We’re So Sorry, Uncle Derek Jeter: On the Interplay Between Offense and Defense

August 22, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (2) tries to make a catch against the Chicago White Sox in the eighth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. The Chicago White Sox defeated the New York Yankees 2-1. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-US PRESSWIRE

As Derek Jeter aged into a seemingly permanent decline in performance in 2010 and 2011, the question about him seemed to become when his bat no longer supported his glove. As long as Jeter's bat was vastly superior to the parade of glove-first shortstops, the Yankees could tolerate his allowing the occasional extra groundball single. Jeter was aided in that overall offense at shortstop has been declining, so he's remained ahead of the pack even as he took on ballast:

YEAR

JETER OPS

MLB SS OPS

DIFF

2007

840

738

102

2008

771

718

53

2009

871

721

150

2010

710

693

17

2011

743

697

46


The offensive gap was still in Jeter's favor the last two years, but not enough so that it mitigated his defense. That's why when various sites calculated WAR, Jeter was rated as near the replacement level. Baseball-Ref had Jeter at 1.6 and 0.9 in 2010 and 2011 (respectively); Baseball Prospectus called it 0.8 and 1.0. Fangraphs, more generous in its appraisal, had 2.7 and 2.3, but their replacement level seems to be set a little lower than that of their competitors, so decent players tower a little bit higher over their lesser brethren.

Jeter has obviously had a great comeback season, one that is in certain senses unprecedented. When you search baseball history for strong offensive seasons by shortstops 38 and older, you get a literally hundred-year-old season by Honus Wagner and a few seasons by Luke Appling, as well as the odd just-good years by more recent players like Omar Vizquel and Ozzie Smith. The reason isn't just that most shortstops don't hit well to begin with, so as they age and their offense falls off, they are no longer playable, Mark Belanger types falling off from .230 batting averages to .200, although that does happen. However, the great two-way shortstops have much farther to fall before their bats won't play. So why don't we see many seasons like Jeter's?

The reason is, simply, that their teams judged that these shortstops, though they could still hit, were no longer strong enough defensively to play at their original position. Arky Vaughn moved to third base at 30, Vern Stephens at 32, Cal Ripken at 35. Ernie Banks was off to first base at 31. Alan Trammell started doing utility work at 35. If you're Ozzie Smith or Vizquel or Wagner you get to keep your shortstop's glove. Everyone else moves. Robin Yount, Tony Fernandez, Miguel Tejada: moved.

Jeter hasn't moved. The last two years, moving seemed like a moot point given that his bat wouldn't support any other position. Now the bat is back, though for how long we still can't say-as Matt Keegan pointed out a couple of weeks ago, his groundball rate is extremely odd and should really be serving to retard his production, but it hasn't. He's also still 38, and as Elvis taught us, comebacks only last so long before we inevitably slide into our fat, white-jumpsuited stage of bloated irrelevance. Jeter's .364/.389/.513 July-August, which followed on a .263/.317/.333 May-June has provoked discussion of Jeter taking on Pete Rose's career hits mark. Few baseball events would be more pleasant to see than Jeter toppling that particular mark, but let's face it, we really don't know how long the party is going to last-especially given that we never should have expected it to start again in the first place.

That is not to say that Jeter's return is not to be celebrated, but our excitement should be tempered by the fact that the same old problems apply-Jeter's defensive negatives must be deducted from his offensive positives. BB-Ref sees Jeter as having been worth 3.6 wins offensively, but also rates him as -1.4 wins defensively. Baseball Prospectus is kinder to Jeter's defense, saying he's only cost the Yankees four runs, or about half a win. Fangraphs leans towards the BB-Ref side, dinging him about a win and a half.

The Yankees are not deep in shortstop alternatives, and this winter's free agent market has little in the way of attractive supplements either, so perhaps this is, as it always has been, something of a moot point. However, the fact remains that winning in baseball can involve adding runs, taking them away, or both. Obviously the last is to be preferred, but is rarely possible. In Jeter's case, the comeback is a terrific coda to a great career, but we can't let that obscure the fact that we only get to go back to where we started, not someplace better than that.
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