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Archive for February 8th, 2011

For the first time since 1996, Derek Jeter has something to prove during spring training. After suffering the worst season of his career, followed by a stinging offseason contract negotiation, Jeter seems to be approaching 2011 with just a little bit extra determination. Never one to lack confidence, the Yankee Captain will undoubtedly be motivated to prove his detractors wrong.

Will Jeter be able to overcome the hurdles that history places before him?

Reporting early to spring training isn’t uncommon for Jeter, who owns a Tampa home that is close to Steinbrenner Field. However, the shortstop has been in the swing of things, literally, since just after the New Year. At the end of January, Jeter even went so far as to meet with hitting coach Kevin Long. In what was described as a three-day tutorial, the future Hall of Famer worked with Long on a few minor adjustments to his stride at the plate.

Although many view Jeter as a touch stubborn, he has been open to making adjustments in the past. Despite winning gold gloves from 2004 to 2006, Jeter’s defensive statistics were in steady decline during that period. Even scouts started to whisper about a noticeably slower first step. Then, in 2007, he turned in his worst season in the field; not only was his UZR/150 an abysmal -17.9, but his declining range had become evident to the untrained eye. So, heading into the 2008 season, Jeter adopted a new training regime designed to improve his flexibility in the field. And, sure enough, his defense registered an immediate improvement. In 2009, Jeter’s UZR/150, a stat that had never been kind to him, registered an impressive 8.0. This time, when Jeter won the gold glove, there weren’t many snickers.

The Yankees hope that Jeter’s adjustments with Long will pay the same dividends at the plate. Although it wouldn’t be wise to bet against Jeter’s determination, the fact remains that the soon-to-be 37-year old shortstop is entering unchartered territory. For starters, since 1901, there have only been 14 seasons in which a shortstop over the age of 36 played at least 140 games at the position. In other words, Jeter’s first challenge will simply be to stay in the lineup (and the Yankees’ challenge will be to make sure he gets needed rest). Interestingly, as Jeter chases his milestone 3,000th hit in 2011, he could actually be making history just by taking the field.

Players with At Least 140 Games at Shortstop, Age 37 or Older, 1901-Present

Player G Year Age Tm PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Dave Concepcion 155 1985 37 CIN 620 0.252 0.314 0.330 78
Omar Vizquel 153 2006 39 SFG 659 0.295 0.361 0.389 93
Omar Vizquel 152 2005 38 SFG 651 0.271 0.341 0.350 82
Maury Wills 149 1971 38 LAD 654 0.281 0.323 0.329 91
Luke Appling 149 1946 39 CHW 659 0.309 0.384 0.378 117
Dave Bancroft 149 1928 37 BRO 591 0.247 0.326 0.303 66
Omar Vizquel 148 2004 37 CLE 651 0.291 0.353 0.388 99
Larry Bowa 147 1983 37 CHC 544 0.267 0.312 0.339 78
Rabbit Maranville 146 1929 37 BSN 634 0.284 0.344 0.366 80
Omar Vizquel 145 2007 40 SFG 575 0.246 0.305 0.316 61
Honus Wagner 145 1912 38 PIT 634 0.324 0.395 0.496 144
Bill Dahlen 144 1908 38 BSN 588 0.239 0.296 0.307 94
Bill Dahlen 143 1907 37 NYG 529 0.207 0.291 0.254 69
Luke Appling 142 1949 42 CHW 619 0.301 0.439 0.394 125

Source: Baseball-reference.com

From a performance perspective, only 12 shortstops (players appearing at the position in at least 80% of total games) in 23 seasons compiled a WAR higher than Jeter’s 1.3 total in 2010. In other words, simply improving a little from 2010 would be considered historically significant. 

Shortstops, Age 37 or Older, with a WAR of 1.3 or Greater, 1901-Present

Player WAR Year Age Tm G PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Honus Wagner 8.1 1912 38 PIT 145 634 0.324 0.395 0.496 144
Luke Appling 5.3 1946 39 CHW 149 659 0.309 0.384 0.378 117
Luke Appling 4.6 1949 42 CHW 142 619 0.301 0.439 0.394 125
Honus Wagner 4.5 1915 41 PIT 156 625 0.274 0.325 0.422 126
Ozzie Smith 4.3 1992 37 STL 132 590 0.295 0.367 0.342 105
Bill Dahlen 3.9 1908 38 BSN 144 588 0.239 0.296 0.307 94
Luke Appling 3.8 1947 40 CHW 139 572 0.306 0.386 0.412 125
Omar Vizquel 3.1 2006 39 SFG 153 659 0.295 0.361 0.389 99
Omar Vizquel 3.1 2004 37 CLE 148 651 0.291 0.353 0.388 93
Honus Wagner 2.9 1913 39 PIT 114 454 0.3 0.349 0.385 113
Larry Bowa 2.7 1983 37 CHC 147 544 0.267 0.312 0.339 78
Honus Wagner 2.7 1914 40 PIT 150 616 0.252 0.317 0.317 92
Ozzie Smith 2.5 1993 38 STL 141 603 0.288 0.337 0.356 88
Pee Wee Reese 2.5 1956 37 BRO 147 648 0.257 0.322 0.344 74
Luis Aparicio 2.3 1973 39 BOS 132 561 0.271 0.324 0.309 75
R. Maranville 2.3 1929 37 BSN 146 634 0.284 0.344 0.366 80
Maury Wills 2 1971 38 LAD 149 654 0.281 0.323 0.329 91
Omar Vizquel 1.9 2005 38 SFG 152 651 0.271 0.341 0.350 82
Ozzie Smith 1.9 1994 39 STL 98 433 0.262 0.326 0.349 78
Luis Aparicio 1.9 1972 38 BOS 110 474 0.257 0.299 0.351 88
Monte Cross 1.7 1907 37 PHA 77 301 0.206 0.316 0.282 89
Omar Vizquel 1.4 2007 40 SFG 145 575 0.246 0.305 0.316 61
Billy Jurges 1.3 1946 38 CHC 82 270 0.222 0.351 0.281 82

Source: Baseball-reference.com

One thing evident from the chart above is that most of the positive WAR contributions stemmed from defense, which is at least a small cause for concern. Even in his best defensive seasons, Jeter, unlike Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel for example, has primarily been known for his hitting. What’s more, WAR can be somewhat unreliable when it comes to measuring defense, so using it as the basis for this comparison can be misleading. Instead, it seems more appropriate to isolate the offensive contribution of shortstops in the tail end of their careers.

Shortstops, Age 37 or Older, with Positive Rbat, 1901-Present

Player Rbat  Year Age Tm G PA BA OBP SLG
Honus Wagner 34 1912 38 PIT 145 634 0.324 0.395 0.496
Luke Appling 23 1949 42 CHW 142 619 0.301 0.439 0.394
Luke Appling 15 1946 39 CHW 149 659 0.309 0.384 0.378
Luke Appling 14 1947 40 CHW 139 572 0.306 0.386 0.412
Honus Wagner 11 1915 41 PIT 156 625 0.274 0.325 0.422
Honus Wagner 10 1913 39 PIT 114 454 0.300 0.349 0.385
Luke Appling 8 1945 38 CHW 18 70 0.368 0.478 0.526
Omar Vizquel 3 2006 39 SFG 153 659 0.295 0.361 0.389
Ozzie Smith 3 1992 37 STL 132 590 0.295 0.367 0.342
Eddie Joost 2 1953 37 PHA 51 224 0.249 0.401 0.384
Omar Vizquel 1 2004 37 CLE 148 651 0.291 0.353 0.388
Bobby Wallace 1 1915 41 SLB 9 18 0.231 0.444 0.385

Note: Rbat is defined as “the number of runs better or worse than average the player was as a hitter.”
Source: Baseball-reference.com

As you can see, only two shortstops in the history of baseball were able to contribute meaningfully on offense after their 37th birthday. Over the course of his career, Jeter has been about 21 runs better than the average hitter, so attaining that standard doesn’t seem likely. Even reaching the half way point on that barometer would be historically unique.

Before Yankees’ fans fret too much over the daunting history that stands before Jeter’s potential rebound, it’s worth pointing out that he isn’t just a normal player. Although he may never again attain the high standards set over his career, those hoping for a rebound can take some solace from knowing that fellow Hall of Fame shortstops Honus Wagner and Luke Appling were able to keep piling up strong seasons as they approached the age of 40. Obviously, that would put Jeter in the truly elite class, which, after all, is exactly where he belongs.

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