Give Joe Girardi credit: With his suggestion that Derek Jeter may no longer serve as the Yankees' full-time leadoff hitter, he's making a public acknowledgment that Jeter is no longer a star hitter. Now he should make the next move, which is to acknowledge that Jeter doesn't belong in the No. 2 slot in the order.
Jeter entered the 2010 season with a career batting average of .317. He started off fine, hitting .330 with four home runs in April, but then his bat turned colder than a home opener in Greenland. He hit .242 from June through August and an empty .287 in September. He finished with a .270 average, 22 points below his previous worst season, and his .710 OPS was 61 points below his previous low. Jeter was effective against left-handers (.321 AVG/.393 OBP/.483 SLG) but helpless against right-handers (.246/.315/.317) and on the road (.246/.317/.317).
Jeter turned 36 during the season. Since 1960, 125 major leaguers qualified for the batting title (502 plate appearances) during their age 36 season. Only five suffered a bigger drop from their career average than Jeter’s 47-point tumble. Only four suffered a bigger drop from their career adjusted OPS (OPS+).
Following somewhat contentious negotiations, Jeter re-signed with the Yankees for three years and $51 million. The organization publicly raised questions about his age and diminishing range in the field. The Yankees are no doubt aware that no team has won a World Series with a 37-year-old shortstop since the Dodgers in 1955 with Pee Wee Reese. Many fans and analysts have asserted that Brett Gardner, with his higher on-base percentage and better base stealing abilities, should hit leadoff, with Jeter moved lower in the order … and they don’t mean second.
Yes, the eyes of the baseball world are always on Derek Jeter. But as he approaches his 3,000th career hit, he’ll face more scrutiny than ever. Jeter has been tweaking his swing during spring training, working with hitting coach Kevin Long to fix the stride on his front foot, which too often was moving toward the plate instead of the pitcher. Jeter says all this has been overanalyzed, and that making adjustments is something he’s done throughout his career.
You may not be a Yankees fan, but I’m guessing all this means you’re paying attention to Derek Jeter in 2011.
The big question, of course: What the heck is he going to do? Most of the projection systems predict a small bounce back from his .270/.340/.370 line:
Bill James: .295/.365/.410
I wanted to go one step further, however. With the help of Baseball-Reference.com, I checked all 125 of those post-1960 age 36 regulars. Here are the 20 who suffered the largest drops in OPS+ at 36 from their career total through 35, and how they fared at 37. (We used OPS+ since it factors in changes in ballparks or offensive eras and the player’s overall hitting production, not just his batting average.)
Here’s the bad news for Jeter and Yankees fans: Of the 19 other players on the list, eight of them played their final season at 37, two retired and three played as a regular for the final time. I’m not saying Jeter will hit the wall like a lot of these guys did, but I believe it’s a strong indicator that 2010 was the beginning of the decline and not just a bad season that can be fixed by tweaking a batting stance.
The most similar players on the list are Biggio, Ripken and Tejada, middle infielders with excellent durability. We don’t know how Tejada will do, but Biggio and Ripken provided about the same level of production at 37 as 36 (although Ripken had moved to third base and Biggio to the outfield).
I predict a similar result for Jeter -- a 2011 that matches his 2010. The evidence seems clear that his bat speed has slowed. His ground-ball percentage was up nearly 9 percent from 2009; he swung at pitches out of the strike zone more than ever (a potential sign of somebody trying to “cheat” on fastballs); his production on fastballs also declined from previous years.
Can he play better? Sure, Willie Mays was one of the best hitters in the league at 37. Fred McGriff rebounded with a strong season. But nobody should be expecting another .300, 200-hit season from the Yankees captain. This is a Hall of Famer on the wrong side of the aging curve. The Yankees should consider sitting Jeter 20-25 games and, if they want to maximize their run scoring, move him to eighth or ninth in the lineup, especially against right-handers.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.