2011 Season Preview: Derek Jeter

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.

Kevin Goldstein’s Top 101 Prospects List

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein posted his list of the top 101 prospects in baseball today, with Jesus Montero checking in at number three. He trails only Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, in that order. Domonic Brown and Julio Teheran round out the top three. The trio of Manny Banuelos, Gary Sanchez, and Dellin Betances are all scrunched together at numbers 27, 29, and 32, respectively. That’s it for the Yankees though, just four players on the list, though all of them are among the top 32 prospects in the game.  That’s pretty dang good.

As far as I can tell, the list is free for all to see.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 28th, 2011

Record Last Week: 1-1 (11 RS, 8 RA)
Spring Training Record: 1-1 (11 RS, 8 RA)
Schedule This Week: @ Tigers (Mon.), @ Pirates (Tues.), vs. Astros (Weds. on YES/MLBN), @ Rays (Thurs.), vs. Red Sox (Fri. on YES/MLBN), vs. Nationals (Sat.), @ Astros (Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

{democracy:141}

Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, passes away

Duke Snider, shown here in Ebbets Field in 1950, patrolled center field in Brooklyn for years. (AP Photo/File)

The Hall of Fame, on behalf of the Snider family, announced on Sunday afternoon that Duke Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, had died at the age of 84. Snider, a mercurial player who had a love/hate relationship with the fans and eventually faced tax fraud charges, is the only player to hit four home runs in the World Series twice and blasted the last long ball at Ebbets Field. Of the famous trio of New York center fielders immortalized in highlight reels and song by Terry Cashman, only Willie now remains alive.

Snider, enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1980, suffered under the shadow of his more well known center field counterparts. Both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle put up better career numbers and won more awards. But Snider, an eight-time All Star and one of two players to drive in 1000 runs or more in the 1950s, earned Brooklyn’s love by sticking it to those damn Yankees in the 1955 World Series. He blasted four home runs and hit .320/.370/.840 during the Dodgers’ lone World Series win while in Brooklyn.

What I know about Snider I’ve learned through second-hand sources and my own study of baseball history. I’d urge you to read The Times obituary and excerpt Dave Anderson’s profile:

They don’t make center fielders like that anymore. With the big ballparks now, most center fielders are gazelles who can chase down balls lined into the gaps and hit for average, if they hit at all. Willie, Mickey and Duke not only were sluggers, they could also run.

Over their careers, Mays and Mantle each earned adulation as arguably the best baseball player ever. Snider never did, but for a time in the ’50s the Duke of Flatbush was better than either of them. He hit 407 home runs, almost all for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and a few for the Mets and the Giants at the end. But in the ’50s he hit more home runs than Mays or Mantle or anybody else in the big leagues.

Duke had it all: a sweet swing, a bazooka arm, springs in his legs. He also had the luck of being virtually the only left-handed slugger in a lineup dominated by right-handed hitters like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. As a result, Snider usually was swinging against right-handed pitching.

Then again, he didn’t really have it all. As he often acknowledged, he had a “big mouth” that tarnished his image and his popularity. After being booed at a game at Ebbets Field one night, he snapped that Brooklyn fans “don’t deserve a pennant.” That prompted even more boos the next night. He later put his name on a Collier’s article confessing that he played baseball only for the money, that he would rather be in California on his avocado farm not far from Los Angeles.

Today, I live a short walk — and an even shorter subway ride — away from where Ebbets Field once stood. Now and then, old Brooklyn Dodger fans emerge to wax nostalgic about Dem Bums. Baseball lost another one. Here’s to you, Duke, ever the Duke of Flatbush, ever a thorn in the Yanks’ side.

Open Thread: February 27th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Today’s goings on…

Here’s the open thread for the night. The Knicks are playing the Heat at 8pm ET (ESPN), and today’s Yankees game is being rebroadcast on MLB Network at the same time. That’s it for local sports, talk about whatever.

Priorities and Two-Sport Times

Up until this year, I have always been a one-sport kind of girl, which is basically because I was not indoctrinated to be a fan of any sport besides baseball. Total brainwashing, I tell you. Anyway, recently I moved in with a pair of rabid hockey fans in the bay area, California. It was the perfect rebound relationship: one crying Yankees fan, left deserted by an early, disappointing departure from the playoffs and surrounded by the orange and black success of the home team. Enter: exciting NHL preseason for a hip team with giant expectations, endless possibilities, and a lot of really good players. I was weak! I was sad! I was left with a desolate, depressing offseason (even though I knew the Yankees would obviously – obviously! – get Cliff Lee), and hockey sweet talked me into being a fan like that guy in the leather jacket and the sweet Mustang at the party you were at last night. I woke up the next day and said to myself, “Hannah, you’re a San Jose Sharks fan now. Read a lot of blogs and learn all their names and find out what the heck the blue line means, and don’t forget to uncover the flaws in all the traditional stats.” (Note: +/- is almost as bad as pitcher W/L.)

It was a good choice. I like hockey. But now it’s time for baseball and I’ve reached a terrible point in my life that I have never had to deal with before: which sport do I watch? On one hand, I have the love of my life playing games which are totally meaningless. I already knew (and it was proven to me yesterday) that the games will vary from boring to an absolute comedy of errors with only the occasional bright spot. It’s nice to take in baseball without having to worry about the actual games, but at the same time, getting into the game is just a little harder when they don’t matter. It’s not that I’m not excited about watching the pitchers and catchers and bench guys fight for their spots. It’s not that I’m not excited to see Jesus Montero and Manny Banuelos become big leaguers or I don’t want to see Derek Jeter rebound. It’s just that, like I wrote yesterday, the games simply do not matter.

On the other hand, the NHL season is barreling towards the playoffs. The trade deadline is tomorrow, and the Western Conference (where the Sharks play) is especially tight. Every game matters. Maybe we’ll pick up another player. Maybe not. Maybe our exceptionally hot (game-wise, not attractiveness-wise) goalie will break under the stress of playing twenty games in a row – that’s a lot. Will our superstars plagued by down years pick it up when we need them? Can we continue to be the amazing San Jose Sharks, or will we return to our pre-All Star Break inconsistency issues? It’s these kind of pressing questions that watching the games would answer. Like baseball, hockey highlights and stat reels don’t ever tell the whole story. What kind of fan would I be if I didn’t watch every minute of nail-biting, second-half hockey?

Football fans have an advantage over us hockey and basketball people – your season is over before baseball even begins, so there’s no stress to worry about now, though your collective problem comes in September when football starts up again. I guess in the end, it’s all a matter of priorities. I’m certain that my hockey-loving household is going to give me absolute piles of crap when I tell them I’ll be turning off extremely important Sharks games to watch meaningless Yankees games. I’m also pretty sure that I’ll miss some important Sharks moment and catch some unimportant (but amazing) Betances pitches and Montero bombs.

I guess it’s all about priorities. I’m sure there are some Yankees fans who put more value in their Knicks, Giants or Rangers, and are paying very little, if any, attention to these beginning games where all we’re doing is swooning over prospects and rolling our eyes as Ryan Howard pulls a Bill Buckner. Likewise, I’m sure there are people who are clapping their hands in glee over NFL preseason while we’re pulling our hair out over the end of regular season baseball. For me – and this should come as no surprise – I’d much rather watch a meaningless baseball game than a meaningful hockey game. All I can hope for is that the Yankees play in one time zone and the Sharks play in the other. That way I can watch both at the same time. And what’s better to a two-team sports fan than to watch both games on the same day?

Easy question: for a baseball person like me, it’s regular season baseball. Sorry, Sharks.

Spring Training Game Thread: Take Two

Charlie's getting into it. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Yankees dropped their Grapefruit League opener to the Phillies yesterday, but they’ve got a chance to exact revenge today. Far more important than that is the starting pitcher though, as Ivan Nova gets his first crack at winning a spot at the back of the rotation. Bartolo Colon was okay yesterday but definitely needs work, so Nova’s got a chance to take a bit of a lead early in camp. What do I want to see out of him today? I dunno, I guess throwing his fastball to both sides of the plate. There’s not much you can expect out of guys in February.

Aside from that, we’ve got some big-time prospects playing today. Jesus Montero is starting behind the dish and batting sixth, and Dellin Betances is scheduled to come out of the bullpen at some point. I’m guessing he’s slated for two innings, but don’t hold me to that. Both guys are among the 50 best prospects in the game, and there’s a very real chance we’ll see both in the big leagues at some point this year. Adam Warren, a personal fave who has a bit of a cult following, will pitch after Betances. Otherwise, none of the regular infielders are in Clearwater this afternoon, and I suspect the regular outfielders will only be around for about five innings, maybe less. Here’s the starting nine…

Brett Gardner, LF
Nick Swisher, RF
Curtis Granderson, CF
Jorge Posada, DH
Eric Chavez, 1B
Jesus Montero, C
Eduardo Nunez, 2B
Ronnie Belliard Brandon Laird, 3B
Ramiro Pena, SS

Scheduled to Pitch: Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Boone Logan, Dellin Betances, and Adam Warren.

Belliard was supposed to start at third base, but he was scratched with a calf issue. Getting injured before Chavez won’t help him win a job. YES will carry the game live at 1:05pm ET, and MLB Network will have it on tape delay starting at 8pm ET. Enjoy.