(Image: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE)

Sabermetric Outlook: Derek Jeter


Derek Jeter stormed out of the gate for the New York Yankees in 2012, hitting .389 in April in what seemed like a resurgence of one of the best players in Yankees history. However, he’s fallen back to Earth lately, hitting a meager .238 in June with only 4 extra-base hits. So what happened? Was he just getting lucky in April, or did something change in his approach? Who’s the real Derek Jeter? Read on to find out.

If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).

Let’s start with the positives: Jeter has already surpassed his home run total from last year, in just over half of the games. He’s hitting above .300 for the season, and his wRC+ of 108 is his best since 2009. He was just voted in as the starting shortstop for the All-Star Game, his 13th and 7th in a row. As I said above, Jeter had a fantastic April, and although he has hit horribly this month, he showed that he still has something left in the tank. He just needs to find it again.

Now, let’s review the negatives. Unfortunately, there are a lot more of these. El Capitan has his lowest walk rate since 2004, he’s still hitting for very little power, despite a jump from last year, and advanced defensive metrics say that this is one of his worst defensive years ever. He’s in an awful slump right now, and his batting average is on the verge of falling below .300 for the first time since early April. Take a look at Jeter’s splits by month.

After a monster April, Jeter’s month of May was below average, but not awful. He was still hitting for an okay average, but his power just completely disappeared. In June, however, though his walk rate came back up, he continued to hit for no power, his strikeout rate jumped, and he couldn’t get a hit.

Jeter has lost a step in the field, leading to decreased range and poor defense. (Image: Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE)

Part of the reason for Jeter’s awful June was his .261 BABIP. Jeter’s ground ball rate did soar in June (which explains his power outage), and since ground balls generally turn into hits much more than fly balls do, we should expect a higher BABIP than .261. However, not only would a higher BABIP not make up for the flaws in the rest of his game, but we may have reason to expect a much lower BABIP than his career rate of .354.

First of all, Jeter just turned 38, so he doesn’t have as much of a skip to his step as he did 15 years ago. This is partly evidenced by his drop in stolen bases (only 6 so far), but also by his low UZR/150 (-20.4) and Speed score, which uses stolen bases, stolen base attempts, triples, and runs scored to estimate a player’s speed. Jeter’s career speed score is 5.6, and it has been above 5 for the past three years, but this year it is all the way down to 3.4. With less speed, Jeter is much less likely to beat out infield hits, and consequently his BABIP is expected to drop.

The other reason to expect a low BABIP going forward is because Jeter is swinging at, and making contact with, way more pitches outside the strike zone than he ever has. He is swinging at 32% of pitches outside the zone, above his career rate of 22%, and he is making contact with 77% of those pitches, above his career rate of 63%. What this means is that Jeter is probably making weaker contact as he reaches for pitches that should be balls. This weaker contact is going to lead to fewer hard-hit ground balls and line drives, which are more likely to turn into hits.

If Jeter wants to get more hits, and more home runs, he needs to lay off those bad pitches. The fact that he is making contact with so many balls leads me to believe that he’s not swinging as hard as he used to, just trying to make contact rather than drive the ball. Instead of looking to always just make contact, Jeter may find more success with his BABIP if he swung harder and looked to drive the ball to the outfield every time, even if that led to more whiffs and more strikeouts.

Of course, Jeter may just be getting too old to drive the ball well, while avoiding a spike in his strikeouts. Though he found success in April, it may have been more a product of good luck on balls in play and fly balls. However, something else has certainly changed since then. He hit fewer ground balls, more fly balls, and just seemed to be hitting the ball hard in April, something that he didn’t do in June.

Derek Jeter is a smart player, one who knows how to make adjustments in order to succeed. Unlike a rookie who may not be able to adjust to failure, Jeter is smart and talented enough to make changes to his swing and to his approach. While he is aging and probably physically incapable of playing like he used to, he can still be a productive player for a while longer. His defense decreases his value significantly, but as long he is an average hitter or better, we should expect solid value out of Jeter going forward.

 

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Tags: April BABIP Batting Average Defense Derek Derek Jeter Groundballs Home Runs Jeter June New York Yankees Shortstop Slump Speed Stolen Bases Strikeouts UZR Walks Woba Yankees

  • jkra0512_SK

     MHunterYGY 
    I think most of this is just regression toward the mean. His line drive rate in April, May, and June were 19.3%, 26.3%(!), 19.1%, respectively. He struck out fewer times in May (10.5% compared to 11.4%). However, the biggest tell is the .413 BABIP in April compared to a .324 BABIP in May and .261 in June. He’s now hitting more balls into the ground, like you alluded to (71.3% in June compared to 65.1% in April and 60.6% in May).
     
    Just looking at the stats, he should have had a better May than what is shown. Statistical speaking, he had a better chance at raising all of his numbers, but someone saw an almost .100 point drop in average from April (.389) to May (.293). How do we make sense of this, Matt? What number(s) am I not looking at that would help make better sense of this, if any?

    • jkra0512_SK

       MHunterYGY BTW, GREAT article! I love these types of stories.

      • MHunterYGY

         @jkra0512_SK Thanks!

    • MHunterYGY

       @jkra0512_SK I think it was probably more of a really lucky April than an unlucky May. His .324 BABIP was probably about right given his declining speed. He may have gotten a little unlucky with the home runs, as his HR/FB% was very low at 7.7% in May. So yeah, he probably should have had a slightly better May, but he should have had a much worse April than he did. All in all, it definitely seems like his April and May performances weren’t that different. The other thing is that although the line drive rates can tell us some of the story, they don’t tell it all. Jeter might have just been making weaker contact on those non-line drive balls. And even on the line drives, there’s a difference between a screaming line drive into the gap and a weak liner to second.
       
      Unfortunately Fangraphs doesn’t have the splits for plate discipline, but I would guess that in May and especially in June, Jeter swung at a ton more pitches outside the zone and made contact with more of those pitches than in April, which would partly explain the low BABIP.

    • MHunterYGY

       @jkra0512_SK One other thing is that months are completely arbitrary endpoints, so I’m not sure when these changes actually happened. It might be that the first half of May was like April, and the second half was like June.