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Is Derek Jeter's Defense Really a Problem?

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The question that nobody really wants to ask has begun popping up again - how much longer can Derek Jeter play shortstop?  It's one the Yankees front office has to be pondering, as a 4- or 5-year extension for The Captain this off-season seems about as sure a thing as Lindsey Lohan violating the terms of her court-ordered alcohol and drug treatment. 

The thinking goes that since very few players have played shortstop well as they've approached the age of 40, and since it's debatable whether Jeter has ever played shortstop well, the Yankees will at some point have to take the inevitable drama and PR hit that come with asking an older, declining, but still popular player to change positions or accept a reduced role.

It's a funny thing though; despite all the renewed emphasis that's been placed on defense over the past few seasons, as a practical matter, it's only when our team isn't winning and a particular player isn't hitting that we tend to focus on it, and at that point it is almost jaded towards a negative view, irrespective of what the numbers suggest.  For Jeter, the perfect storm came during a 15-game stretch in May during which the Yankees went 5-10 and he hit .224/.278/.269, leading to articles like this.

Our opinions about defense may be the most subjective form of analysis in all of baseball.  By no means am I suggesting that advanced metrics like UZR are gospel, but a lot of folks refuse to consider anything other than the "I know what I see" approach.  I don't like this.  Most of us saw the two balls that got by Jeter against the Mets last weekend, or the throwing error he made Sunday, because what most of us see on a consistent basis is limited to the spectacular plays or spectacular mishaps that make it to the highlight reel or make us look up from whatever else we're doing and yell at the TV.  So we do need to pause and take a closer look at some hard data before we jump to any conclusions.

Despite all of the shortcomings of traditional fielding statistics, it is worth noting that Jeter is doing well in most of these categories this season.  Among qualifying shortstops, he ranks fourth in fielding percentage and is tied for second in fewest errors.  The problem I see is that he ranks on the low end of total chances despite being near the top of the list in games played.  There are several possible explanations for this, but since the Yankees seem to have more than their share of ground ball pitchers this season, and the pitching staff's strikeout rates are not exceptionally high, it's at least possible that Jeter simply isn't getting to some balls (and therefore not registering a "chance").  Thanks to Fangraphs, though, we don't have to speculate about this. 

All of Fangraph's fielding statistics are based on the concept of breaking the playing field into "zones" for each defensive position, and then measuring how well or how poorly each player does within that zone.  There is certainly room for debate about how the zones should be delineated and so forth, but this method does give us a consistent, if imperfect, standard for measuring all fielders at a given position, instead of relying on the subjectivity of official scorers. Here's a look at major league shortstops so far this season, as well as Jeter's Fangraphs page.  We're all familiar with UZR, which represents runs saved above or below average, but also take note of BIZ, which represents the number of balls hit into the player's zone, RZR, which represents the percentage of those balls converted into outs, and OOZ, which stands for plays made out of the zone.  

The first thing worth noting is that fielding and pitching results are inseparable.  Most of Jeter's worst seasons, in terms of RZR and UZR, have coincided with subpar Yankees pitching, and while it is a chicken-or-the-egg argument to a degree, it's not as though Jaret Wright or Darrell Rasner struggled solely because their defense failed them.  Quite the contrary, it's possible that journeyman pitchers with poor control and ordinary stuff actually make it more difficult for their defense to make outs.  That's a consideration that few people have discussed.

If you look at the hard numbers, especially since 2008, Jeter hasn't peformed that poorly.  He consistently ranks in the middle of the pack for RZR, which suggests at the very least that he's getting to most of the balls an average shortstop should and cleanly throwing them to first, a theory which seems to be supported by his relatively high fielding percentages and low error totals.  And while he appears to be making somewhat fewer out of zone plays than some of the others on the list, it's not as though he ever made those plays to begin with.  UZR, which measures the value of everything a player brings to the table defensively, suggests that Jeter's defense has neither substantially helped nor hurt his team over the past three seasons.  Considering where he had been, that's a huge improvement.

Maybe it's a big string of coincidences - the Yankees acquired better pitching around the same time that Jeter began a regiment of training to improve his lateral movements on the field - but maybe they're related.  Nevertheless, the suggestion that Jeter is a worse defensive player today than he was in the past appears to be the exact opposite of the truth.  Putting aside our tendency to remember just the spectacular plays and miscues, Jeter appears to have improved in most defensive categories over the past few seasons, ranging from fielding percentage to UZR.  While never a shortstop in the vein of Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger, Jeter's fielding appears to have improved from "subpar" to "adequate", and coupled with a bat that's probably still capable of .310/.370/.450, about two dozen major league teams would be happy to have on their side this season.

In the end, I believe defense really is the secondary argument.  The primary concern is that Jeter's bat will begin to decline at some point, further exacerbating whatever defensive issues he may have, and I think his early May struggles reminded us of that.  Let's not allow the sample size monster to get the best of us, though.  A recent hot streak at the plate has brought his batting line closer to what we're used to from him, and there are still 110 games left to be played this year.  In many ways, Jeter is slowly moving into Jorge Posada territory, a place where an older player defies all the projections of doom and gloom and continues to hit well while adequately manning a tough defensive position.  Whether it's thanks to a solid training staff, an exceptional player, a little bit of luck, or some combination of the three, the Yankees have been here, done that before with an aging superstar.  Frankly, there aren't many other positions for Jeter to play, so why rush to move him off of shortstop while he's still adequate there?

I predict that we'll see a few more nagging injuries, a few more days off, and increased DH duty going forward, but Jeter will be a Yankee and predominantly a shortstop for at least most of his new contract. He's already bucked the odds once by improving his defense this late in his career, and lacking better options or a viable transition plan, what else should the Yankees do?