Can Derek Jeter's Hot Start Last?

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Can Derek Jeter's Hot Start Last?
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Derek Jeter: If you want him, here he is. Come and get him, but you'd better hurry because he's going fast.

Mike Jaggers-Radolf asks if Derek Jeter can sustain his .366/.395/.610 start:

Digging just a little bit into the numbers, Derek’s hot start doesn’t look sustainable. The Yankees have faced an improbably high number of left handed starters so far in 2012. One thing Jeter has always done is clobber left handed pitching. For his career he’s a .400 wOBA hitter against lefties. In his first eight games of the year Jeter has seen a southpaw on the mound for five of them. He’s responded accordingly. Derek has an other-worldly .617 wOBA against lefties in 2012. Against righties, however, Jeter has a middling .272 wOBA. That’s bad, really bad, and certainly not what he’s done for his career.

Jaggers-Radolf is asking the right question, because last year, Jeter seemed to be sliding towards real platoon issues. A career .305/.374/.432 hitter against right-handed pitchers, he hit a weak .277/.329/.338 against them last year and just .261/.321/.327 against them in 2010 and 2011 combined.

Even when Jeter got hot after coming off the disabled list on July 4, hitting .331/.384/.447 overall from there to the end of the season, he hit .390/.438/.622 against southpaws and .307/.362/.376 with no home runs against right-handers.

You can’t complain about that .307, but the lack of punch against righties is troubling. Batting averages aren’t consistent, even for the best of players; they rise and fall with good hops and bad bounces. If there isn’t any power in there to sustain offense, a falling batting average can sap value from the whole package.

Jeter is hitting .231/.286/.346 against right-handers right now, demonstrating exactly that problem. As with all statistics at this point of the season, we’re risking drawing conclusions from a small sample, but if you look at those numbers as being consistent with what Jeter has done over the last two years, the sample isn’t so small.

Another aspect of Jeter’s start, his ground-ball rate, is called into question by my colleague Jay Jaffe over at the Pinstriped Bible:

Can a hitter be productive with a 60 percent groundball rate? Yes, but within limits. Since 2000, 60 players have done so over the course of a full season while qualifying for a batting title (502 plate appearances). Those players combined for a .326 BABIP, and a .290 batting average, but just a .401 slugging percentage. Their combined True Average (think OPS, except expressed on a scale of batting average, with park and league adjustments thrown in, and on-base percentage properly weighted to be more important than slugging percentage) was just .264, with only six of them — Jeter and fellow BABIP expert Ichiro Suzuki twice, and Bernie Williams, and Shawn Green once — producing TAvs above .300. The problem, basically, is that ground balls don’t tend to produce extra-base hits, and extra-base hits do much more for a hitter’s TAv than singles do. Oddly enough, a .264 TAv is what PECOTA projects for Jeter this season.

That high ground-ball rate is why Jeter has hit into as many as 24 double plays in a season and why he might finish his career in the top 10 for a career—he’s just 51 away from tying Brooks Robinson and Rusty Staub, both much slower players, for 10th on the all-time list.

Jaffe thinks Jeter might get away with a high-quality season while banging so many balls into the dirt, but color me skeptical. Last year, AL hitters averaged .227 with a .245 slugging percentage on ground balls. In 2010, it was .233 and .251. There are just too many obstacles to being productive that way over the long haul.

I’m rooting for Jeter. A great career appeared to be winding down, and last season’s surge was a welcome encore that seemed to contradict the inevitability of a ballplayer’s decline. However, this is Jeter’s age-38 season, and there are only so many extra lives that you get.

He can’t keep feasting only on left-handers—there aren’t enough of them. He can’t keep hitting the ball past infielders—there are too many of them.

Enjoy Jeter’s April while you can, because it’s likely to come to an end any time now.

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