On May 2nd Derek Jeter was off to a typical strong start. He was hitting .333/.367/.510 (877 OPS) and was doing what Yankee fans and media watchers have long come to expect from him. But since then, he’s collected just 19 hits in his past 90 ABs (.211) and has seen his BA drop almost 60 points. Some think he’s just in a slump, but slumps like this one are pretty rare in Jeter’s career. Browsing through his monthly stats, you have to go all the way back to April of 2004 (and his notorious 0-28 when fans booed him) to find a month worse than the one he’s had in May of 2010. Back then, his slump was attributed to him lunging at the plate and being overly anxious. Ever since, he’s been a remarkably consistent player when healthy. His only recent prolonged slump was after Daniel Cabrera hit him in the hand on May 20, 2008 when he went 5 for 40 in the two weeks following the incident. Slumps like this stand out because they’ve been so rare over the course of his career.
Chris and Matt have already weighed in on his lack of plate discipline this year, which was evident even during his hot start in April. This troubles me even more than his recent woes at the plate. As a player ages, his bat slows down. To compensate for this he will typically start his swing earlier, leading to less Walks and more Strikeouts. Pitchers will take notice and start pitching the player more aggressively, and things can spiral downward quickly. So far this year, his walk rate is way down but his SO rate has remained consistent thus far. It’s worth noting that his BABIP is a paltry .302 (career .358) which could be attributed to some bad luck or that he’s just not driving the ball as usual. His Batted Ball data suggest the latter, with Line Drives way down and Ground Balls way up.
But age isn’t the only explanation for this, various injuries can slow a player’s bat speed as well. Don Mattingly’s back troubles sapped his power and made him a shell of his former self at a relatively young age. Yankee fans may remember Bobby Abreu’s abdominal injury in Spring Training of 2007 and the effects it had on him. Mike Lowell and Carlos Delgado’s hip problems caused big declines in their production as well. The Yanks claim Derek is healthy, but knowing Jeter he wouldn’t complain even if something was bothering him, so it’s hard to say.
It’s not just his diminished offensive production, it’s everything. His range is way down, which was something we weren’t saying last year. Quite the contrary, we were marveling at his defensive renaissance this time last year. It was hard not to notice during the recent Subway Series that Derek appeared a few steps slow at Shortstop. You’d be hard pressed to come up with a single play he made to his left, and even hard hit balls right at him wound up in the outfield. Thus far, his Fielding Stats have held up well this season (+4.9 UZR) so we have to question whether his fielding woes are recent trends that have yet to show up in his metrics or just perception on the part of fans hypersensitive to his age. But whether up at the plate or in the field, he just looks old out there lately. He’s looked that way before, and we found out later that he was hiding an injury of some sort. I’m actually hoping that’s the case now. Because if it’s not, then we may very well be seeing him entering his decline. Don’t assume it will be a smooth landing, either. Robbie Alomar had an MVP caliber season in 2001 and was basically finished after that year, losing 200 points of OPS the following season that never returned. How is that relevant? He’s Jeter’s top player comp through age 35 on BR
Many have speculated on how his play will affect his next contract negotiation, but I think it’s still way too soon to even address that. But I will say this, for those who assume the Yanks will just give Derek whatever he wants because he’s too important to the franchise, that cuts both ways. Much of Derek’s star power is derived from the fact that he’s a Yankee, so both sides need each other. Derek has a carefully crafted image as the consummate ‘team-first’ player. If he is viewed as hanging on to a position he can’t play adequately defensively, and is hitting below league average as well, then the entire Jeter equation changes for many fans and media. That will affect the intangible value he would have in his last contract with the team. As big as Derek is, the Yanks and their commitment to winning is bigger, and no one player can be viewed as putting himself before that. Derek ended the Subway Series with a nice night, collecting 3 Hits in 5 ABs. Let’s hope that’s a sign of things to come for both him and the Yankees.
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