The Yankees and the Jeter Paradox

The decline of Derek Jeter may be the most over-reported story of 2011, especially because the decline began in 2010. Therefore it may come as a surprise that as of Monday morning, following Jeter’s home run outburst in Texas, only seven shortstops had played 150 or more games during 2010 and 2011 while maintaining an OPS+ better than Jeter’s 90. An eighth shortstop, Marco Scutaro, had an identical OPS+ of 90 during this period.

This statistic indicates several different things. First, it demonstrates the extent to which Troy Tulowitzki, who has hit .301/.373/.558 for an OPS+ of 135 during this period, currently dominates the shortstop position. Second, it highlights the difference between Jeter and the other top shortstops including Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Stephen Drew who all have an OPS+ of 110 or better over this season and last. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, it underscores how it is not only the Yankees who have limited options at shortstop and again demonstrates that while the declining Jeter is overpaid, he is far from the worst at his position, at least with the bat as only seven shortstops have hit consistently better than Jeter over the last two years.

Jeter’s numbers will likely get worse over this season and next, but as most people acknowledge, currently the Yankees have very few options either inside or outside the organization. More surprisingly, these numbers demonstrate that few teams have been getting more production out of the shortstop position than the Yankees have in 2010 and 2011.

Jeter’s value to the Yankees, however, should be viewed in a different context; and not only because of his age and contract status. First, the reason Jeter has gotten so much playing time over the last two years is not because of his slightly above average offensive production but, because, as The Onion reported in March, he’s Derek F^$#ing Jeter. Jeter is the Yankees shortstop because of his extraordinary past accomplishments, not because of what he has done this year or last.

Second, most teams whose shortstops posted an OPS+ of less than Jeter’s 90 last year either played shortstops who have been significantly better than Jeter with the glove, such as Elvis Andrus or Cliff Pennington. Jeter has been a liability in the field for at least the last two years which has made his offense all the more necessary.

Jeter’s ranking among shortstops playing 150 or more games during 2010 and 2011 is additionally misleading because teams with shortstops who hit worse than Jeter, and who are not significantly better with the leather, tend not to stick with one shortstop because they recognize they are not getting the production they need from the position. Jeter’s ranking for OPS+ among full time shortstops looks less impressive when it is noted that only 19 shortstops have played more than 150 games over the last two years, largely because many of those who hit worse than Jeter were either battling injuries or lost their jobs because they were not hitting.

The paradox of Jeter is that he is playing at a level that is probably good enough to secure a starting shortstop job in the big leagues, but which is unambiguously a few cuts down from the elite at his position. His defense, which during Jeter’s prime was frequently overrated has deteriorated even more, but his production for a shortstop is still good enough to place him in the middle of the pack. He will probably continue to hit enough not to undermine his team’s playoff chances, but it is unlikely he will emerge as an impact player again.

This places the Yankees in a particularly vexing dilemma. Jeter is no longer an asset, but his value is slightly overstated due to the absence of serious shortstop prospects in their organization and the paucity, other than Tulowitzki, of great offensive shortstops throughout the major leagues. However, Jeter’s future will probably consist of continued decline meaning that by late this year or 2012 he will slip below replacement level. Contrary to what Jeter’s critics might claim, therefore, the biggest mistake the Yankees made over the off-season was not resigning Jeter, but not beginning to develop a post-Jeter plan the way they have been developing a plan for the catcher position after Jorge Posada. Correcting that mistake will get more difficult and expensive as Jeter’s play gets worse.