Behind Derek Jeter’s unexpected second-half resurgence

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(Bill Kostroun/AP)

I’ve given Derek Jeter a considerably hard time since his offensive game started to fall off a cliff back in May 2010, and so it seemed appropriate to reverse course and give Derek proper due for the remarkable turnaround that saw him hit .327/.383/.428 in the second half of 2011 after a .270/.330/.353 first half and a .270/.340/.370 2010 season. Additionally, while many have acknowledged Derek’s resurgence, few (if any) have taken a look into the why, and so here’s a deeper dive into how Derek Got His Groove Back (and no, it has nothing to do with gift baskets).

The below chart (as always, click to enlarge) shows Derek’s plate discipline numbers graphed against his wOBA on a month-by-month basis, beginning in April 2010.

There’s obviously quite a bit going on here, and I was actually surprised to find that a lot of this data didn’t correlate the way I was expecting it to. I figured Jeter’s best months would feature low O-Swing% and O-Contact% rates; and yet his best month (August 2011’s .398 wOBA) featured his third-highest O-Contact% (77.6%) out of the 12 months shown here. For a player with a career 62.0% O-Contact%, I really have no idea what to make of that.

Fortunately his four best months of the last 12 — August 2011, April 2010’s .380 wOBA, July 2011’s .352 wOBA and September 2011’s .344 — were each among his top four Z-Swing% rates (though not in that exact order), lending some sense of order to the proceedings. Although only two of those four months — again, April 2010 and August 2011 — were among the top four Z-Contact% rates.

The other data type that correlated with Derek’s top monthly wOBAs was Swing%, as his three highest Swing% months were also his three best wOBA months. So based on this data it seems like Derek is at his best the more frequently he swings, which is also driven home by the below table:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% Sw-Strk%
2010 28.2% 67.2% 47.1% 69.2% 92.9% 85.5% 48.3% 6.7%
1H 2011 26.9% 66.8% 45.8% 73.1% 91.6% 85.9% 47.3% 6.4%
2H 2011 29.9% 71.7% 48.9% 71.5% 90.6% 84.3% 45.5% 7.5%

Although that probably isn’t terribly surprising news to anyone who’s watched Derek with any frequency of late. While Derek’s never been a notorious hacker (his career 8.9% BB% is certainly respectable) he has seemed less inclined to take ball four as he’s gotten older, and indeed, he’s only exceeded the league average BB% once in the last five seasons (though he did match it last year). This past season his walk rate was 7.6% against a league average of 8.1% — a five-year league-average low.

Of course, plate discipline only tells part of the story; we also need to see what Derek did with the balls he put into play.

Now this chart makes a little more sense. Derek’s worst month — April 2011 — also featured his highest GB% of the 12 months surveyed here, a ridiculous 72.3%. On the flip side, Derek’s best month, August 2011, saw the fewest ground balls (55.8%). His best LD% months were, unsurprisingly, August ’11 (31.6%) and September 2011 (26.2%). He’s only exceeded 20% line drives in a full season once in the last five seasons, so Derek really turned back the clock this past summer.

I also thought it’d be interesting to see how pitchers attacked Derek over the last two seasons. Instead of drilling down on each individual pitch type, I decided to borrow Mike’s binning of Fastballs (FB%=FF, FT, SI, FC, FA and FS), Breaking Balls (BrB%=SL, CU, KN) and Changeups (CH%).

First-half Derek saw a slight decrease in fastballs from 2010, an uptick in breaking balls and a very small decrease in changeups. However, pitchers on the whole seemed to start challenging Derek with more heat in the second-half, which is probably at least partially responsible for his offensive resurgence, as Derek’s been an above-average fastball hitter for all of the years in which we have data for.

Pitchers did continue to exploit his difficulty with the offspeed pitch, and in fact, 2011 was the worst season of Derek’s career in terms of pitch type linear weights for the changeup. Opposing teams undoubtedly know that you can beat Derek with the change, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that CH% rise even higher next season.

Lastly, I wanted to take a look at where Derek was hitting the ball. Here’s Derek’s first-half 2011 spray chart:

We all know Derek’s made his living going the other way, but Derek rarely pulled anything with power in the first half, hitting 11 balls to left field (though seven went for hits).

Here’s the second-half spray chart:

That’s a nice-looking spray chart. By my count Derek hit 22 balls to left field in the second half, and 21(!) of them went for hits. I’m not saying Derek needs to become a pull hitter or anything crazy like that, but it’s rather remarkable how much different the results were after he started using the entire field.

The one angle I was curious about but didn’t have the tools to dig too deeply into was whether the Yankees faced a disproportionate amount of lefthanded pitching in the second half, though unfortunately none of the usual suspects have the capability of showing platoon splits by half. However, the Yankees only faced (by my count) 21 lefthanded starters out of their 74 second-half games, so even if Derek did presumably continue to feast on southpaws, his numbers were likely also very good against righthanders in the second half as well, a subset whom he has really struggled against (81 wRC+ on the whole in 2011, and 71 wRC+ in 2010).

To summarize, it would appear that the keys to Derek’s second-half resurgence were, in part, as follows: swinging a lot more frequently than he had been doing (and more frequently than league average, but slightly less than league average on pitches out of the zone), hitting the ball in the air, getting a lot of fastballs and pulling the ball to left field. Of course, this begs the question whether any of this is sustainable for the 2012 season (and beyond, if we’re extremely lucky), or if Derek will regress back to being the groundout-to-the-shortstop-on-the-first-pitch machine that frustrated the heck out of Yankee fans for roughly a year-and-a-half’s worth of plate appearances.

Biz Round-Up: Sweet Lou returns, MLB rule changes
Prospect Profile: Dante Bichette Jr.
  • Cris Pengiucci

    Interesting read. While Derek seems to be suseptable to the change, this is usually a pitch used when the pitcher gets ahead in the count (unless, of course, it’s someone like Sweaty Freddy throwing and everything seems to be a change up). To get ahead in the count, he’ll likely see some FBs from the pitcher and if he’s as agressive as he has been, he may continue to hit at a reasonable rate. While I’d love to see another season (or 2) of a .300+ BA, I’d be happy if he’s at .290 or above. Time will tell.

  • CS Yankee

    Good read.

    His batting against lefties was surreal in 2011 & as you stated it would have been interesting how that number changed in the 2nd half. I would keep him 1 or 2 against lefties and bat him 9th against righties (unless Grit gets in a rut & Jeet in a tear).

    Also, no mention of the Minka effect?

    • Monteroisdinero

      Yes-ever since he dumped her, his range has improved. He is playing the field like never before.

      • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

        He seems be finding a whole lot more holes since then.

        • YanksFanInSawxLand

          He got all sorts of lucky with his BABIP…

    • RkyMtnYank

      She was dragging him down, which is why he couldn’t hit the ball in the air!

    • Cris Pengiucci

      I would keep him 1 or 2 against lefties and bat him 9th against righties

      Against RHP last season:
      Jeter: .277/.329/.338
      Gardner: .265/.345/.393

      While Gardner showed slightly better OBP & SLG numbers, there doesn’t seem to be enough of a gap to justify this if Jeter’s second half is somewhat sustainable.

      • Cris Pengiucci

        My point is more that if you’re going to move Jeter out of the leadoff spot against righties, you can probably find someone who provide more of a difference than Gardner.

  • RetroRob

    It may very well be that Jeter is not the player we saw the first half, nor is he the player we saw the second half. He is both, not as bad as we saw at the start and not quite as good as the .330 hitter we saw later. Instead, he is someone who will give the Yankees a .300/.365/.395 season in 2012.

    • whozat

      It may very well be that Jeter is not the player we saw the first half of 2011 and all of 2010, nor is he the player we saw the second half.

      Fixed that for you. I have to think the year and a half of futility, followed by a summer surge powered by taking advantage of the fact that pitchers started laying it in there more often, indicates that he’s probably the player we saw in 2010.

      • YanksFan

        So you don’t think there’s a chance he was hurt a little in 2010? Or maybe that he was anxious at the plate on the trail to 3K?

        I believe both may be true and believe he can hit .300.

      • RetroRob

        It’s certainly possible. If Jeter reverted back to a .270/.340/.350 line it wouldn’t surprise me. Let’s also keep in mind that he’ll be a full year older, so even if he did make some adjustments that helped his strong second half, he’ll still have to counter normal age-related regression.

        On the flip side, he might be just another example of a great player who when faced with the inevitable decline in some skils as he ages was able to make an adjustment that powers him on for another year or three. Pete Rose seemed like he might have begun his decline at 33, but then rebounded playing well to his age-40 season. Or Luke Appling, who looked to be on the decline at 35, only to kick it up a notch and play until he was 43.

        As a fan am I counting on it? No. Do I think it’s possible he might have another .300 season or two in him? Yes.

        Only one way to find out. Let the 2012 games begin.

  • Paul from Boston

    Isn’t this all average driven though?

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      What does it matter?

  • HyShai

    Do teams play him to go the other way? Maybe thats why he had so many hits fall in in LF.

  • Steve (different one)

    Do you think Jeter sent David Price a gift basket with an autographed ball?

    • Monteroisdinero

      He is partial to nice soft curves that he can drive deep.

  • MattG

    All of this information supports my favorite theory: Jeter plays hurt too often. I feel that Jeter’s health impacts his absurdly high ground ball rates, and his ability to pull. Further, the anecdotal evidence is buoyed by his resurgence after return from the DL, and rest during the all-star break.

    I am hopeful that with Montero on board, Girardi will liberally give Jeter complete days to heal up. 550 PA might be the right target, rather than his typical 700.

  • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

    Interesting read. As much as I hate it when he swings at the first pitch (bc in my presumably flawed memory he always grounds out when so doing) I guess the data says Swing Derek Swing!

  • Brad Vietrogoski

    Good stuff, Larry. I’m a bit surprised to see that Jeter actually had success swinging the bat more. As slow as his bat has looked the last couple seasons, I would expect his production to decline the more swings he took.

    Do you see him maintaining a comparable level of success in 2012 or dropping back down to his late 2010-early 2011 self?

    • Larry Koestler

      Hey Brad,

      I guess I’d describe myself as cautiously optimistic on Jeter going forward. SG’s .286/.345/.384, .325 wOBA CAIRO projection seems reasonable to me at this stage in Derek’s career, though it’d be great to see that SLG get over .400.

      One of the keys to Derek’s 2012 will be (ahem) performance against RHP. I know we’ve beaten this to death of late, but if Derek can regain some semblance of effectiveness against righties it’d be a huge boon to the team.

  • zapp brannigan

    here’s pete abe on a-rod

    Regardless of what happens next, Varitek will go down as one of the best players in franchise history given his influence on the 2004 and ’07 titles. Plus he gave that clown A-Rod a smack in the face. Any bar worth going to in New England has that photo hanging somewhere.…..tra_bases/

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    If I interpreted the spray charts correctly, then he seems (still) to be making too many outs in the infield. There appeared too many to be counted. I love Jeter and expect him to do as well in 2012 as in 2011.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      While infield outs can lead to double plays, if he bats .300 or above, I’m OK (if a bit frustrated) with that. It’s who he is.

  • Brian

    Didn’t his return to relevance coincide with when he dumped Minka? She was his curse, had him pulling his hips out too early…

  • JohnC

    lets not forget he came oh so close to bailing Yanks out in game 5 there in the 8th inning. Thought his shot to right wa out when it left the bat but just died at the wall. I expect him to come back more determined than ever this year

    • Cris Pengiucci

      When I first saw it off the bat, I thought the same thing, but as it travelled, I realized it wasn’t gonna be anything more than a warning track shot, if that. A few years back he would have had the power to put that one out.

    • Steve (different one)

      He also struck out with the tying man in scoring position to end game 3….

      • CP

        That’s not possible. Jeter never fails in the clutch.

        • Cris Pengiucci

          So unclutch. Get rid of him and Swisher (and Teix and A-Rod and Sabathia and ….)

  • well you know

    His BABIP was over .400 for August/September 2011 combined. Not sustainable; question is how much it regresses.

    ZiPS is not a believer for 2012. Projects .691 OPS/82 OPS+. Have to hope that’s off by a long shot.

    • Larry Koestler

      Of course I do all this research and somehow forget entirely about BABIP.

      Clearly Derek’s second-half was, in addition to the elements outlined above, also fueled by a fair amount of luck.

    • Larry Koestler

      Also, for what it’s worth — and it may not be much — ZiPS is, as usual, down on everyone on the Yankees. Thus far it’s been the most negative projection system I’ve reviewed by far, though Oliver (which I’ll be writing about soon) comes close.

      • well you know

        I very much appreciate your research, since it’s a lot harder than just looking up the BABIP splits in Baseball Reference.

        I’m sure Jeter’s age figures heavily in his ZiPS projection. I haven’t checked all the numbers but I think ZiPS was pretty accurate for 2011. I know they pegged Gardners’ OPS+ drop-off. Not sure how they did that, since that one wasn’t age-related.

    • RetroRob

      Keep in mind that Jeter throughout his career has carried high BABIP. It’s a byproduct of his style of hitting. He’s had two years in his career where he basically did have a BABIP just about at .400, and has nine years with a BABIP in the upper .360s or better. Overall, his BABIP in 2011 sat at .336, which is actually one of the lower numbers in his career. If we are going to question his high BABIP the last two months, then we should also question his low BABIP at the start. Yet we don’t have to do either. As I mentioned above, he may simply be the collection of stats from the entire season, a .297 hitter with producing a .336 BABIP. He’s not as good as the old Derek Jeter, but it’s enough to indicate that Derek Jeter isn’t quite so old that he may have anotehr .300 season in his bat.