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Jeter Gets Off the Ground

Derek Jeter's getting the ball off the ground with a bit more frequency than in the recent past, but will it be enough to sustain his resurgence? (AP)

In a season where the Yankees' offense has gotten off to a sluggish start, the one hitter who has been tearing up the pea patch has been Derek Jeter. On Sunday night, the Captain broke open what was already a 5-1 game against the Angels, crushing a Hisanori Takahashi drive to right field for a three-run homer. At a time when there's more focus on the things he can't do than the ones he can, Jeter now leads the team in batting average (.366), on-base percentage (.395) and slugging percentage (.610), and it's even been breathlessly suggested that he could win his first batting title in his age 38 season.

That's extremely unlikely to happen, but the remade swing that Jeter emerged with last July upon returning from his calf strain is still generating positive results:

Period           PA  HR   AVG/OBP/SLG    SO%   BABIP  ISO
Thru June 13 293 2 .260/.324/.324 10.6 .283 .074
Since 358 6 .335/.385/.468 14.8 .386 .133
Career 11999 242 .313/.383/.450 14.8 .355 .136

Thanks to a higher batting average on balls in play, Jeter has put up numbers in line with his career rates over about half a season's worth of plate appearances. That .386 mark is actually in a league with his best BABIPs — .396 (1999, swoon), .391 (2006), .386 (2000), .379 (2003), and .375 (1998) — but even this season's .361 mark, while closer to his career rate, is probably unsustainable for a player his age. In all of baseball history, just nine players in their age-38 seasons have managed a .350 BABIP while qualifying for a batting title, and only four have exceeded Jete's current mark:

Rk Player            BABIP Year Age  Tm
1 Ty Cobb .371 1925 38 DET
2 Paul Molitor .367 1996 39 MIN
3 Ted Williams .367 1957 38 BOS
4 Rickey Henderson .363 1999 40 NYM
Derek Jeter .361 2012 38 NYY
5 Ty Cobb .359 1927 40 PHA
6 Sam Rice .356 1930 40 WSH
7 Andres Galarraga .355 2000 39 ATL
8 Eddie Collins .350 1926 39 CHW
9 Julio Franco .350 1997 38 2TM

That's some pretty fair company; with the exception of Galarraga and Franco, those are all Hall of Famers. Then again, Jeter's career .355 mark is fourth since 1901, behind only Cobb (.383), Rogers Hornsby (.365), and Rod Carew (.359). Getting hits on balls in play is the area at which he has most excelled during his 18-year career, and it's why he's likely to wind up in the all-time top 10 in hits once it's all said and done. He's at 3,103 now, and if you conservatively figure another 150 per year as he ages (he had 179 in 2010, 162 last year even missing three weeks), he'll get into the 3,400-3,500 range easily. He's even got a chance to reach Stan Musial's 3,630, which ranks fourth all-time, and which stands as a record for hits accumulated with one team.

Back to Jeter's current performance, one important aspect of his resurgence is a reduction of his groundball rate. Jeter led the majors last year at 63.9 percent, according to MLB Advanced Media data; he also led in 2010 and 2008, and has been in the top 10 in every year since 2005, and the top five in all of those years save for 2007. Even so, his rate is down since returning from the injury; he was at 66.8 percent before going on the DL, at 60.8 percent since returning — still a top 5-caliber rate in most of the years in question — and at 59.0 percent for 2012 alone. Admittedly, the latter is a small sample size, but it's important to recognize that groundball rate stabilizes at around the 109 plate appearance mark, according to work by Baseball Prospectus colleague Derek Carty. By comparison, BABIP takes over 1,100 plate appearances to stabilize — ten times as long. That doesn't mean Jeter's groundball rate won't change, but it does mean that his 2012 rate can soon be taken at least somewhat seriously. That Jeter's still above 60 percent over the course of half a season's worth of plate appearances since returning from his injury is thus significant.

Can a hitter be productive with a 60 percent groundball rate? Yes, but within limits. Since 2000, 60 players have done so over the course of a full season while qualifying for a batting title (502 plate appearances). Those players combined for a .326 BABIP, and a .290 batting average, but just a .401 slugging percentage. Their combined True Average (think OPS, except expressed on a scale of batting average, with park and league adjustments thrown in, and on-base percentage properly weighted to be more important than slugging percentage) was just .264, with only six of them — Jeter and fellow BABIP expert Ichiro Suzuki twice, and Bernie Williams, and Shawn Green once — producing TAvs above .300. The problem, basically, is that groundballs don't tend to produce extra-base hits, and extra-base hits do much more for a hitter's TAv than singles do. Oddly enough, a .264 TAv is what PECOTA projects for Jeter this season.

Now, a .264 TAv is still slightly above the MLB average of .260, but there's a selection bias in play, namely that the players who get that much playing time are generally above average anyway. In fact, the pool of players with 502 PA in that timespan combined for a .280 TAv, 16 points higher than our slappy bunch, with their less impressive .307 BABIP and .282 AVG offset by a robust .462 SLG. That 16 points of TAv translates to about two-thirds of a run per game of difference over the course of a full game's worth of plate appearances for a team — in other words, not insignificant. Meanwhile, only 12 of the 60 seasons with 60 percent groundball rates featured TAvs above .280, with Jeter owning four of them (2001, 2002, 2005, 2006).

If anyone can succeed while killing worms that often, it's probably Derek Jeter. While the deck is still stacked against that happening, he hasn't put together a Hall of Fame career simply by bowing to the odds. If he can return from the 2010-early 2011 doldrums, that would be a significant plus for the Yankees' offense.