Early in the season, when Derek Jeter was first getting off to his hot start, I was skeptical that his strong performance would last. At the time the analysis seemed reasonable. Derek hasn’t put together a solid season since 2009 and the Yankees had faced an improbably high number of lefties. Derek is old. Derek kills lefties. It stood to reason that eventually schedules would normalize and Jeter’s production would drop off. Sometimes reason gets stood on its head.
So far this season Derek is batting .336/.384/.462. He’s already got as many homers in 52 games this season as he had in 131 games last season. Entering Sunday’s game his wOBA was .368 and his wRC+ was 131. No matter how you slice it, regardless of age and his recent history, Derek Jeter has put together an excellent third of a season. I’ve learnt better than to try to predict where things are going. I’m notoriously bad at that. Rather than making a forecast, however, I did want to to take a closer look to see what has changed for Jeter thus far in 2012 versus 2011 and 2010.
The first number that jumps out is Derek’s BABIP. At .362, Derek has an average on balls he puts in play comparable to the .368 he posted in 2009 and just above his career average of .355. Compare that to the .336 that he posted in 2011 and the miserable .307 he managed in 2010 and you get a sense of the major driver of the difference between this season and those seasons. Derek is getting more successful when he puts the ball in play. His numbers have improved as a result.
There is a frequent argument that BABIP changes are attributable to luck. Over a small sample, for a young player, there’s a strong argument to be made for that. In Derek’s case, it doesn’t look like luck. Derek has a career walk rate of 8.9% and a career strike out rate of 14.7%. This year the walk rate is down to 7.1% and the strike out rate is down to 10.9%. Derek isn’t just getting more hits when he puts the ball in play, he’s also putting more balls in play. That filters directly into his AVG/OBP split. Normally Derek’s OBP would be over .400 if his average is as high as it is this season. Instead, he’s being more aggressive at the plate, and being rewarded for it.
Derek’s batted ball profile also reflects a change in both approach and results. He’s got a line drive rate of 22.9% (20.2% career), a ground ball rate of 63.3% (57.7% career) and a 13.8% fly ball rate (22.1% career). These are precisely the kinds of changes in outcome that you’d need in order for a player to hit for a higher average. Line drives and ground balls are more likely to result in hits than fly balls. The numbers suggest that Derek is driving the ball more, which is leading to his higher average.
Finally, Jeter is back to his old ways when he faces the fastball. Generally speaking, performance against the fastball is an excellent gauge of how much a hitter has left in the tank. If the batter can still hit the fastball he can still hit. For his career Derek has produced 0.87 runs above replacement against every 100 fastballs he’s seen. In 2010 that number fell all the way down 0.15, which is miserable. In 2011 he improved to 0.41, which was better, but still bad. So far this year Jeter is murdering the fastball. He’s worth 1.59 runs above replacement for every 100 he’s seen, which compares favorably to 2009 (1.63) and 2006 (0.99).
It has been said this year that Derek looks like a kid again. That may or may not be true, but the numbers do reinforce the assertion that he is a player with a new approach in the box. Derek is having more success against the fastball, the pitch that all major leaguers will see the majority of the time. As a result of that success, he’s been able to drive the ball more and be more aggressive in the box. His new found ability to hit the fastball for authority has translated directly into a higher AVG and a much improved SLG (currently higher than Alex Rodriguez‘s). To the extent that there is a downside, the increased aggressiveness has reduced the benefit to his OBP from his improved AVG, but that is not seeing the forest for the trees. We’re now two months into the season and there are concrete reasons in the data to explain why Derek Jeter is hitting like he’s 29 again. Who knows what will happen from here, but so far it has been great to watch him hit this way.
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