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There is No Escaping Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter may be having problems on offense and defense, but he doesn't need defending. (AP)

I love the job the LoHud guys do on their Yankees blog. They have literally changed the game for those of us who write about the Yankees with the immediacy of their reporting. Indeed, they provide an invaluable service to all who follow the Yankees. They’re also nice enough to link the Pinstriped Bible. Thus, I hope that Chad Jennings, who seems a nice fellow, will understand the friendly spirit in which I respond to his latest post on Derek Jeter’s decline.

Jennings makes four points about Jeter. The first, about Jeter being worth more to the Yankees in a financial sense than a typical player, I am not going to dispute, although my understanding of the way that a marketable player redounds to the benefit of his team suggests that the quest for 3,000 hits would have to generate a great number of above-normal ticket sales to come close to balancing out the millions that Jeter will get over his raw field value.

In his second point, Jennings asks, "Will Jeter eventually move away from shortstop? Maybe. But right now, the Yankees don’t have a better option. They have a pretty good outfield. The rest of the infield is locked up. Putting Jeter at designated hitter would mean trusting Ramiro Pena or Eduardo Nunez as an everyday player."

No disagreement on the basic point, which is that Nunez and Pena are likely not everyday players and the Yankees don’t have much else of interest coming along—Cito Culver just turned 18 and we may not hear from him for five years, if ever. Two-way shortstops are in awfully short supply, and if Jeter can just recover even some of his old offensive value and his range doesn’t drop off any more rapidly than it already has, he may yet out-hit his lack of range. What I disagree with is that Jeter can ever move to another position without hurting the Yankees. Forget center field—the list of players getting through a full season in center at 37 or older is almost as limited as that for elder shortstops, and it seems very unlikely that Jeter could run around out there and approach the defensive abilities of Curtis Granderson or Brett Gardner. His legs would take an unaccustomed pounding, and this is a guy whose first step, at least to his left, has always been his big weakness. When Jeter’s reactions at short are bad, the Yankees give up a single. When a center fielder’s reactions are bad, his team gives up a triple.

The real problem with a move to the outfield, and not just center field, but one of the corners, is offensive. The same thing is true of the infield corners. Forget that all four of the corners would seem to be more or less locked up right now with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and so on. Here are the 2010 major-league averages at those positions, plus center field:

1B: .267/.352/.457

3B: .268/.330/.424

LF: .269/.337/.431

CF: .260/.326/.404

RF: .271/.342/.445

At Jeter’s current offensive levels, he can’t play anywhere but short if his bat won’t represent a huge drop-off from what the good teams are getting at the run-producing positions. Say his bat comes back next year, not to his 2009 levels, but to his 2008 levels—.300/.363/.408. First, Jeter wouldn’t represent much of an upgrade on what the Yankees are getting from Curtis Granderson in a bad year, plus Brett Gardner, who has reserved his worst hitting for center field (.233/.352/.325). Yanks’ center fielders are hitting .249/.330/.430 overall, and if Granderson gives the Yankees a better 2011, next year the position should sail past those numbers. Even if they just tie their own performance to this point, you’re looking at a 760 OPS versus 771 from Jeter, a small difference for which it’s not worth compromising the defense. Left field is more of the same—Gardner has provided exceptional defensive value there while hitting .307/.407/.410. If Gardner were slightly less productive or less valuable with the glove—IE Jeter ’08 transplanted to left—the Yankees would be suffering versus the league, for left field is up the with first base and right field as a repository for offense—think Josh Hamilton, Matt Holliday, Ryan Braun, and yes, Carl Crawford. Right field presents the same problem. An amalgam of Nick Swisher’s 2009-2010 gives you .270/.367/.511. Jeter hasn’t shown that kind of power since 1999 (and only then).

First and third bases are blocked, but were they not, you again have a shortfall of power and perhaps on-base percentage as well. Remember, the averages above not only include the Miguel Cabreras of the world, but the Casey Kotchmans as well. The better players can service both sides of the production chain. In a season in which Teixeira’s numbers are being held down by a miserable April, his cumulative SLG and OBP are still, respectively, .501 and .372. Third base is also a power position and presents some of the same issues.

All of the foregoing is predicated on Jeter bouncing back to his 2008 form. If he doesn’t, you don’t even need to have this discussion. His bat will not be able to support a position change, even if Jeter was willing to move, or even to play a late-career Omar Vizquel everyday utility role. I’m thrilled to see Omar still out there at 43, but as a range-challenged third baseman who is hitting .286/.353/.348, he’s only an asset in the sense that the White Sox didn’t have to rely on the spectacularly impatient Dayan Viciedo when Mark Teahen got hurt. You just need more pop out of those positions from your regulars.

Jennings’ third point is that some of Jeter’s decline has been bad luck, based on his lower than normal batting average on balls in play. The problem here is that the decline in BABIP goes hand in hand with Jeter’s increased ground ball rate. It is very hard to pile up a good batting average hitting mostly grounders unless you have the speed of Brett Gardner, Jay Garrick, or Barry Allen. For everyone else, grounders are mostly outs. When the average AL hitter strikes a grounder this year, he hits just .233, just about all of it in singles. If Jeter’s new Dig-Dug way of hitting is only temporary, great. If it’s a permanent fixture, his batting average will never recover, nor will his power. The key here is that sometimes a hitter posts an unusually low or unusually high BABIP because of luck. He hits the ball consistently hard, but fielders make an unusual number of great plays on him, or more commonly, just happen to be standing where the batter’s 900 mph line drive was hit. Jeter is not having bad luck. Jeter is having a bad approach. There is a huge difference.

This is the only guy who has worse grounder problems than Jeter.

Jennings’ final point is actually two points, one about defense and one about offense. About the former, he says, "[Jeter’s] range doesn’t seem to be what it was just last season, but there is something to be said for the fact Jeter is as reliable as they come in the field. If he can make the play, he makes it." There is something to this—there are certainly shortstops who blow the routine play. That said, it seems to me that the end result might be the same, or still better for the more error-prone shortstop assuming he has more range than Jeter. Sure, Jeter doesn’t fumble what he can get to, but there’s a ton of stuff he just doesn’t reach at all. The more rangy shortstop gets to more balls, and if he throws a few away, he’s still making a greater number of grounders overall. Consider Elvis Andrus of the Rangers. Andrus is not a great defensive shortstop at 21, but let’s look under the hood. He’s played about the same number of defensive innings as Jeter (1131.1 for Andrus, 1123 for Jeter). Despite playing behind a pitching staff that has roughly the same strikeout rate as the Yankees, has had roughly the same number of starts by left-handed pitchers (52 for the Rangers, 48 for the Yankees), but induces fewer grounders, Andrus has accepted 114 more chances and had 54 more assists. Sure, he’s made nine more errors, but that still leaves 105 plays to Andrus’ advantage.

Similarly, there are shortstops who make errors on the spectacular play, but that is a function of their having range that Jeter does not—the Captain can’t throw away a ball that’s already past him and into the outfield. Then there’s a whole other category: shortstops who have plus range and don’t make errors, but let’s not bring that up as it wouldn’t be fair. Much like Manny Ramirez during his Red Sox phase, Jeter has always been a question of balancing his offensive contribution versus his defensive shortcomings. Since there are only so many balls hit at shortstop in a year, the difference between a great shortstop and a poor one isn’t huge. Then you consider that everything a poor shortstop misses is just a single. Finally, you throw in that Jeter has been good for a .315 average and 55 extra-base hits a year, and you realize that the Yankees were coming out ahead on the deal. There was never a need to alibi for Jeter’s defense, because he could hit his way past his relative immobility. But to say that he makes plays on what he can get to, that’s damning him with faint praise. When teammates were congratulating Lou Gehrig on making plays on what he could get to, he realized he had to come out of the lineup.

Finally, Jennings (may I buy you a beer sometime, Chad?) says that "there’s a solid chance [Jeter is] going to score more runs and drive in more runs than he did last year… In terms of raw production, he’s been just as good." I’m not sure what Jennings means by raw production, because it’s not runs scored and runs batted in. It’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Runs and RBIs are largely dependent on the quality of the offense on a player’s team and where he hits in the batting order. Jeter has more plate appearances than any player in the American League, so he’s been out there a lot, even if he hasn’t been hitting. Jeter is hitting .252/.343/.427 with runners in scoring position, which is about average, and .223/.305/.350 with men on base, which is horrible. Overall, he’s driven in a below-average number of the baserunners he has seen. As for the runs scored, you bat leadoff ahead of Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Jorge Posada, you’re going to score some runs. Hitting in front of Will Stargell and Dave Parker, bloody Omar Moreno scored 110 runs one year. It didn’t make him a good hitter, it just meant that he was in the right place at the right time for a ton (757) of plate appearances.

Once again, no offense meant to Chad Jennings, who was clearly trying to find some upside in what has been a dark season for a great player. My only point is that such hopeful thinking provides an unrealistic picture of what that season has been about, and therefore also encourages unrealistic thinking about the future. I think it says more about us when we have to alibi for a great player this way than it does about the player. We don’t want to let go. No one wants Jeter to get old. They don’t want to get old themselves. I feel that on a very personal level. Yet, just as Jeter owes Yankees fans a fair self-assessment of his own declining skills, his fans owe him the respect of honoring him for what he was, rather than ignoring the absence of the emperor’s clothes and going on like it’s still 1999—or 2009.