Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Number of Days Until Spring Training: Derek Jeter (#2)

Did you notice that last year, Derek Jeter had his worst full season offensively as a professional? He had similar OPS+'s in 1996 and 1997 but that takes into account the inflated offensive era those years were a part of. His 2008 batting average (-.16), on-base percentage (-.24) and slugging percentage (-.50) were all well off his career marks. Consequently, his counting stats (11HR, 69 RsBI) were far below his averages too. He only stole eleven bases, and was caught five times.

Before I looked those numbers up, I didn't notice either. He doesn't seem to fall into extended slumps and as a fan watching the games, your memories are probably shaped more by how many hits he gets as opposed to his OPS.

Jeter's image, of course, is solid titanium and during last season he was linked to Minka Kelly, appeared in Ford and Gatorade commercials and gave a great speech after the last game at the Old Stadium that Will and I were fortunate enough to witness (even from two obstructed view seats in the left field upper deck). It's easy to overlook or forgive his slipping production.

A shortstop who has been a defensive liability for quite some time, his offense is falling far enough to make him dangerously close to an average player. Some attributed his slack in production to the game on May 21st, when he was hit on the hand by Garrett Olsen. But how long can an injury serve as an excuse for sub-par hitting? The "bad habits" he's picked up should have probably corrected themselves within several weeks of the incident.

His '08 OPS+ was 102 (almost exactly league average) and he was only about 50% successful at getting runners in from third with fewer than two outs. Somehow, he both walked and struck out less. He grounded into 24 double plays, the most in his career and he was behind only much slower runners Vlad Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez and Jermaine Dye.

That's what the numbers tell me. My recollection of watching games this past year tells me that he was less patient at the plate, swinging at the first pitch too frequently, and fouling off more of the balls he used to put in play, and making weaker contact on the balls he used to drive.

In a subjective recall, double plays stand out, not only because they make two outs and erase a hit, but they also kill the mythological "momentum". Similarly, getting runners in from third leave a perceived gimme run on base. These are the kind of plays that fans overvalue. How long is it going to take before they start turning on Jeter? I know he is the ultimate Teflon Man, for the all reasons that we are all too familiar with. But there is a bare minimum level of production fans are willing to tolerate.

Bernie Williams, also a homegrown Yankee, here for all four of the World Series Championships in the late 90's/2000, a former batting champion, World Series MVP, four time Gold Glove winner, and "True Yankee" still saw the fans and the organization turn on him when his power went away and his GIDP's weren't balanced out by the rest of his offensive contributions.

Jeter will make $20 and $21 million over the next two years, respectively. The Yankees decision to backload the contract has left the door open for media criticism of his lack of productivity in relation to his salary. No question Jeter has been worth the value over the length of the contract just on the field. In addition, his value to the club extends well beyond that. I'm not even talking about intangibles, but about the marketability he adds to the Yankees. He is a major reason ESPN covers the Yankees so closely, and his gravitas keeps him and the Yankees on the back pages in New York. Jeter and A-Rod, account for the vast majority of the Yankees star power which shouldn't be overlooked.

After 2010, the organization might have quite the quandary on its hands. Jeter seemingly refuses to acknowledge the erosion of his skills, especially defensively. He's said he doesn't want to move from shortstop, which is okay, in one respect, because aside from catcher, it has the highest tolerance for a below average offensive player. However his defensive range continues to slide, at the second most valuable defensive position.

In a perfect world, he could switch to center field this coming year, replacing the Melky/Gardner shitburger/poo sandwich combo, and hold the place for Austin Jackson. Of course that would require that the Yankees acquire someone who was significantly superior defensively than Jeter (and serviceable offensively), and there aren't an obvious options that wouldn't require a major sacrifice.

I've heard people speculate that before Derek Jeter's career is over, he might amass more than 4,000 hits. He currently has 2,535, still 465 short of 3,000. He certainly won't be at 3K by the time his contract expires in 2010. Will the Yankees give him a sweetheart, lifetime achievement contract as he continues to decline? They didn't with Bernie, and although their star status is not comprable, the decision making may be similar, considering the will likely occur in the Brain Cashman Era.

Will there be a Brett Favre-like "player wants to come back but team wants to move on" scenario? Doubtful, but if Jeter wants a contract based on his previous one and past accomplishments and the Yankees want one that more closely reflects his current value as a player, they might find it hard to come together.

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