Derek Jeter: SS or DH?

We love Jeter, but he just doesn’t cut it in the field.

It’s no secret that Derek Jeter has been one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball for a few years now. Virtually every defensive metric rates him somewhere between below-average and atrocious. At the same time, there’s no doubt that the Captain can still hit as evidenced by his 117 wRC+ last season. However, you have to figure that at some point his defense will become enough of a liability that the Yankees just won’t be able to afford to keep pencilling him in at SS every day. He’s 38 years old now and will be coming off of a severe ankle injury. It’s not hard to predict that this could be the year that his defense finally reaches unacceptable levels.

So would it make sense for the Yankees to start easing him into more of a DH role? It seems like they may be considering just that as they’re supposedly in the market for an upgrade over Jason Nix. Now as far as backup infielders go, there’s nothing wrong with Jason Nix. He’s shown the ability to play a respectable 2B and 3B while not embarrassing himself at the plate. However, he’s played very little SS in his career. While Eduardo Nunez has experience at short and is a decent hitter, he’s not the solution due to his frequent blunders in the field. With no DH on the roster at the moment, maybe the Yanks will instead look to bring in someone who can play significant time at SS while Jeter splits between SS and DH. Jeter did play 25 games at DH last year; but, a good chunk of those came at the end of the year when he was banged up. So would moving Jeter to DH make sense for the team?

If we go by Fangraphs’ positional adjustments, a SS over 162 games is worth 7.5 runs just for being a SS. A DH is worth -17.5. So according to the theory of positional adjustment, a SS would have to be worth 25 runs below average over 162 games in order to warrant a move to DH. This may seem like a lot on the surface until you consider how much of a premium position SS is.  There just aren’t that many guys out there who can play a passable SS and be an offensive force. This is why guys like Brendan Ryan manage to play everyday. For comparison, a 1B would only have to be 5 runs below average to warrant a move to DH. Obviously, every team’s situation is different and defensive alignments are generally determined by the players on the roster. For example, if the Yankees were to trade for Elvis Andrus (that would be nice), they’d play him at SS rather than trying to squeeze a little more WAR out of Jeter. Nonetheless, this provides a good baseline for Jeter’s value relative to his position. Let’s look at Jeter’s fielding stats over the last 3 seasons:

Not pretty, but also not quite bad enough to warrant a move to DH going strictly by the numbers. However, odds are that Jeter’s defense will only grow worse from here on out. Given his injury, he could begin to approach the “magical” -25 runs/season rate as soon as this year. He’s signed through 2013 with a player option for 2014. Considering his age, I would say there’s a decent chance that he simply won’t be anything more than an emergency SS come 2014. So it might be time to start easing him off of the position. A move to the outfield wouldn’t make sense given his decreased range, and 1B, 2B, and 3B are locked down for at least another year. Therefore, DH seems to be the only viable option. For what it’s worth, Jeter has hit slightly better as a DH. In 114 PA’s at DH in 2012, he had a .418 wOBA compared to a .334 as a SS. (.369 vs. .358 over his career). We’re only dealing with 254 PA’s over a 18-year career; but, we can at least say he’s not incapable ofhitting when he’s not playing the field. DHing would also theoretically give him a better chance to stay healthy.The Yankees seem to be doing the right thing here. Although Jeter may still be capable of faking it at SS and will spend a large chunk of 2013 there, it seems like they want to have somebody else on hand to share the load. It’s not easy to take someone of Jeter’s legacy and move him off of his trademark position; but, there comes a time when it just has to be done. The team made the mistake of leaving Bernie Williams in CF for far too long and it was pretty painful to watch. Hopefully, Jeter doesn’t interpret a gradual move off of SS as a slap in the face and the situation doesn’t turn ugly. Although, I have a hard time envisioning this happening given Jeter’s overall attitude and personality. All in all, it’s nothing short of remarkable that he’s still able to man the position to any extent at his age. Jeter’s had an unbelievably long and productive career and his bat still has some life left even if he has little to nothing left in the tank defensively.

Photo by Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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