Keep on growing! Tell the truth!!...I looked away…It’s too late.
Notice that I’ve limited the discussion to Jeter’s offense. One of the great controversies of the sabermetric era is the difference between the mainstream opinion of Jeter’s defense at shortstop, and the numbers he’s produced in every defensive system. Jeter, who has won five Gold Gloves, has consistently been rated below-average—and at times among the worst shortstops in the game—by the credible defensive systems. Whatever his athleticism, he just hasn’t made enough plays relative to his peers to be considered a good defender by the metrics. That continues this season; Derek Jeter rates as the worst defensive shortstop in baseball in both Ultimate Zone Rating (at Fangraphs) and Runs From Fielding (at baseball-reference.com). He was among the worst in those categories last year, too. It’s unusual for 38-year-olds to even play shortstop regularly, but the ones who do are usually strong defenders nearing the end of their career. Jeter is an outlier among this group for not only not being a strong defender, but for his performance at age 38. By Runs From Fielding, Jeter is -17 this year; no 38-year-old has ever been worse than -7. Even with his surge at the plate, Jeter has been worth about two wins more than a replacement-level player because of his terrible range.
There is some statistical fluke in Jeter’s batting line. From 2007 through 2011, as his power faded, Jeter hit home runs on about 10 percent of his fly balls. This year, he’s doubled that figure to 20 percent. Since that is by far a career high, and a number incongruent with everything we know about him as a player, we can surmise that the 12 homers—and the bounce they give to his average and slugging—are less the product of skill than good fortune. They count toward his value, but should be taken with a grain of salt—they don’t represent a flowering of some late-in-life power. Remember, this is a batter who hits the ball on the ground as much as anyone we’ve seen; he’s not a home-run hitter.
Even if you ding Jeter for the defense and the home-run rate, you’re left with a player who has been a positive contributor at an advanced age, someone who may not quite be worth the $15 million he’ll make this season, but who has kept himself from becoming an albatross. Jeter is, at 38, still remarkably athletic. He’s a positive contributor running the bases, he’s exceptionally durable and while he scores poorly on measures of overall defense, he remains a smart player in the middle of the diamond. It wasn’t that long ago that it appeared the Yankees might be stuck with a replacement-level player at shortstop. In 2012, at least, that hasn’t been the case. Jeter’s ability to get the bat to the ball more frequently has given him enough offensive value to make him a good player on one of the game’s best teams.