Jeter's turnaround at plate amazing but caution is warranted
Has it really been three months since baseball fans were treated to
"The happy ending here is a resurgence by Jeter that makes this article and all the ones like it seem silly. The realistic one is an acceptance of limitations by both player and team that gets them through the year, followed by a plan for the remainder of Jeter's contract that involves him moving to a secondary role."
That's what I wrote on May 5, when Derek Jeter was hitting .250 with two extra-base hits. Not much changed in the month that followed. Jeter led MLB in groundball rate, looked overmatched -- particularly against righthanded pitching -- and showed little reason to think he was worthy of the three-year, $51-million contract he and the Yankees had agreed upon last offseason. Then, on June 13, Jeter came to the plate in the fifth inning of a nondescript game against the Indians and hit a fly ball to right. Two steps into his charge to first base, he pulled up with a strained right calf...and his season was changed.
Jeter would miss 18 games, nearly three weeks, while allowing the injury to heal. Since his return July 4, he's been nothing short of amazing. Starting July 5, he ripped off a seven-game hitting streak that included his magical Saturday afternoon in which he picked up his 3,000th hit on a home run, as well as four other knocks, including the game-winning RBI single. Unlike previous big games, though, after this one he kept hitting. Since coming off the DL, Jeter is batting .353/.405/.468, with 14 extra-base hits.
Normally, this kind of parsing of data leaves an analyst open to criticism that he's picking arbitrary endpoints to make his case. With Jeter, the DL stint appears to have been a break in his season that gave him an opportunity to change his approach. Even in the first days after his return -- most notably on that magical Saturday in the Bronx -- Jeter was hitting more balls in the air. The biggest problem he had last year and early in this one was too many ground balls. Jeter is still a groundball hitter, just not to the same extreme. He was hitting nearly 70 percent of his balls in play on the ground early in the year; that figure is now 63 percent, and the tradeoff has been for line drives and fly balls. Jeter's resurgence is driven by batting average, and particularly batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His BABIP was .283 before he went on the DL, .404 since. Both numbers are a mix of skill (squaring up the ball) and luck (finding holes). Jeter's increased power, though, seems to be about skill, finding more pitches to drive and getting them in the air. His isolated power (SLG minus AVG) has jumped from an anemic .084 to a respectable .115.
Let's check back to the May article to make one last point:
"The timing adjustment [to his stance] didn't take, but clearly he has to make some kind of trade-off -- power for contact, or adding strikeouts for power, something like that -- in an effort to find a style of hitting that will produce some kind of value."
Initially, Jeter seemed to choose to be more aggressive. In July, he struck out in a whopping 20 percent of his at-bats, with an 18/7 K/BB, but was making harder contact when he hit the ball, with nine extra-base hits and matching his pre-injury total of two homers. There was a clear change in approach and outcomes. In August, Jeter has been more prone to hitting singles -- a .461 batting average on balls in play driving a line of .417/.467/.488, but with just five extra-base hits and no home runs, and a 8/7 K/BB. It turns out that lumping all the post-injury plate appearances together is actually a bit deceiving, because Jeter was a different hitter in the four weeks immediately after coming back than he's been in the four weeks since then.
What will he be in the next four? The one positive change here is that Jeter isn't quite so extreme a groundball hitter, and he is making harder contact -- in both months -- than he did before he went on the DL. That alone raises him from a time bomb at the top of the lineup to a moderate asset. (It's worth noting that even with his surge, Jeter retains a large platoon split and is still a poor hitter against right-handed pitching: his .325 OBP against them argues strongly for a lower lineup slot when a righty starts.) His recent attention-grabbing rush, however, is a BABIP-driven fluke, and expecting him to sustain a .400 batting average is a bit much. Jeter's overall 2011 line -- .297/.356/.382 -- seems like a reasonable approximation of his current skill set. He can hit for some average, draw a few walks, and is losing power. That's more or less where he was a year ago, and that line would make him an above-average offensive shortstop.
Given the ride he's taken this season, however, caution is warranted: Jeter seems to be at a point in his career where he's managing around the decline in his physical skills, and prone to a lot of short-term variance in his performance as he tinkers to figure out what works and what doesn't.