t think there’s a reasonably accurate floor for him right now. Could he hit worst than .250? Could he lose even more power? Could his fielding decline further? The answer to these questions has to be certain degrees of yes. In terms of overall worst case, I imagine it involves him hitting ninth by season’s end. Imagine how bad things would have to go for him to hit that mark.

What’s Likely To Happen

If we’re going siding with baseball history, it’s most likely that Jeter hits somewhere around his 2010 level, with perhaps a slightly lower average. If we’re going with Derek Jeter as a generational talent hellbent on improving on his previous season, it’s likely he hits .300 again. This makes pegging the actual likely scenario as tough as, if not tougher than, pegging his worst case.

A week ago Joe Posnanski wrote about two aging superstars: Jeter and Tiger Woods. In it he described both players’ efforts to stave off the effects by aging by making mechanical adjustments. This he dubs Carlton’s Law, after Steve Carlton:

We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.

But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.

Maybe Jeter can turn it around for one more season. Maybe the mechanical adjustment will combine with a bit better luck and create something of a last hurrah for Jeter. But given the number of players who have played shortstop and hit at an elite level at Jeter’s age, it’s tough to bank on it.

In order to keep emotions out of this, I’ll turn to a post I did last week on projected stats for Jeter, Teixeira, and A-Rod. The various projection systems view Jeter differently, but their aggregated conclusion — .286/.353/.399 — sounds good. If we’re able to peg Jeter’s most likely scenario, this is probably it.

No one wants to witness Derek Jeter’s decline. He was a beloved Yankee from his first year with the team, and he has proven during his 15-year career that he is one of the greatest shortstops to play the game. Yet even the best decline. We know what Jeter can do, and we know that he’s working to reverse last year’s results. We just don’t know whether that’s physically possible.

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Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 Prospects List
Observations from the first weekend of games
  • Bob

    Pete Rose hit .302 at 37, .331 at 38, .282 at 39 and .325 at 40. Jeet can do that too.

    • Rick in Boston

      As much as I would love to see those numbers, I doubt Jeter will get anywhere near .331 or .325 over the life of his contract. Rose rarely struck out and walked a ton for his time. Additionally, he played a significantly less demanding position (1B).

      • Ted Nelson

        I don’t know how important any extra strain at SS is offensively… Defensively is another story, but offensively I find it hard to believe that SS is so much more demanding than 1B that Jeter’s offensive numbers would be significantly improved at 1B compared to SS.

        Pete Rose was also playing 3B at 37. He started striking out considerably less (as in half as often) as he aged than earlier in his career. Since that came at the same time as his power faded, I doubt it was a coincidence. Not saying Jeter is capable of halving his k%, just that it was probably an effort by Rose to change his swing for more contact and less power.

        To me the most important point with Rose is that declines (like rises or peaks) don’t have to be linear.

  • Rick in Boston

    I’d love for the aggregate projection to be correct. My biggest fear is that Jeter continues to hit ground ball after ground ball, leading to another year of 20+ GIDP. Hopefully, Gardner is actually running this year when he’s at 1B instead of his normal dance.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Jeter’s been a ~20 GIDP guy for what seems like an eternity. I’ve come to accept it, and hope they don’t come at a crucial moment.

      • Rick in Boston

        I had to look it up, but it’s “only” been 3 of the last 4 years. He’s been a 15+ guy something like 7 of the last 8 (the only exception being ’06, I believe).

  • Big Apple

    All the reports on Jeter’s demise make me chuckle…like its a surprise that skills will start to diminish at age 35+. I’d still take him over nearly all SSs in the game.

    I will be sad when he, jorge and Mo are gone.

    • CS Yankee

      Jete & Jorge get dis’ed far too often.

      I believe that Derek has another .300 (or two) in him, I also think that this is Jorge’s final tour, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mo finally looks average (or gets hurt).

      What I don’t get is all the bashing (not saying the articles, but the blogs)? I’d rather take a .270 Jeter, than a .280 whomever…yes, he is likely not elite anymore but he is still a solid SS in all of MLB.

      I will always be a NYY fan, but prefer to see my guys (Jete, Mo, Pettitte,etc) out there as long as possible. Even if he is doing last years ‘awful” numbers, he is my guy. Top 3 SS’s of all-time, top 10 Yankee of all-time. Enjoy the legend.

  • bottom line

    Thoughtful piece. But the great ones often perform well even in their late 30s. Ted Williams hit .388 at age 39. Musial also put up some good numbers in his late 30s. This piece would be of greater use if Jeter was compared to other hitters with career BAs of say .314 or higher. Noting that career .270 hitters don’t hit .300 after 35 tells us little.

    • Ted Nelson

      Good point.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      Barry Larkin was a career .300 hitter through his age 36 season, hit .266 after.

      Roberto Alomar was a career .306 hitter though his age 34 season, hit .262 after.

      Alan Trammel was a career .288 hitter through his age 35 season, hit .258 after.

      Craig Biggio was a career .291 hitter through his age 35 season, hit .261 after.

      This is the class of hitter Jeter is in (and they are middle infielders), not the Williams/Musial class. Jeter easily could follow these guys and be a .260-.280 hitter the rest of his career.

      • RL

        Scary. Sometimes reality sucks. Hope he lives up to the current projections and doesn’t go the way of his comparibles (unless, of course, his comparibles turn out to be Wagner, Musial, Williams … )

      • kosmo

        See Paul Molitor from age 36 and on. A slightly different story.

        • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

          He was a DH after turning 36.

      • Ted Nelson

        I don’t see why we are linking offensive performance so closely with defensive position, and that’s mostly where I agree with bottom line.

        I don’t think Jeter is nearly as good a hitter as Ted Williams was, but he could have the same longevity. I don’t think their defensive positions has much to do with their offensive performance. My guess is that Ted Williams is an outlier: Jeter could follow his career arc, but it’s not what we should expect.

        More important is to establish what to expect. Rather than pointing to a few examples on either side of the argument, I took bottom line’s point to mean (perhaps I was wrong) that we need to establish what our expectations should reasonably be given historical precedent. I don’t think we should compare him only to guys with his BA or higher, of course, as bottom line suggests. I just think position should not be so important to the discussion and that we should quantify what we’re talking about exactly in terms of precedent.

        • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

          Playing the middle infield is more demanding than playing almost any other position, so I do think it’s relevant on the daily wear and tear of playing the position. As noted above, Paul Molitor was great after 36, but he stopped playing the field at 34. That certainly can help keep an older guy fresh.

          • Ted Nelson

            I think it’s mostly speculation in either direction.

            Molitor? He started playing DH part time at 30, and had one season where he was primarily a 2B afterward.

            Was Molitor, just as an example, fresher because he wasn’t playing 2B? Or was his bat just good enough to move him off 2B and still have an effective player at an “offensive”/”corner” (3B) position? Did Barry Larkin decline because SS is “so demanding?” Or was he just still good enough with the glove (and bat) to keep at a premium position like SS, more valuable to the team there than he would have been elsewhere?

            I just don’t put much weight in a 30 year old guy (Molitor) being old or a bit of physical activity in the field impacting your offensive performance. Certainly if a guy has defensive or injury issues–and I sort of remember Molitor having injury issues… but maybe I’m misremembering it–he might be preserved at DH. I’m fine with Posada moving to DH. Jeter hasn’t had any known injury issues, though. I don’t think his 2010 offensive production would have been any better at 1B, DH, LF, RF, CF, 3B, 2B, C, P…

      • Chris

        Probably the best comp out of that group is Biggio. Larkin had trouble staying healthy his entire career (only 4 seasons with 150 games played, Jeter has 12 and one at 149 and one at 148). Alomar reportedly had (has) HIV. Trammel started his decline around age 30 and was respectable into him mid-late 30s.

        Biggio, though, started to decline significantly around age 33, and hung on for quite a few more years and put up a 97 OPS+ from age 33-41.

        The moral of all of these comparisons is that players that were very good offensively typically have 4-5 years where they’re about league average after they’re out of baseball. There will be some good and some bad years ahead, but Jeter probably has a similar amount left – 4-5 years at league average offense. I’ll take that if he can play not-horrible defense.

  • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

    I just hope he improves with the bat or the glove. If they both continue to regress, oh boy.

    • Ted Nelson

      I agree with the point, but it’s not much of a trend. It’s one season. Both his wOBA and FLD improved in 2009.

      • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

        You’re right, it hasn’t been a trend. Because of his age we know the dropoff is coming, hopefully not here yet.

        • Chris

          To me, the real question is how steep the drop off will be. Barring injury, it should be a gradual decline. He’ll have some bad years (like 2010 – or probably worse), but he’ll also have some good years.

      • Ted Nelson

        Don’t get me wrong, I see the general decline. I’m just saying that it’s not particularly linear. Offensively 2007 was really a decline from a career year to his career norm. So, two of the last 3 he’s declined, but one of the last 3 he’s improve. On defense he made significant improvements in his FLD for 2 seasons before 2010. There’s enough of a trend that 3 years $45 mill seems foolish, but not enough for me to think he’s likely to regress further in 2011 in particular.

  • Ted Nelson

    As long as he doesn’t get worse I’m ok with it. I certainly think a bounce-back is possible, but I’m ok with a plateau.

    • Chris

      I think some sort of bounceback is likely. He had the 4th best wOBA of his career in 2009 and then his worst in 2010. That’s not the typical trend of player decline. He probably won’t match his career norms, but he should have some better years than 2010.

      • Ted Nelson

        I agree. If he’s at his 2010 performance, though, I can live with it.

        • Yank the Frank

          Just take away some of the dp balls and its doable.

  • Jonathan

    I think he bounces back to around 08 numbers and then goes on a slow steady decline.

  • David

    “Batting ninth, the shortstop, Derek Jeter.”

    Gardner
    Swisher
    Cano
    ARod
    Tex
    Posada
    Montero
    Granderson
    Jeter

    • Monteroisdinero

      I like this order. Swish needs to let Brett steal since he is easy to double on a grounder. Of course, we won’t see this lineup.

  • FS7

    Jeter has grounded out weakly in all four of his spring at-bats so far.

    • Chris

      And LaTroy Hawkins was perfect in Spring Training a couple years ago.

      • FS7

        So? I’m simply pointing out that for all the talk of Jeter working with Long to improve his swing and compensate for his decreased bat speed, he seems to be doing the exact same thing he did most of last year. I’d rather have him striking out with his “new” swing than simply rolling over and hitting a weak chopper off his fists like he did constantly last year.

        He’ll get some hits on occasion, of course, but it seems like his days of hitting line drives are over. The ground ball rate (100% in five at-bats) is cause for concern because it shot up last year and his swing looks the same.

        • Ted Nelson

          Point is that it’s way too small a sample to say anything, and the games don’t even count. Maybe it’s worth mentioning that the early returns don’t look good, but drawing any conclusions from a handful of spring training ABs in February?

          As far as GB% specifically… Jeter is at 57% on his career, and was at 66% last season. Definitely jumped up, but we’re talking about 1 out of every 10 ABs difference. He could have just as easily hit 5 GBs in a row in a season like 2006 where he had a 59.4 GB% as in 2010 when he was at 65.7%.

          It’s not encouraging, but it’s just too small a sample to be discouraged. It’s one game’s worth of ABs. Albert Pujols went 0-5 on April 21, 2010 with 3 groundouts and a K… so what?

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

          It’s five at-bats. Five. In February.

  • http://www.twitter.com/deanezag Zack

    Well at least if he declines more the Yankees can walk away. Oh wait..

    /fouryeardeal

  • godfather

    brilliant to compare jeter to the irascible old tiger woods; worthy stuff there