Fri Mar 19 01:14pm EDT
We all have questions about the 2010 season and luckily Alex Remington has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address a few per week as opening day approaches.
The Situation: Derek Jeter(notes) has led a fairly charmed life, but there is one experience he still hasn't had: a walk year. Thirty-five years and five championship rings later, he'll finally enjoy that experience. The team has announced it won't extend Jeter before the end of the season and so the Yankee Captain will have the whole year to prove that he's still worth the big bucks he pulls down in the Bronx.
For now, Jeter seems to be better than ever. Following an offseason of grueling workouts intended to improve his range at shortstop, 2009 was his best defensive performance in years _ for what it's worth, he won his fourth Gold Glove — and also one of his best offensive years ever. As a result, he had his third career top-three MVP finish. No one seems to think that Derek will be moving off shortstop any time soon and even though Sky Kalkman thinks he should bat sixth because of his talents, he'll remain ensconced atop the Yankees lineup. However the law of aging says there has to be a day when his declining performance gives reason for the usual questions to be asked louder. Will this be the year?
The Analysis: Remember when sabermetricians wrote that Jeter might be "the least effective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position"? Well, he isn't any more. Last year, scouts agreed that he was much improved defensively, and the advanced metrics agreed, as he had a +6.6 UZR and a +5 Plus/Minus. Jeter seems to have gone from one of the worst defensive players in the game to being above average, in the course of one offseason, at the age of 35. Suffice to say that doesn't happen very often. It also isn't particularly repeatable. (CHONE projects him for a -10.5 UZR next year, which may be uncharitable, but considering how bad he was in previous years, it isn't completely unreasonable.) As good an athlete as he is, no one's legs last forever. After all, Cal Ripken moved to third base when he was 36 — and Jeter's 36th birthday is on June 26.
On the other hand, Jeter's bat is as good as ever. The 2006 and 2009 years were the second- and third-best offensive seasons of his career, and two of the four times in his career that he hit at least .330. His offensive value is heavily reliant on his batting average, which in turn rests on a stupendous .360 BABIP. But he also hits 12-20 homers a year and walks 50-70 times a year, steals 15-30 bases a year at a 79 percent success rate, and he pretty much delivers the same year every year. Historically, contact hitters age better than sluggers and Jeter's affinity for hitting to the opposite field gives him even a little more room to age. His bat hasn't slowed down yet, and it's easy to presume that he has a few more years of good production. As with defense, though, many of the major projection systems are predicting a significant falloff from last year: CHONE expects a .302 batting average and .807 OPS, while ZiPS sees a .303 average and a .796 OPS. Bill James, ever the optimistic outlier, predicts a .317 average and .832 OPS.
The offensive comedown that CHONE and ZiPS are expecting is largely BABIP-driven, much like his success in 2009 (.368 BABIP) and 2006 (.391 BABIP). BABIP and batting average are famously volatile, and as consistent as Jeter has been throughout the years, he is bound for ups and downs in both. So even their pessimism is not necessarily a comment on his aging process, so much as a regression to the mean following one of the best seasons of his career. In fact, Jeter's 2008 (.300 AVG, .771 OPS) was even worse than the systems' projections for 2010. He wasn't necessarily a better hitter in 2009 than in 2008 — a lot of batting average is luck, even for a hitter of Jeter's caliber, and he was luckier in 2009 than in 2008. That luck could have a big effect on his bottom line. If he hits like he did in 2008, the Yankees will be able to offer him a whole lot less money than if he hits like he did in 2009.
Whispers suggested that he wanted Alex Rodriguez(notes)-type money, but he won't get that. More likely, he'll get an offer of something like $20 million a year for something like 4 more years. His 3,000th career hit will almost certainly come in 2011, as if the Yankees needed another reason to keep him in pinstripes. But it's unlikely that he'll continue to be a very good offensive or defensive player for much longer after that. How unlikely? There have been exactly three shortstops in history who have produced a 100 OPS+ in a full season after turning 38: Honus Wagner, Luke Appling, and Ozzie Smith. Wagner just might be the greatest player ever, and Smith is the greatest defensive shortstop ever. Great as Jeter is, it will be a tall order to expect him to remain a great shortstop into his late 30's.
The Forecast for 2010: In 2010, he'll probably hit much as he has in 2007, 2008, and 2009 — a batting average somewhere over .300 and an OPS somewhere over .800, though perhaps not too far above either figure. He'll walk enough to keep a very healthy leadoff OBP, and probably remain in the double-digits for both homers and steals. At the end of the year he'll get a Godfather contract to keep him in New York forever. But just as his average could be .295 or .325, that contract could be for $60 million or $100 million. And the Yankees will have another payout to consider because 2009 is Mariano Rivera's(notes) walk year, too. Jeter will have to prove his worth — not just to age gracefully, but to continue refusing to age.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• Who will be the brightest offensive star in the O's universe?
• What's next for Ryan Zimmerman?
• Can Pablo Sandoval improve on his impressive 2009?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
• Will Marco Scutaro solve Boston's shortstop problem?