Derek Jeter Is Retiring on His Own Terms, but Can He Go Out on Top?

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Derek Jeter Is Retiring on His Own Terms, but Can He Go Out on Top?
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Derek Jeter made it official on Wednesday: Yes, he is retiring after 2014. Good luck trying to stop him, because it doesn't sound like the New York Yankees captain is going to pull a Brett Favre.

Why exactly is Jeter ready to walk away from baseball? There's still a shred of mystery there. But during a gathering with the media on Wednesday, it boiled down to the phrase of the day: "The time is right."

"There are other things I want to do. I look forward to doing other things," said the 39-year-old shortstop, via MLB.com. "This is a difficult job. I've put everything into it each and every year. It's a 12-month job. It's not a six-month season. It's 12 months...I'd like to [keep playing], but you can't do it forever."

The latter half of that statement feels like a reiteration of what Jeter said in his Facebook statement last week, in which he called the 2013 season "a tough one for me" during which he realized that "some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle." 

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Appropriate quote: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

We all witnessed said struggle, of course, as Jeter was limited to just 17 games in 2013 thanks first to a balky left ankle that he first fractured in the 2012 postseason and then an assortment of other injuries. Never was it more apparent that he is not, after all, superhuman.

At no point, however, did anybody get Jeter to say he just can't play anymore. He said his left ankle was actually at 100 percent towards the end of 2013, and that he worked harder than ever this offseason to get ready for 2014.

"This has nothing to do with how I feel physically," he said, via Dan Martin of the New York Post. "I’m looking forward to playing a full season."

Beyond playing a full season in 2014, Jeter also indicated he thinks he can be the same player he was in 2012 when he hit .316 with an MLB-high 216 hits at the age of 38.

"No, I can't. This is it. I don't expect anything from myself this season," quipped Jeter to a chorus of chuckles when asked if he can be the player he was in 2012.

Then he got serious: "I expect each and every year to be successful. That's the bottom line. I expect to come out here, I expect to do my job, I expect to compete, I expect to help our team win. If my expectation levels ever changed, then I would have gone home a long time ago."

Somebody actually did ask Jeter about him going out on top in 2014, to which he quickly answered that it's about "us" going out on top. But the Yankees' odds of going out on top will be greatly increased if Jeter himself goes out on top with a classic Jeter season. You know, something like 2012.

And when reading between the lines, yeah, you do get the sense that he would like to do so. But can he?

Well, let's just say that calls for an honest discussion. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

We were having basically this same discussion this time last year, when it was still possible that Jeter would be in Joe Girardi's Opening Day lineup. The question was simple: Did 2013 have a shot at being anything like 2012? 

Frankly, it was a long shot then. Jeter was heading into his age-39 season, and history showed:

So yeah, Jeter being his 2012 self at the age of 39 in 2013 was highly unlikely. Now that he's heading into his age-40 season, him being his 2012 self is, not surprisingly, even more highly unlikely.

Observe:

When it comes to anticipating the future, precedent is one of the only things we have. There wasn't a whole lot of precedent for what Jeter was aiming to do in 2013. There's even less precedent for what he's aiming to do in 2014.

And that helps explain why the projections are skeptical. Two of the best are ZiPS projections and Steamer projections. Both can be found at FanGraphs, and here's what they see for Jeter in 2014:

Derek Jeter's Projections
System PA H HR SB AVG OBP SLUG
ZiPS 325 76 5 7 .259 .322 .357
Steamer 412 105 5 6 .281 .339 .376

FanGraphs

The general message you get from these projections: Never mind his 2012 self, Jeter will be lucky if he can even get through a full season at 2010 levels (.270/.340/.370) of production. If that's what it comes to, he won't so much be going out on top as he will be just, you know, going out.

The objective viewpoint of Jeter's shot at one last great season in 2014, therefore, is a real downer. In playing regularly at shortstop and hitting like his old self, he'll be trying to do things that have very rarely been done before. The projections don't think he can do so.

But hey, isn't this Derek Jeter we're talking about?

Yeah, I know. Even after his comeback attempt in 2013 fared about as well as the Titanic's journey across the Atlantic, one still has reservations about doubting him. And since he's my personal No. 1 Yankee of all time, I felt inclined to search for glimmers of hope.

Well, that Jeter is insisting he's healthy is one. That's something he clearly wasn't in 2013, so that's a start.

And there were, believe it or not, some positives going on while Jeter was on the field in 2013. His plate discipline was quite good, as he posted his lowest O-Swing% since 2009 and his highest BB% since 1999. Had he been able to post a BABIP higher than .208, he would have had a dandy of an average-OBP combination.

Regarding Jeter's BABIP, that .208 figure wasn't a total fluke. A staggering 70.4 percent of his batted balls ended up on the ground. And while ground balls generally don't kill BABIP as much as fly balls do, that many of them is not good.

But for what it's worth, Jeter did do this:

Derek Jeter's Line-Drive Habit
Split LD% LD% to Right
2002-2013 20.2 28.8
2012 21.7 33.9
2013 20.4 40.0

FanGraphs

If you're ever in a position to come up with a visual aid to show what Jeter's hitting ability is/was all about, you'll find yourself searching for footage of a line drive to right field. And as lousy as his 2013 season was, it's encouraging that he was still flashing an ability to be himself even while his body was broken.

Here's an obligatory warning not to get too excited about this stuff. The positives that occurred in 2013 occurred over a very small sample size. Last season should still be looked at as the season in which Jeter became mortal, and the history of 40-year-old players and projections for 2014 suggest pretty strongly that he's going to remain mortal. Planning for the worst is the wise course of action here.

But go ahead. Hope for the best anyway. You know you want to.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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