Can someone hold this shovel for me?
I wrote those words more than a year ago in this space, when Derek Jeter was batting an empty .250, coming off the worst season of his career, and apparently headed toward life as a $15 million millstone in the Yankees lineup. Jeter would struggle for two more months before pulling it together for a strong second half. He then looked overmatched against the Tigers' power pitching in the postseason. His improvement after getting his 3000th hit aside, Jeter looked to be a problem coming into his age-38 season, a Hall of Famer on his last legs.
Those legs work better than you'd think. We're three-quarters of the way through 2012, and Derek Jeter is having a year that fits comfortably with most of the ones he had during his thirties, batting .324/.365/.446, going 8-for-11 stealing bases and striking out about twice as often as he's walked. Still the most extreme groundball hitter in the game -- only Twins' sophomore Ben Revere has put a higher percentage of balls in play on the ground -- Jeter is hitting for a higher average when he puts balls in play (.353) than he has since 2009, and that figure is right in line with his career mark of .355. Perhaps the most significant difference in Jeter's game is that he's making more contact than he ever has before, striking out in a career-low 11.7 percent of plate appearances. Despite spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, Jeter has not behaved like a leadoff hitter: He swings at about half the pitches he sees, he chases pitches out of the zone frequently, but at 38, he still has the ability to get the bat to the ball -- Jeter is in the upper 25 percent of players when it comes to making contact when he swings.
This is not what we expect from an older player, especially one whose decline had been so well-documented. Jeter's season at the plate isn't historic -- he's in the top 40 for hitters who picked up at least 400 PA at age 38 -- but it may be among the most unexpected. Most of the players on the list ahead of him were great hitters going through a late peak, having a final surge or declining from a very high level performance. Also, most of them were hitters first: first basemen and left fielders and DHs not tasked with playing a key defensive position. If you just take a look at players at up-the-middle positions, you find that Jeter is having one of the 10 best offensive seasons ever for a 38-year-old. Restrict it to shortstops, and you're down to a three-man list: Honus Wagner in 1912 (144 OPS+), Jeter (117), and -- you all know this one -- Jimmy Austin of the 1918 St. Louis Browns (109).
Notice that I've limited the discussion to Jeter's offense. One of the great controversies of the sabermetric era is the difference between the mainstream opinion of Jeter's defense at shortstop, and the numbers he's produced in every defensive system. Jeter, who has won five Gold Gloves, has consistently been rated below-average -- and at times among the worst shortstops in the game -- by the credible defensive systems. Whatever his athleticism, he just hasn't made enough plays relative to his peers to be considered a good defender by the metrics. That continues this season; Derek Jeter rates as the worst defensive shortstop in baseball in both Ultimate Zone Rating (at Fangraphs) and Runs From Fielding (at baseball-reference.com). He was among the worst in those categories last year, too. It's unusual for 38-year-olds to even play shortstop regularly, but the ones who do are usually strong defenders nearing the end of their career. Jeter is an outlier among this group for not only not being a strong defender, but for his performance at age 38. By Runs From Fielding, Jeter is -17 this year; no 38-year-old has ever been worse than -7. Even with his surge at the plate, Jeter has been worth about two wins more than a replacement-level player because of his terrible range.
There is some statistical fluke in Jeter's batting line. From 2007 through 2011, as his power faded, Jeter hit home runs on about 10 percent of his fly balls. This year, he's doubled that figure to 20 percent. Since that is by far a career high, and a number incongruent with everything we know about him as a player, we can surmise that the 12 homers -- and the bounce they give to his average and slugging -- are less the product of skill than good fortune. They count toward his value, but should be taken with a grain of salt -- they don't represent a flowering of some late-in-life power. Remember, this is a batter who hits the ball on the ground as much as anyone we've seen; he's not a home-run hitter.
Even if you ding Jeter for the defense and the home-run rate, you're left with a player who has been a positive contributor at an advanced age, someone who may not quite be worth the $15 million he'll make this season, but who has kept himself from becoming an albatross. Jeter is, at 38, still remarkably athletic. He's a positive contributor running the bases, he's exceptionally durable and while he scores poorly on measures of overall defense, he remains a smart player in the middle of the diamond. It wasn't that long ago that it appeared the Yankees might be stuck with a replacement-level player at shortstop. In 2012, at least, that hasn't been the case. Jeter's ability to get the bat to the ball more frequently has given him enough offensive value to make him a good player on one of the game's best teams.