Why Would You Ever Throw Derek Jeter Anything But A Fastball?

What’s an “average” fastball velocity? This year, it’s 91.9 mph. Last year, it was 92.0 mph. In 2012, it was 91.8 mph. We could go back further, but since that’s all pretty consistent and this isn’t really going to be about how hard pitchers throw anyway, three years is fine. We can say that 92 mph is pretty much the average fastball speed in Major League Baseball.

So with that knowledge in mind, here’s what I wanted to know: what hitters have to deal with the most heat that’s at average and above velocities? And how do they handle it? Fortunately, we have Baseball Savant, so we can look at this pretty easily. With a minimum of 500 fastballs seen – for reference, Matt Carpenter and Brian Dozier have each seen over 1,200 total pitches, so 500 pitches would be fewer than half of what an everyday player would have received – there’s only three hitters who have seen at least 35 percent of pitches coming in at 92 or higher:

1) Travis Snider, 37.41%
2) Derek Jeter, 36.28%
3) Matt Holliday, 35.59%

That’s fun, though perhaps not illustrative of anything. Also showing up on the top 10 of the “most heat” list are Kolten Wong and Mike Trout, so it’s not as simple as “good (or bad) players see higher velocities.”

But the second part of the initial question — who does what with that heat — well, that turns into a thread that all but forces you to keep on following it down the rabbit hole.

Here we have lowest slugging percentage on pitches at or above 92…

1) Jackie Bradley, .196
2) Jeter, .206
3) Chris Carter, .211

…and lowest isolated power on those pitches:

1) Jeter, .016
2) Nick Markakis, .016
3) Bradley, .018

Were we to do batting average, then Bradley, Jeter and Carter all appear in the bottom 10 as well, and obviously these things are not unrelated. What you have here are three players who cannot hit pitches at plus velocity, but that’s about all they have in common. Bradley has a career wRC+ of 62 and is almost certainly going to find himself in Triple-A at some point soon. Carter is still showing power, though not enough to make him more than a replacement player. Jeter may be the first real challenger to a 100 percent Hall of Fame ballot when he’s eligible in five years.

One of these is not like the others, but he’s showing up as among the most inept fastball hitters in the bigs – that ISO is one extra base hit in 63 tries, by the way, and came back on April 17 on a liner right over the first base bag against the since-DFA’d Heath Bell. So knowing that harder pitchers are eating him up, you inevitably go look at a spray chart just littered with balls to the right side…

jeter_batted-ball

…and then you go right back to Baseball Savant to check on which hitters have the lowest percentage of balls struck to left field:

1) Chris Denorfia, 0.887%
2) Jeter, 1.148%
3) Manny Machado, 1.426%

…and what began as a question about fastballs has quickly turned into a discussion about just how much Jeter’s bat has slowed, leaving him all but incapable not only of getting a ball beyond the infield to left, but to do anything with authority to right.

Not that I have a particular interest in demolishing the legend who is limping along in what he’s already acknowledged is his last season, but let’s at least lay out the numbers: Jeter is tied with B.J. Upton for 157th in wRC+ of the 167 qualified hitters in baseball. He’s 20th among 25 shortstops, primarily because guys like Zack Cozart and Brad Miller are doing their best to set historical lows for offense. His defense has been below-average, though perhaps surprisingly not catastrophic, but largely because of Jeter, the Yankee shortstops as a whole are currently ahead of only the collection of not-Jose Iglesias that the Tigers are rolling out at short.

It’s to his credit, really, that he’s managed to return from the injury woes that cost him nearly all of 2013 to stay healthy enough to collect 234 plate appearances, third-most on the Yankees behind outfielders Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury. But it’s also not helping the Yankees so much that he has, and neither is the fact that 51 of his 52 starts (save for one game at leadoff in early April) have come in the second spot in the order.

That’s particularly troublesome because we know, now more than ever, how important it is to have a quality hitter in the second spot. So far this year, 28 hitters have had at least 100 plate appearances hitting second. Here’s how they’ve done:

jeter_second

That Ned Yost is letting Omar Infante and his .277 OBP hit second is only about No. 14 on the list of Royals-related problems. The Brewers finally wised up and moved Ryan Braun into the second spot more than two weeks ago. The White Sox, slaves to the “second basemen hit second” plague, used Marcus Semien as an injury replacement while Gordon Beckham rehabbed an injured oblique; since returning, Beckham has an acceptable 104 wRC+.

But the Yankees continue on with Jeter hitting second, in deference both to his status as a legend and the fact that the back end of the lineup is so thin that there’s perhaps not an obvious replacement. Then again, what good does it do when Gardner gets on and then is either erased via double play (or fielder’s choice) or watches as an out is made in front of Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCannYangervis Solarte and Carlos Beltran? It’s not the only reason the Yankees have fewer runs scored than the Twins, Mets and Astros — and think on that for a minute — but it’s certainly part of it. It’s probably not realistic to expect Joe Girardi to take Jeter off of shortstop (Brendan Ryan, for all of his defensive prowess, has had health trouble this year, and is such a wreck at the plate that it actually makes a swap less than a no-brainer, though I won’t even discuss the ridiculous scenarios when Ryan has played first base) but getting Jeter out of the two spot is a conversation that is long since overdue.

Going back to the first list, the one about the highest number of fastballs thrown, maybe your first reaction was, “well, why aren’t they throwing him more if they know he can’t hit them?” As it turns out: they are. Running the same query, but just from May 1 on and cutting the minimum in half gets you this as far as percentage of pitches at 92 or above:

1) Bobby Abreu, 46.22%
2) Jeter, 40.89%
3) Ben Revere, 39.66%

This isn’t an accident. Abreu is even more ancient than Jeter, and makes the cutoff here by all of one pitch. Revere is such a non-threat at the plate that when he actually homered a few weeks ago, it spawned an entire post here in celebration of it. In April, Jeter saw just 30.9 percent fastballs at or above 92. Since May 1, that’s jumped by 10 percent, and while there’s something to be said for the overall velocity of the sport tending to increase past April, the fact is simply this: Jeter can’t catch up to good fastballs any longer, and teams are increasingly taking advantage of it. It’s getting to the point than other than the occasional breaking ball just to keep him from timing it, you wonder why he’s ever not seeing fastballs.

Other than a mild increase in strikeouts, Jeter’s peripherals aren’t all that different than they were during his quality 2012. He’s not losing his plate discipline or popping up more or chasing pitches or missing pitches; some of those things are actually better this year. It’s just that he’s no longer able to do anything with the pitches he’s touching, especially the hard ones. That he’s on pace to do something done only one other time in the last 60 years — qualify for the batting title as a shortstop at age 40 or older, along with 2007′s Omar Vizquel — says a lot both about who he is and why so few other players ever get the opportunity to. Even the great Jeter can’t fight off the cold truth of age.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


45 Responses to “Why Would You Ever Throw Derek Jeter Anything But A Fastball?”

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  1. ms says:

    In 1996, Ozzie Smith had 200+ plate appearances and was over age 40. Of course, this only reinforces your point. I enjoyed the article, sorry for the nitpick.

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  2. Landon Jones says:

    Mike,

    This was fun.

    I took the query you did and just reversed it to see who’s been the best versus 92+. It’s Victor Martinez (.9077) by a whole lot over Tulowitzki (.6984). V-Mart has gotten a ton of credit, but my goodness.

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  3. dp says:

    9 walks in April…7 walks in May…0 walks so far in June…The JETER stinks! As a Yankees fan I can barely wait until next year and he’s gone for good!

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  4. Capt Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters says:

    He used to guess right a lot leading off back in 2012(649 PA). A lot of first pitch strikes for base hits, almost to the point that you wondered why anyone threw him a first pitch fastball… maybe being back in the 2-hole doesnt afford him the luxury of swinging at that first pitch anymore in an effort to give Gardner pitches to steal? (Not that he’s great at pulling the trigger either)

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      That is an 80 grade user name. Oneders for life.

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      • Capt Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters says:

        looking at bref(since I cant find 0-0 splits on here for some reason) The majority of his ABs in 2012 ended after 1 pitch(2nd most being full count), in which he was 41-119 after the first pitch. We all know that reversed his horrible DP rate from 2010 and 2011, maybe it would be best if he reverted back to guessing right and letting Brett and Jacoby ‘kick things off’ after his slap singles?

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        • Wow says:

          Seriously, no one can take you seriously with that user/band name. But at least you can see your band Friday, June 13 @ 8:30 PM

          Famersville, County Highway 17, Farmersville, IL — That’s right, no address. Just drive up to Farmersville, you’ll hear ‘em.

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  5. Twinkie says:

    The Twins are tied for 13th in runs scored, so not sure why you have to lump them in with the Astros and Mets.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      Because they’re a pretty good example of a team that absolutely no one considered to be an offensive powerhouse entering the year.

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    • Jon L. says:

      Mets and Twins are virtually identical in runs scored compared to their league averages.

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  6. santorumforpresident says:

    If Ripken couldn’t get a 100% HOF ballot, neither should Jeter.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      I agree that he *won’t* but I can at least say he *could* with a straight face.

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      • Preston says:

        And like Ripken before him the point is Jeter SHOULD get 100% of the vote (Maddux and Henderson are also recent inductees who should have gotten all the votes).

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    • Doug Lampert says:

      That’s the bad logic that results in no one getting 100%, if X didn’t get it then neither should Y.

      Basically, your “logic” for why Jeter shouldn’t get it is EXACTLY why Cal didn’t get it.

      The question the voters should be asking themselves is, “Does X belong in the Hall?” And if the answer is blatantly yes, then they should vote yes. The votes are cast as individuals, so someone who clearly belongs should get in with 100% on the first ballot, because there’s no justification for any of the individual voters not to vote for him.

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      • H.Villanueva says:

        That should be the thought process but sadly it’s not. Unfortunately there’s always an individual or two with an agenda and feel that their HOF vote is a platform to air their grievance.

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      • steex says:

        We’ve got an additional issue at play now, too – if you have a ballot and see more than ten names for which you’d like to vote, it would be a defensible position to leave someone like Jeter off your ballot knowing he’ll get in anyway.

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        • Jason B says:

          Good post by Doug, good counterpoint by Steex. I think that’s the only defensible reason to leave off an obviously worthy candidate; it would be fair to leave off a Jeter or a Maddux (for instance) to throw some more (and more needed) weight to the candidacy of a Tim Raines or a Larry Walker (for instance).

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        • matt w says:

          There might also be some cranky voter who really takes Tango’s WOWY seriously and thinks Jeter is a bad enough fielder to leave out of the Hall.

          Hahaha what am I saying there is not going to be a voter who leaves Jeter off for that reason.

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  7. wjylaw says:

    Maybe it’s part of his going away gift from MLB. “One breaking pitch every game for Jeter.”

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  8. BPhipps says:

    I am curious, what is the Median fastball velocity ?

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  9. AK7007 says:

    From a game theory standpoint, do you think there is a critical % of the time that if pitchers could throw “too many” fastballs to Jeter, and then his numbers would improve because he knows what’s coming? I assume not, because this is a physical skill decline, so foreknowledge shouldn’t factor in, but it’s worth the thought experiment.

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    • Jon L. says:

      He definitely would hit much better if they threw him all fastballs. I’m not sure what the critical percentage is, but I’ll defer to those with more expertise and suggest that more than something in the vicinity of 40.89% would yield diminishing returns.

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      • one eyed monster says:

        You would expect that for someone that could affectively hit a 92MPH+ fastball if he knew it was coming would do better at some point, but the question is, can Jeter even hit that pitch if he knew it was coming? On the other hand, even if Jeter can’t handle that 92MPH+ pitch if he knows it is coming, if he’s selling out to try to hit that pitch every single time, other pitches probably become even more valuable than that 92MPH fastball. So I doubt the ideal fastball percent ever reaches 100%, even if Jeter has basically no chance with that pitch.

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      • Tony Cingrani says:

        The hell you say.

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  10. Remus says:

    Weird to think the Yankees being better off without Jeter.

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    • Preston says:

      I don’t know that they’d be better off without him. He’s still hitting better than you’d expect Brendan Ryan to, and his defense has been better than one would expect while Brendan Ryan’s health problems have made him look less than his usual stellar self. The point is he shouldn’t hit 2nd. Girardi should just stop trying to break up the lefties and hit Gardner and Ellsbury 1 and 2. Neither has much of a platoon split anyways.

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      • arc says:

        Ryan is a career 70 wRC+ hitter, Jeter has put up a 71. They are in entirely different universes defensively.

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        • Preston says:

          Using Ryan’s career numbers are as useful as using Jeter’s. Ryan has put up a wRC+ of 61 and 44 the last two seasons and has put up a 64 this season. As for the defense, have you seen him this season or are you just relying on what he was? He had a pretty serious back problem and has looked horrible in the field. His current UZR 150 at SS is -49, and his fielding percentage is .929. Jeter on the other hand looks no worse for his leg injury with a UZR/150 of -2.6 and a .972 FP. Yes small sample size to defensive numbers apply, but that’s a significant enough difference to not be dismissed by SSS concerns alone. Some guys age fast, Ryan looks like a really old 32 yo right now.

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        • adam says:

          With Preston on this one. I’ve seen Ryan do some great work in the field since he’s been over–in terms of plays Jeter would never be able to make.. But all in all I would not call his NYY defense anything better than average thus far on the eye-test scale.

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        • Jason B says:

          Agreed with Preston, it’s disingenuous to compare lifetime wRC+ for Ryan to current season wRC+ for jetes.

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  11. jason says:

    “I won’t even discuss the ridiculous scenarios when Ryan has played first base” – Please do, if only to concoct some excuse for Mr. Girardi?

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  12. Hermida Potential says:

    The biggest learning for me here was the fact that Bobby Abreu is still in the Majors. Never would’ve guessed that.

    (Also, great article.)

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  13. yuh says:

    Color me not surprised Travis Snider leads that leaderboard. My analysis 5 years ago still stands, can’t hit anything over 90.

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  14. Bat says:

    I am a big Mets fan and watch a lot of games…I can tell you that Abreu has looked very good at the plate this year.

    Even at 40 years old, the man just doesn’t swing at bad pitches and tends, more often than not, to make the pitchers pay when they make a mistake.

    I know the Mets other outfielders aren’t great so you can joke about my basis for comparison, but Abreu has looked good so far.

    Whether he gets overexposed if he plays more, or tired as the year goes on are legitimate concerns and I am just commenting on what he has done thus far.

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  15. JackD says:

    You’d think that older hitters would simply move further back in the batter’s box to compensate for an aging bat.

    Moving around in the box used to be somewhat common in the 80′s, but you really don’t see it all that often anymore.

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  16. ReuschelCakes says:

    In fairness, your May comment doesn’t also disclose that his wRC+ improved in May to 87…

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  17. ReuschelCakes says:

    Nope – scratch that…. rescinded. redacted. recused on account of bad dataing.

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  18. AC of DC says:

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding or perhaps it’s not entirely clear, but you (Signior Petriello) seem to suggest that Jeter’s opposite-field-heavy spray chart is largely if not exclusively a product of poor performance against the FB (due to a slow bat). But hasn’t Jeter always hit a slightly higher than normal percentage of balls to Right? Hasn’t that inside-out singles swipe been one of the hallmarks of his career?

    I can’t seem to find a nice clean set of splits (or I am bad at manipulating these charts), or anything that compares the player to MLB average, but per Baseball-Reference (I put 1914-2014, but it only seems to go back 25 years or so) he has 4 of the top 10 seasons by total Opposite Field hits (though obviously he had a lot of hits, period, but I seem to recall him being the league leader in the category dropped as a fun fact more than once by commentators). For his career, he’s at 23.65% of his hits to Right (B-Ref, 21.9% on FG) and 24.45% pulled. This year, it’s 25.93%/12.96% Oppo/Pull, but only 54 hits total, so not terribly conclusive. Again, I’m not sure if I’m kajiggering the charts correctly, but league average from 2013 seems to be around 21-22% Opposite for all hitters.

    He’s performing poorly against the fastball, no doubt: -7.0 RAA on the season compared to a 13.5 annual average since 2002 (whatever average means with such a stat) and a far cry from the 21.2 of his 2012 campaign. Still, to suggest that a RHB who has spent a career getting a quarter of his hits to Right Field is now too slow because he’s getting a quarter of his hits to Right Field just seems a tad off.

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  19. Michael says:

    And right after this article is posted Jeter has four straight multi hit games. Lol.

    Luck? Or regression?

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