On Thursday evening, Derek Jeter addressed the media regarding the latest setback in his recovery from a broken ankle. Though the original injury, which occurred in October, had healed sufficiently enough (with the added assistance of a surgically-implanted screw) for The Captain to begin Spring Training workouts, his progress was slowed by a repeated series of setbacks: first stiffness in the ankle, then the gradual scaling back of his normal routine, ultimately culminating in the finding of a new crack in the ankle. This latest development will undoubtedly put Jeter’s return somewhere significantly after the All-Star break. While it may be upsetting for fans to not see Jeter on the field for a significant period of time for the first time since 2003 (dislocated shoulder), Eduardo Nunez, being occasionally spotted by Jayson Nix, have done a pretty decent job of holding down the fort. As these next few months give the Yankees a peek into their not-so-distant future, Jeter’s absence, along with the increased solid play of Nunez, it does beg the question: how much will the Yankees really miss Derek Jeter?
Before going any further, let me state clearly that I am not trying to diminish anything that Jeter has done over his career. His career is tops among a franchise that has boasted its fair share of superstar players. Jeter was the “It” boy of Major League Baseball for a long time. However, it is important to note that the veteran shortstop is now 38 years old, and even though he continues to be a serviceable player, his best years are behind him. While he can continue to be a contributing player to the Yankees, it is a fair assessment to say that he is definitely on the downside of his career trajectory.
Further, in evaluating Jeter’s value, let’s only focus on the on-field activities; while his representation of the Yankees off the field is lovely, that doesn’t contribute to wins on the field. That also means, as wonderful of a captain as Jeter may be, it doesn’t matter for purposes of this discussion. While leadership and other positive “make up” attributes are relatively important intangibles, they also don’t directly impact the win column. For purposes of this discussion, this evaluation will be solely based on on-field activities.
Defensively, Jeter has historically been an exceptional defender. He has patented “the jump play”, and :”The Flip Play” in that series against the A’s is just legendary. (Really, what was he doing there?!) That said, with age comes decreased speed, and thus, decreased range. For a shortstop, that has a big defensive impact, regardless of how many routine plays are made or how few errors are not made. One of the best defensive metrics for defense is Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR. As defined by FanGraphs, UZR “puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof.)” Players are categorized according to the following scare: a +15 rating is Gold Glove Caliber (yes, I know this is subjective, but it’s the definition and it’s based on the defensive prowess a GG is actually meant to represent); +10 is Great; +5 is Above Average; 0 is Average; -5 is Below Average; -10 is Poor; -15 is Awful. In 2012, Jeter’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) was a -14; a huge drop from that same metric in 2011 and 2010, which were -6.7 and -4.4, respectively. Overall, Jeter has seen a massive decline in ranger and defensive capability, despite his sure-handedness. There are not small sample sizes, either, as Jeter played between 1,300 and 1,800 innings during that span. Further, Jeter’s Rtot (total number of runs a player is worth based on number of plays made) ratings in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were equally terrible: -8, -14 and -18, respectively. Effectively, despite his strong defensive reputation, Jeter is costing his team runs by being on the field.
By ironic contrast, Eduaro Nunez, Jeter’s replacement during this DL stint, is mostly know for his defensive failures, earning himself the nickname, “NunEEEEEEEEEE” to represent the (seemingly countless) errors he has made. That said, digging a little deeper, Nunez’s defensive ratings stand in pretty striking contrast not only to his own reputation, but also to Jeter. For instance, in the same 2010-2012 time frame, Nunex’s UZR ratings as a shortstop were: -.9, – 8.2 and -1, respectively. While 2010 was a relatively small sample size of roughly 39 innings, 2011 and 2012 were each 386,1 and 116 innings.
Additionally, Nunez’s Rtot as a shortstop from 2010 through 2012 were -2, -6, and -2. Given that UZR and Rtot also calculate for errors, even with his defensive slips, Nunez’s defensive presence actually helps the Yankees by saving more runs for the team. It’s simple math: the fewer runs allowed, the increased chances that the team will score more than the opponent. Additionally, Nunez’s speed at his young age gives him an advatanage to make plays that are outside the range of Jeter (did anyone see that slide and throw to first in the Toronto series? That was filthy.). Where as Jeter may be able to knock down a ball but fail to make a play, Nunez can do both- preventing more runners from reaching base, helping the pitcher get out of jams, and preventing runs.
Regardless of Derek Jeter’s historical reputation defensive star, it is becoming increasingly clear that, with age, his abilities are not only diminished but are awful. Yes, he is sure-handed, and unlikely to make a careless error. But he is also less likely to make plays even just slightly beyond his range. If errors and not making plays each result in the the Yankees surrendering runs, Jeter is still costing the Yankees more runs than Nunez. From a defensive standpoint, Jeter is clearly diminished, and Nunez (shaky as those hands may be), gives the Yankees a better chance in the field.
Check back next week as we look into the offensive evaluation of Derek Jeter’s absence….