(Oh so smoove. Courtesy of the AP)
It was a continuation of his strong second half in 2011, but that didn't make Derek Jeter's offensive performance in 2012 any less impressive. To be 2 years older than he was when he first started to look like he was slipping, the oldest everyday shortstop in MLB by far, and lead the American League in wOBA at his position (.347) while playing 159 games was just the latest entry in the long book of career accomplishments for Jeter. His race to 3,000 hits in the rearview, Jeter rapidly ascended the all-time list last year and enters 2013 knocking on the door of the top 10, with it looking very likely that he'll finish the year just outside the top 5 if he stays healthy. Health will play the biggest role in determining whether Jeter keeps the positive momentum from his 2012 season going, but before we look ahead to that, let's look back at 2012 and what changed to breathe life back into Jeter's bat.
Way back in early February of last year I looked at Jeter's 2011 season to try to determine what he needed to do to keep his second half turnaround going. I boiled it down to 3 main things:
1) Maintain a strong contact split. Jeter's LD rate had been declining while his GB rate went up, suggesting that his bat speed and pitch recognition skills were deteriorating. He never had much HR power to begin with, so hitting the ball with more authority was critical.
2) Improve against right-handed pitching. Jeter got absolutely killed against righties in 2010-2011, more than likely due to the decline in his natural skills and failure to correctly compensate for that. And since righties still dominate the pitching landscape, it was imperative that he improve his production against them.
3) Tighten up his approach. Jeter's BB rate and patience at the plate had lessened in the last few years. He was swinging at more pitches and swinging at more bad pitches, and that more aggressive approach was contributing to his weaker contact. Getting back to working counts and staying back on the ball was a must to play to Jeter's strengths as a hitter.
For the most part, Jeter followed my recommendations to a tee. But the one thing that he didn't really do comes as a bit of a surprise when you consider the results he generated. Personally I thought it was the most important factor for him, so in case you needed further proof, this is why I'm a blogger and not the Yankees' hitting instructor.
Let's start with the easy stuff. After a slap-hitting start to 2011, Jeter boosted his LD rate up to 27.2% in the second half of the season. The time he spent rehabbing his injury served him well in more ways than just physical healing. The work that Jeter put in on his swing paid huge dividends and those dividends carried over into 2012 when he posted a 21.7% LD rate, almost 3 full points up from where he finished in 2011 and his best rate since 2006. Jeter's GB rate stayed about the same at 62.5%, and while he hit the ball in the air less than he ever had in his career, his 16.1% HR/FB rate was his highest since '05 and a sign that Jeter had gotten back to driving the ball more.
Jeter's total spray chart from 2012 shows the type of BIP breakdown you expect from The Captain. There's a lot of groundball outs, especially to the left side of the infield, and most of his hit damage came from hitting the ball the other way. The frequency of that damage increased in 2012 on the strength of Jeter's 33.9% LD/34.9% GB/31.2% FB contact split to the opposite field, his best in years. When you're an opposite-field hitter who's hitting the ball that hard to the opposite field, good things are going to happen.
On the topic of contact splits, it was Jeter's strong splits against right-handed pitching that allowed him to rebound in that category as well. Jeter has always maintained the ability to crush lefties, and that's what the bulk of his minimal production from 2010-2011 was based on. But after 2 straight seasons of below-average production against righties, Jeter came back with a .294/.346/.377 batting line against them in 511 PA against them last season, good for a .321 wOBA. That's not earth-shattering by any means, but it's a big improvement from his righty splits of the previous 2 years and likely attributable to a LD rate of 21.6% and a GB rate of 62.9% that were right in line with Jeter's overall contact splits. Jeter didn't beat up on righties, but he was at least respectable against them.
These 2 positive trends in Jeter's production over the course of a full season may lead you to believe that Jeter changed something about his approach at the plate. They certainly led me to believe that. Surprisingly enough, that wasn't the case as Jeter instead maintained the increased aggressiveness in his approach. I pointed out last February that Jeter's swing rates, both overall and at pitches out of the strike zone, were of particular concern to me because I didn't feel like he could continue to swing at more pitches and be successful if his bat speed was deteriorating. As it turned out, Jeter's swing rates went up across the board in 2012, at pitches both in and out of the strike zone, and his average pitches per PA of 3.70 was right in line with his P/PA averages from '09-'11.
As crazy as it sounds, swinging at more pitches actually worked to Jeter's advantage in 2012. He didn't change his approach at the plate to be more selective and chase less, which brings me back to that time spent on the DL in 2011 to get his timing back as the source of the turnaround. Jeter's performance against fastballs of all types, which had been in general decline for the last few seasons, improved according to PITCHf/x in 2012, a sign that his timing on those pitches had improved. Rather than go the route of being more patient and changing his swing mechanics to fit his diminished skills, it's as if Jeter went back and re-timed his whole swing to compensate for those diminished skills so that he could still use his same mechanics and approach. It was a ballsy move for a late-30s player to make, but it worked.
Jeter's improved contact splits and increased offensive production over 159 games proves that last season was the result of him making meaningful changes to the way he went about his business at the plate, even if his swing and approach looked like vintage Jeter. And his .347 BABIP that's right in line with his career average proves it wasn't just a fluke deal. Jeter did defy the odds and Father Time, and now those questions will be asked again in 2013 as he comes back from his ankle surgery. Early projections have Jeter's numbers taking a hit from their 2012 levels, which is to be expected whether or not Jeter is 100% healthy. I myself am expecting a decrease in production, but am hopeful that it won't drop back down to or below his 2010 or early 2011 levels. If Jeter can be a .320-.330 wOBA/100-110 wRC+ hitter, he can still be valuable to the lineup. And if his new timing is still intact, there's reason to believe Jeter can reach those levels.