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Derek Jeter's Defense
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Derek Jeter's Defense
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
July 30, 2009

It has become one of the most well-known stories of the Delgado Era – Derek Jeter is a terrible defensive shortstop. Bill James waxed on Jeter’s defense really well this article on his website. No longer impressed by Gold Gloves and fielding percentages, the baseball public has learned how to judge defense, and Jeter is judged poorly – he doesn’t have range, he gets to fewer balls than any other player, and he makes the ordinary look extraordinary because he is so bad that he has to be a hero to make rudimentary plays. With each new defensive metric that is developed, Jeter looks worse and worse.

Except . . .

Last season, University of Pennsylvania released a study that showed Jeter to be one of the worst defenders in baseball by looking at every single play by every single player over the course of an entire season. This finding simply reaffirmed the work that went into the Fielding Bible, which did essentially the same thing. The news of the Penn study broke during spring training, and much of the baseball public yawned, having known what the study revealed for years.

But then something funny happened. Last year, Jeter didn’t suck; he wasn’t great, but he didn’t suck. And that does nothing to compare to what has happened this season. Apparently, Jeter’s defense has improved quite a bit. Here is some anecdotal evidence to chew on:

As of July 28, 2009, Derek Jeter is third in fielding percentage, behind Marco Scutaro and Jimmy Rollins, but ahead of Troy Tulowitski. Big whoop – the modern understanding of fielding percentage is that it reflects poor range, not great fielding.

Jeter is currently 14th out of 21 eligible players in ESPN’s compilation of range factor. Not good, but certainly an improvement over the last place finish Jeter has become accustomed to garnering. Of course, range factor is not a particularly telling statistic either.

ESPN.com also compiles its own version of a statistic entitled “Zone Rating,” originally developed by John Dewan, and represented today in many different iterations. This is a stat I have put a lot of stock into the last few years, and it is a statistic in which Jeter has traditionally defined the phrase “at or near the bottom.” However, in 2009 he is currently sixth in all of baseball in zone rating amongst shortstops! This is really a remarkable turn-about!

But it gets better – heading over to The Hardball Times, we find that although Jeter is (again) fourteenth in baseball in Plays Made, and 22nd (not very good) in Outs Outside of Zone, Jeter is currently ranked NUMBER ONE in what The Hardball Times calls “Revised Zone Rating,” which the site describes as follows:

“Revised Zone Rating is the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone that he successfully converted into an out. Zone Rating was invented by John Dewan when he was CEO of Stats Inc. John is now the owner of Baseball Info Solutions, where he has revised the original Zone Rating calculation so that it now lists balls handled out of the zone (OOZ) separately (and doesn't include them in the ZR calculation) and doesn't give players extra credit for double plays (Stats had already made that change). We believe both changes improve Zone Ratings substantially. To get a full picture of a player's range, you should evaluate both his Revised Zone Rating and his plays made out of zone (OOZ).”

Derek Jeter leads all of baseball in an advanced defensive metric used to measure a defensive player’s ability to convert balls hit into his zone into outs! This is AMAZING! That Jeter leads the majors in ANYTHING defensively is amazing, but this is an advanced statistic.

To put in perspective, last season Jeter was seventh in all of baseball in Revised Zone Rating. In 2007, he was 22nd out of 25 qualifying shortstops. In 2006, he was 19th out of 24 qualifying shortstops, in 2005 it was 23rd out of 26, and in 2004 it was 18th out of 22. For Jeter to suddenly be the best shortstop in terms of Revised Zone Rating is an astonishing development.

There are two possible explanations for this – either these defensive statistics are totally unreliable and can’t be counted on, or Jeter heard the well publicized criticism and undertook to do something about his lackluster defense. I think the stats are consistent enough to indicate that they can be relied upon. I think that Derek Jeter took up the call to make himself a better defender. And I think it is amazing that he could turn around his defensive play so deliberately, and so immediately.

Frankly, I didn’t think he had it in him.

Though I haven’t heard much coverage of this on national news (ESPN is too busy telling us how great Albert Pujols is), many blogs have become electric with the news. Some theories have Jeter’s improvement resulting from being completely healthy, while others insist that that an improved strength and conditioning regimen in the off-season are responsible for the improvement. One thing all bloggers seem to agree on – Jeter is definitely positioning himself deeper this season, which is allowing him to get to more balls.

At this point, we are forced to say – Gee whiz, that’s all it took?

Whatever the reason, and I am pleased as punch to see Jeter listen to his critics and respond in a positive and productive way. You know, Yankees fans love to talk about Jeter’s leadership qualities and his intangibles. In an age where so many athletes are willing to ignore criticism and stubbornly do things their own, even if it is to the detriment of the team, what Jeter has done is refreshing.

And so is being able to say nice things about him.



Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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