Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Return Of Derek Jeter's GB Demons

As awesome as Derek Jeter's scorching hot start to the season was, deep down we all knew it was going to come to an end eventually.  There were just too many factors playing against him for his low-1.000s OPS and low-.400s wOBA pace to hold up over the long haul, and eventually the law of averages was going to cause his tremendous BABIP luck to turn.  The numbers started to turn in May, when Jeter's OPS dropped to .692 and his wOBA to .314, and that downward trend has continued into the first third of June, where he's currently hitting .200/.289/.275 (.265 wOBA). The big shift in contact rates so far this month is a a red flag, bigger than the drop in batting line, and now the hope is that the production pendulum doesn't swing too far in the other direction and back towards the powerless GB machine that Jeter was a little more than a season ago.

Through last week's Tampa Bay series and the first game of last weekend's Subway Series, Jeter went through a tough 0-16 stretch before picking up a couple hits in the final 2 games against the Mets.  Of those 16 outs, 12 of them were made on the ground, including 2 GIDPs.  On Sunday, Jeter hit all 4 of his balls in play on the ground (one of them a 3rd DP ball), and were it not for some lucky placement on his weak chopper to David Wright and a poor scoop by Omar Quintanilla on the ball in the 8th inning, he would have been looking at another 0-4, 4 GB out day.

Last night, Jeter put 4 more balls in play and 3 of them were hit on the ground. Over a 7-game span, that's 17 GB outs and 19 total groundballs out of 23 put in play in 31 plate appearances.  Added to Jeter's contact breakdown through the rest of June's games, that's a 78.8% GB rate for the month of June, a rate much higher than the low-to-mid 60s he posted in April and May and higher than any GB rate he posted during his worst months in 2010 or 2011.  With that kind of extreme GB split, it's not hard to understand why his numbers have dipped.

Having followed this trend through the box scores in early June, I made a point to pay close attention to Jeter's swing on Sunday when the final Subway Series game was televised nationally on TBS to see if I could spot anything to explain the major spike in groundballs.  I don't have any screen caps (sorry, no DVR and MLB.com tends to not show video clips of guys grounding out), but I definitely saw some concerning things in Jeter's mechanics.  The perfectly synced upper and lower body motion that defined Jeter's April and had us all calling back to the days of his prime was gone, as was the patience in letting the ball get deeper into the zone before swinging.  Instead, Jeter had a very disjointed overall body motion and was reaching and lunging at the ball with his arms, a surefire sign that his timing is off at the plate and very reminiscent of the weak swings he was taking during his late 2010-early 2011 struggles.

In fairness to Jeter, the PA sample size I'm working with here is much smaller than the sample sizes from April or May.  In fact, Jeter's GB rate in May was lower than it was in April, and his 26.3% LD rate in May suggests that there may have been some bad BABIP luck to help explain the drop off in production there.  But for an aging player like Jeter with a naturally high GB rate and a recent track record of weak contact issues, even the small sample sizes have to be given some more weight. Hot start or not, the question about when Jeter will fall off the offensive cliff is always lingering in the background, and everyone's hope is that he can push that decline off as long as possible.  He was able to do that with his hot start, but seems to have gotten out of sorts with his swing this month. Some quick film review and some work with Dr. Long in the cage could be just what he needs to get his timing back and bring some balance back to his contact splits.

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