On the afternoon of June 13th, Derek Jeter limped off the field in the fifth inning of an eventual loss to the Indians. The Cap’n had flown out to right to open the frame, but he appeared to hurt something coming out of the box and was replaced in the next half inning by Eduardo Nunez. At the time, Jeter was hitting .260/.324/.325 in 296 plate appearances, and the calf strain he suffered on the play would keep him on the shelf for just about three weeks.
Nunez filled in capably while Jeter was on the shelf, adding the kind of life and electricity to the shortstop position that the Yankees haven’t had since 2009. The Yankees went 14-5 in Derek’s absence, going from 2.5 games back in the AL East to 1.5 up. As great as Jeter has been for the Yankees, there was definitely a sense of dread immediately before his return, because we all knew that not only would his unproductive bat be back in the lineup every day, it would be in the leadoff spot getting more plate appearances than everyone else. We all knew this, except we were all wrong.
Since coming off the disabled list on Independence Day against the same Indians he faced on the day of his injury, Jeter has hit .326/.382/.457 in 154 plate appearances with the same number of extra base hits (12) as he had before the injury in almost half the trips to the plate. That has raised his season line to .283/.344/.370, a performance that is exactly league average in terms of wRC+. That’s a top eight mark among full-time big league shortstops, an indication of how much Jeter has turned his season around and how weak the position is around the league. A 100 wRC+ at an up-the-middle position is pretty damn good.
“Staying back,” said Jeter after last night’s three hit (including a triple) effort. “Stay back better and obviously you’re going to drive balls more. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been back, so I just want it to continue.” Derek has been driving the ball with much more authority since coming back, as the increased rate of extra base hits suggests. As we tend to do with stuff like this, let’s turn to the spray charts. First, it’s pre-DL Jeter…
Almost everything he hit in the air went the other way or to center field. I count what, ten balls pulled into left (hits + outs)? That’s out of 231 balls in play. The majority of his hits came on balls right back up the middle or filleted through the right side (remember, the points indicate where the defender fielded the ball, not where it landed). Now let’s look at the post-DL spray chart…
This one is much more spread out. The majority of his balls in play are still to center and right, that’s just the kind of hitter he is and always has been, but there’s also way more balls pulled into left. I count 12 balls hit to the outfield on the pull side, including one right to the warning track and one actually over the fence. That’s 12 balls to left in 115 balls in play after the DL stint versus ten in 231 before. It could be small sample size noise, but give how he’s been actually driving the ball these last few weeks, I’m guessing there’s something more to it than just coincidence.
Of course, we have to acknowledge that Jeter still does the vast majority of his damage against lefties (.500/.538/.750 in 39 PA) and is mediocre at best against righties (.265/.327/.353 in 115 PA). That’s a similar split to his pre-DL performance (.299/.405/.403 vs. LHP and .246/.294/.297 vs. RHP) and last year as well (.321/.391/.481 vs. LHP and .216/.316/.317 vs. RHP). At his age, I think we’re just going to have to accept the platoon split, which is made somewhat more tolerable because the best starters in the AL East are generally southpaws.
“You can get a lot more work in when you don’t have to play games,” said Jeter shortly after coming off the DL, referring to the work he did to stay back on the ball with rehabbing the calf. “So I sort of look at it as a blessing in disguise, I hope. I’ve felt good since I’ve been back.” The Cap’n has been performing to his career averages for about six weeks now, bringing his overall season performance to the league average, which is both encouraging and refreshing.