The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

 

The Decline of Derek

Only a shrieking teenybopper in a navy blue number 2 T-shirt could be oblivious to the decline in Derek Jeter's offensive and defensive abilities over the past two seasons. With four World Series rings in five years, and with a nine-year, $189 million contract under his belt, he's set to be a Yankee for life, complete with a plaque in Monument Park. But at the ripe old age of 27, an age when most ballplayers are reaching their prime, the evidence shows that Jeter has fallen way off his peak. By some standards, he's dropped like a tech stock.

Two articles in recent days explore this disturbing trend. The Village Voice's Allen St. John, a staple of the alt-weekly's fine Jockbeat section, finds Jeter "marooned on a plateau, a promise of greatness leveled off to a guarantee of solidly-above-averageness." Of Jeter's high-water mark, the 1999 season (an awesome .349/24/102, 989 OPS), St. John writes, "I can only imagine what it was like watching DiMaggio in 1941, and I imagine it was like watching Derek Jeter in 1999." Indeed Jeter was a thing of beauty that season, reaching base in the first 53 games and keeping his average around .350 almost wire-to-wire. At that time, he was arguably the equal of Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, the other two members of his heralded peer group at shortstop.

But while A-Rod and No-Mah have continued to advance toward the stratosphere, offensively speaking, Jeter has tailed off. His .339 average last year concealed steeper declines in both his On Base and Slugging Percentages, making him a significantly less productive hitter. As discussed in this column awhile back (June 20), SLG*OBP is a much better yardstick to measure the combination of the two statistics than OPS; it correlates, roughly, to runs created per at bat. Based on this, Jeter's run-producing abilities have fallen off by about one-third since '99:
       AVG    OBP    SLG   SL*OB

1996 .314 .370 .430 .159
1997 .291 . 370 .405 .150
1998 .324 .384 .481 .185
1999 .349 .437 .552 .241
2000 .339 .416 .481 .200
2001 .295 .376 .431 .162
Over at Baseball Prospectus, Gary Huckaby weighs in on Jeter's declining defense, a sore spot about which Jeter's most ardent boosters have been, well, defensive. The highlight films of Jeter making those long, suspended-in-the-air throws from deep in the hole continue to resonate, but the fact is, Jeter isn't making those plays, nor many others, like he used to. In a 14-team league, he ranks 15th among shortstops in Range Factor (total chances per game), Fielding Percentage, and Zone Rating (percentage of balls successfully fielded when hit in his "zone"), and he's second in Errors. Huckaby, using a more complicated metric called Adjusted Fielding Range, illustrates how Jeter has declined relative to his earlier abilities and to league averages, placing him in the bottom tenth percentile of all major league shortstops defensively. In all, not a pretty picture.

The reasons for Jeter's decline are unclear. Nagging injuries to his shoulder and quadriceps may be a factor this season, as may the lack of success of Jeter's neighbors in the batting order, Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O'Neill (since dropped from the #3 spot in favor of Bernie Williams). The weight of expectations that comes with his huge contract, and his sister's bout with Hodgkins Disease may also have affected him. Jeter's not one to make excuses, but something clearly isn't quite right.

Jeter is still an excellent ballplayer who can play on my team every day, and given his standing with the Yankee brass and their fans, he figures to for most of the next decade. But his ability to fulfill the promise of his 1999 season is now squarely in doubt. Still, with only five seasons under his belt, there's a pretty strong chance that, as somebody posting under the handle "dzop" pointed out over on Baseball Primer, his 1999 and 2001 seasons represent the good and bad fluctuations of a high peak offensively. He may never bring DiMaggio to mind again, but a career somewhere between Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin is hardly out of the question.

I'm going to go out on a limb (can you hear me, Joe Torre?) and suggest that the Yankees start adjusting to the new Derek Jeter while shoring up a weakness of their own. The anticipated 30-homer power spike predicted by his '99 numbers hasn't materialized yet (though it may well come around eventually), but Jeter's high On-Base Percentage, speed, and baserunning smarts make him an ideal leadoff man. He's fared amazingly well there in limited duty (.372 AVG/.465 OBP/.471 SLG in 146 plate appearances from 1998-2001). Move him to #1, put Scott Brosius in his old #2 slot, and the Yankees will start to look like championship material again. Trust me, Joe.


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