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February 22, 2007

Looking Ahead to 2007: Derek Jeter
by SG

Derek Jeter probably should have won the 2006 MVP, at least over Justin Morneau. People like Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, and Grady Sizemore all had comparable seasons, but Jeter was more valuable than Morneau in 2006.

Regardless, he didn't win it, finishing second in what was an outstanding season by any measure. Jeter had his best all-around season other than his sublime 1999, finishing with his second highest OPS+. More impressive is that he did it at the age of 32, when you'd expect players to be getting worse, not better.

Any time a player's batting average spikes, there's a good chance there's some measure of luck involved. In Jeter's case, we can look at his batted ball data to determine if there was a change in approach that can at least partially explain it.

The chart above breaks down Jeter's ball types as a percentage of his total balls in play. g = grounders, f = fly balls, l = line drives, p = pop ups.

Jeter line drive percentage was higher than his established level from 2000-2005 last season, and his fly ball percentage was lower. The combination of the two explains at least part of the extra 40 points of batting average he had. It also explains the low HR output. Jeter's more valuable to the Yankees if he's putting an OBP of .400+, than he is if he's hitting 20 HRs with an OBP of .352.

For a shortstop, it's hard to complain about Jeter's offense. He's been consistently solid offensively every season, with some outstanding seasons mixed in. He projects similarly for 2007.

Jeter projects to hit comfortably above .300, after projecting in the .290 area last season. Add in the positional adjustment, and Jeter is about three wins above an average player, five wins above a replacement player, offensively at least.

But there's the rub. The rub that makes people accuse me of "hating" Jeter. It's the defensive metrics that show that Jeter gives back part of his offensive value on defense.

For the most part, Jeter has scored below average by almost every defensive measure worth considering for almost every season in his career. He has been better over the last three seasons by Zone Rating, which you can see below.

Jeter was pretty solid in 2004 and 2005, but dropped a bit last season. Again, I want to reiterate what it means when you see that Jeter is a -5 defender. It means that over the 150 games he played in 2006, he failed to make a play that an average shortstop makes once every 20 games. If your eyes tell you that Jeter's not a bad defender, it's because for the most part, he's not. Visually, I think it's clear he lacks at least some range, especially up the middle, but the numbers say it's not leading to him missing fifty plays a season that he should be making.

One interesting thing to look at is how Jeter's ZR has fluctuated from season to season. Take a look at the chart below, which shows how Jeter compares to the league average AL SS every season.

Jeter's been a touch above average, and way below average and everywhere in between in his career. At least part of it is probably playing through injuries, and another part of it could be a positioning choices the Yankees have made in different seasons. Defense shouldn't fluctuate that wildly. It's also interesting to see that the general quality of defense at shortstop in the AL has declined over the last 11 years.

I think there's enough data that says Jeter's not a great defender that I'm inclined to believe it. I do think the outrageous spike seasons where he was really bad are probably at least partially explained by positioning.

That doesn't mean he's not a great player to have on your team. He's an entertaining player to watch (when he's not bunting). He gives the team great offense out of the shortstop position, and he gives compelling interviews and sound bites to the media. Well, maybe not that part.

More than any current Yankee, Jeter is hated by non-Yankee fans. It's not Jeter's fault, it's the fault of his treatment by the media and the Yankee hype machine. When someone is built up to be be bigger than they are, the natural tendency is for backlash. Besides, who gives a rat's ass what a non-Yankee fan thinks anyway?