Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Can Derek Jeter Continue To Defy Time?

(Squared up on that one... )

With the bulk of the focus this offseason centering on the Yankees' moves to beef up the rotation and their ongoing pursuit of a left-handed DH option, certain storylines heading into Spring Training have fallen by the wayside.  One of those storylines is The Captain, Derek Jeter, or rather what he will do in 2012.  Between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, Jeter's status as a big-time everyday player looked to be on life support.  Then he suffered the calf injury last June, hit the 15-Day DL, and came back on July 4th a new man.  The difference in Jeter's pre- and post-injury performance is night and day, as he was at .260/.324/.324 (.295 wOBA) prior to hitting the DL and hit .331/.384/.447 (.367 wOBA) from Independence Day on.  While it was great to see The Captain rebound, his strong finish to 2011 raises just as many questions about how he'll do in 2012 as his poor finish to 2010 raised prior to last season.  It's already been shown that Jeter is entering rare territory as a SS who will turn 38 during the season, and history is not on his side.  So what does Jeter need to do in 2012 to continue to thumb his nose at Father Time?

The first, and simplest, predictor for success for Jeter in 2012 will be hitting the ball hard.  After having an insanely high 65.7% GB rate in 2010, Jeter dropped his overall GB rate to 62.4% in 2011, thanks in large part to his 58.9% GB rate post-injury.  Jeter paired that positive trend with an improved LD rate, boosting it back up to 19.0% after posting a career-low 16.3% LD rate in 2010.  Again, this increase was aided by his post-DL power surge (dude rocked a 31.6% LD rate over 119 PA in August), and it's not quite at the level of his best days, but it's still enough for a hitter of Jeter's skill level to be successful and his post-DL tripleslash is proof of that.  If Jeter is going to continue that success in 2012, he needs to at least maintain that contact breakdown.  It's easier said than done of course, and at 37 going on 38 it's expected that Jeter's bat speed won't be what it was at his peak, but if he can continue to follow the pattern of success he established last year by staying back on the ball more it should be do-able.

In addition to continuing his positive contact trends from last season, Jeter also needs to continue to improve against right-handed pitching.  As he has gotten older Jeter has seen his production against righties slip, from the .300/.380/.440 days of the early 2000s to the low point of 2010 (.246/.315/.317, .286 wOBA).  Jeter improved slightly last season, posting a .277/.329/.338 tripleslash in 439 PA against righties, but that level of production is still subpar (.298 wOBA), and with the overwhelming majority of pitchers still being right-handed it's an area that needs improvement.  Over the last couple years the approach against Jeter seems to be to attack him hard inside in an attempt to capitalize both on his lack of power to the pull side and his age-related decline in hand/bat speed that surely affects his ability to pull his hands in and go the other way with his trademark Jeterian success.  Jeter should especially look to continue his staying back approach against righties to play to his strengths as a strong opposite-field hitter.  His wOBA to the pull side (.332) is the lowest of his three field splits, and Jeter had a higher GB rate (63.3%) against right-handed pitchers than he did against lefties.  Interestingly enough, he also had a higher LD rate (20.0%) against righties, showing that when he stays back he can still drive the ball with authority off of them.

Something that could help accomplish the goals of consistent solid contact and improved performance against righties could be Jeter's selectivity and pitch recognition.  Whether you're looking at the standard plate discipline percentages or the PITCHf/x versions, the general trend for Jeter over the past two seasons has been a lower swing percentage than what we're used to seeing from him, with a similar decrease in swings at pitches in the strike zone and an INCREASE in swings at pitches out of the zone.  These numbers suggest that Jeter might be struggling a bit with his pitch recognition and is being fooled on pitches out of the zone more than he used to be.  Perhaps in his attempts to combat his declining bat speed and adjust to pitchers working him inside, Jeter is leaving himself exposed in other areas and pitchers are taking advantage.

Being a hitter who has a track record of making a lot of contact and maintaining a low K rate, his 13.3% in 2011 being no exception, Jeter's failure to lay off pitches out of the zone would likely manifest itself as a lot of bad contact.  And a lot of bad contact being generated by a hitter with declining bat speed and power isn't going to result in a lot of hits.  Last year Jeter made a big stride in correcting the mechanical flaws that were affecting his ability to be a productive hitter.  This year it might be time to look at potential flaws in his approach that have crept up as pitchers have started working him differently.  Being more selective, recognizing situations and pitchers' tendencies in certain counts, and laying off more pitches out of the zone should help put Jeter in more situations to get something to hit with authority rather than something that will generate weak contact.

2011 was a big year for Derek Jeter in terms of coming to grips with the player he was at age 37 and realizing that he had to adapt to continue to be an above-average hitter.  2012 will be the real test to see if he can continue to stay one step ahead of the game as opposing pitchers now have half a year's worth of at-bats and tape from the second half of 2011 to study to come up with a new plan of attack for him.  It's important to remember that Jeter could very well make the right adjustments and still end up having his 2012 numbers decrease from where they were in 2011.  That's the nature of the beast when you're a 38-year-old Major League Baseball player.  But if Jeter is going to have any kind of success in 2012, these are the things he needs to focus on.

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