For the first time since 1996, Derek Jeter has something to prove during spring training. After suffering the worst season of his career, followed by a stinging offseason contract negotiation, Jeter seems to be approaching 2011 with just a little bit extra determination. Never one to lack confidence, the Yankee Captain will undoubtedly be motivated to prove his detractors wrong.
Reporting early to spring training isn’t uncommon for Jeter, who owns a Tampa home that is close to Steinbrenner Field. However, the shortstop has been in the swing of things, literally, since just after the New Year. At the end of January, Jeter even went so far as to meet with hitting coach Kevin Long. In what was described as a three-day tutorial, the future Hall of Famer worked with Long on a few minor adjustments to his stride at the plate.
Although many view Jeter as a touch stubborn, he has been open to making adjustments in the past. Despite winning gold gloves from 2004 to 2006, Jeter’s defensive statistics were in steady decline during that period. Even scouts started to whisper about a noticeably slower first step. Then, in 2007, he turned in his worst season in the field; not only was his UZR/150 an abysmal -17.9, but his declining range had become evident to the untrained eye. So, heading into the 2008 season, Jeter adopted a new training regime designed to improve his flexibility in the field. And, sure enough, his defense registered an immediate improvement. In 2009, Jeter’s UZR/150, a stat that had never been kind to him, registered an impressive 8.0. This time, when Jeter won the gold glove, there weren’t many snickers.
The Yankees hope that Jeter’s adjustments with Long will pay the same dividends at the plate. Although it wouldn’t be wise to bet against Jeter’s determination, the fact remains that the soon-to-be 37-year old shortstop is entering unchartered territory. For starters, since 1901, there have only been 14 seasons in which a shortstop over the age of 36 played at least 140 games at the position. In other words, Jeter’s first challenge will simply be to stay in the lineup (and the Yankees’ challenge will be to make sure he gets needed rest). Interestingly, as Jeter chases his milestone 3,000th hit in 2011, he could actually be making history just by taking the field.
Players with At Least 140 Games at Shortstop, Age 37 or Older, 1901-Present
From a performance perspective, only 12 shortstops (players appearing at the position in at least 80% of total games) in 23 seasons compiled a WAR higher than Jeter’s 1.3 total in 2010. In other words, simply improving a little from 2010 would be considered historically significant.
Shortstops, Age 37 or Older, with a WAR of 1.3 or Greater, 1901-Present
|Pee Wee Reese||2.5||1956||37||BRO||147||648||0.257||0.322||0.344||74|
One thing evident from the chart above is that most of the positive WAR contributions stemmed from defense, which is at least a small cause for concern. Even in his best defensive seasons, Jeter, unlike Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel for example, has primarily been known for his hitting. What’s more, WAR can be somewhat unreliable when it comes to measuring defense, so using it as the basis for this comparison can be misleading. Instead, it seems more appropriate to isolate the offensive contribution of shortstops in the tail end of their careers.
Shortstops, Age 37 or Older, with Positive Rbat, 1901-Present
Note: Rbat is defined as “the number of runs better or worse than average the player was as a hitter.”
As you can see, only two shortstops in the history of baseball were able to contribute meaningfully on offense after their 37th birthday. Over the course of his career, Jeter has been about 21 runs better than the average hitter, so attaining that standard doesn’t seem likely. Even reaching the half way point on that barometer would be historically unique.
Before Yankees’ fans fret too much over the daunting history that stands before Jeter’s potential rebound, it’s worth pointing out that he isn’t just a normal player. Although he may never again attain the high standards set over his career, those hoping for a rebound can take some solace from knowing that fellow Hall of Fame shortstops Honus Wagner and Luke Appling were able to keep piling up strong seasons as they approached the age of 40. Obviously, that would put Jeter in the truly elite class, which, after all, is exactly where he belongs.