Derek Jeter is about as untouchable in the pantheon of Yankee greats as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mariano Rivera. Notwithstanding the persistent criticism of defenseively-focused sabermetricians – and Jeter helped tamp even that down a bit last year – his skill with the bat has been pretty much beyond reproach. And yet, as we near the end of Jeter's current contract with Yankees, it is impossible to ignore that he is having his worst season ever at the plate. With just over a month to go in the season, Jeter is on pace to compile career lows in batting average (.272 compared to his worst full-season in 1997 of .291), on-base percentage (.336 vs. 2004's .352), and slugging (.384 vs. 1997's .405), while quickly approaching his career high in grounding into double plays (19 so far vs. 21 in '07 and 24 in '08).
Jeter has always focused on winning above all and so the fact that the Yanks maintain the best record in baseball, perhaps that is all that matters. But being in the leadoff position as he is, Jeter cues this offense as demonstrated by how he performs in games where the Yankees win vs. in losses: In wins: .292/.357/.438 – yielding an OPS of .794. In losses: .234/.299/.288 for a paltry .587 OPS. And so, while it seems clear that the Yankees can't go far without a healthy Pettitte, it also stands to reason that they aren't likely to win a whole lot if Jeter doesn't start hitting the way he has for pretty uch his entire career.
Looking a little deeper into the numbers for 2010, a few things strike me:
1. Fatigue: Jeter has compiled the second most plate-appearances (2,147 – second only to Milwaukee's 27-year-old 2B Rickie Weeks) and the most at-bats (541) in 2010 of all players in the major leagues. We all know that Jeter is the kind of gamer who has to be dragged out of a game. But that's an important part of any manager's job – knowing when veterans need a rest and giving it to them whether thy like it or not. Jeter is a 36-year old playing the most physically demanding position on the field (after catcher). Last year Girardi played A-Rod into the ground in the month after he returned from his hip-rehab only to regret it – he subsequently piled up the rest days and A-Rod had a stupendous October. Girardi has now gone down the same path with Jeter. Only in this case, he doesn't have a whole lot of options to make up for it. With A-Rod out until Sept 5 and the Yanks in a dead-heat for the division title, it's going to be tough for Girardi to give Jeter a rest any time soon. It doesn't matter – he has to.
2. Check the eyes. The splits between Jeter's day and night games are, well, day and night. In the 44 day games in which Jeter has played this season, his BAA/OBP/SLG are strong: .333/.386/.471. By comparison, in the 83 night games, Jeter is .239/.309/.336. Perhaps coincidental, but the gap is cavernous here. And it does not match with his career figures – where there is a gap of no more than .012 in each of these stats between day and night games. Not to over-react, but if I'm Cashman I'm telling Jeter to get his eyes checked. Seriously. What's the worst result of doing so?
3. Home-cooking. The splits between home and away games are equally striking. At Yankee Stadium (62 games) Jeter has hit .314/.380/.461, while in away games (65 games): .233/.295/.312 (!). Again, this does not match with the career figures.
Take the above three stats together combined with the fact that the Yankees are returning home for their longest homestand of the season (10 games, of which – strangely – 6 of the last 7 are day games), and I probably would have rested the captain last night – the last road game for a while – and sent him to an eye doctor. Even apart from the above stats, how can you not rest him given the fact that he is hitting .195/.296/.326 in his last 12 games and an unsightly .105/.227.263 in his last 5? Girardi kept him out of last Monday's game until the 9th inning. He needs another. Even if you have to start Nunez and Pena on the left side of the infield with Jeter on-call if needed, does Girardi really think that those kids couldn't match Jeter's current production? I would start him tonight to see if the return home sparks him, but if not, I'd sit him before the first day-game on Thursday and hope the stretch of home-day-games kickstarts a monster September and beyond for the Captain.
Finally, are Jeter's woes evidence of inevitable decline coming on suddenly after his excellent 2009? I honestly don't think so. If his bat had slowed substantially you would see it in his splits vs. different kinds of pitchers. But Jeter is doing his worst against the guys who throw to contact, not the ones who try to blow the ball by him. Against power pitchers this year (61 G) he is hitting .301/.373/.398, while against finesse pitchers (93 G) he is hitting only .227/.286/.302. This is the reverse of his career figures, where he has traditionally hit substantially better against guys who pitch to contact. And his K-rate is actually a touch better than his career average. Simply put, in 2010 he is hitting fewer ropes and banging the ball into the dirt more than ever before.
Given that Kevin Long did not approach Curtis Granderson for fear of offending him and therefore waited for Granderson to come to him before helping with his swing, I can't imagine he would ever approach Jeter. But perhaps on one of the off-days Girardi hopefully gives him, and after he gets back from the eye doctor, Jeter could keep one eye out for Long.