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Yankees Lose Game, Yankees Lose Captain

I will now include, for your consideration, an incomplete list of things this ALCS Game 1 post could’ve been about:

  1. Robinson Cano being called out at first in the second inning
  2. Alex Rodriguez continuing to struggle
  3. Doug Fister picking it up after getting drilled by a comebacker
  4. Delmon Young torching the playoffs
  5. Jose Valverde being a massive liability
  6. Ichiro and the home-run porch
  7. Raul Ibanez condensing a career’s worth of heroics into one week
  8. The Tigers’ bullpen being poorly set up behind the starters
  9. Drew Smyly dominating

The opener of the American League Championship Series did not leave us wanting for twists and intrigue, with the Tigers finally knocking off the Yankees 6-4 in 12 innings and five hours. It’s good to know the crescendo of the Division Series round has carried over into the next. Game 1 left us with entirely too many question marks and talking points, but after everything else, we were left with one major story drowning out the others: Derek Jeter is hurt. He’s hurt bad, and he’s done for the playoffs.

This is a post about one topic, and that one topic is Jeter’s fractured ankle. In case you somehow haven’t seen it, Jeter hurt himself fielding a groundball to his left in the top of the 12th when the Tigers had already pulled ahead. Jeter went down to the ground and had to be carried off the field, not putting any pressure on his left leg. Initial hopes were that he’d simply rolled his ankle; those hopes were swiftly dashed. The Yankees must now move forward down a game and down a shortstop.

Sunday afternoon, the Yankees will play their first playoff game without Derek Jeter since October 8, 1995. At that point, Jeter wasn’t yet an established major-league shortstop, Alex Rodriguez wasn’t yet an established major-league shortstop, and Andy Pettitte was a rookie. Lately Jeter had already been playing hurt, but he wasn’t hurt enough to jeopardize his place in the lineup, and now he is. This is going to be something of a psychological adjustment, just as it was a psychological adjustment to see a guy close games for the Yankees who isn’t Mariano Rivera.

So given the Jeter injury, we have two questions:

(1) How bad is this for the Yankees, really?
(2) How should the Yankees replace him?

We’ll begin with question number one, as you do. You’re all FanGraphs readers, so you’re pretty familiar with baseball statistics. If you’re pretty familiar with baseball statistics, you know that individual players can only mean so much. This isn’t basketball, or tennis. I don’t in any way intend for this to be insensitive, but I’ve prepared an explanatory image.

Figure 1: On Derek Jeter Being Injured

Emotionally, psychologically, whatever, this is one hell of a big deal. I mean, it’s Derek Jeter. Captain, face of the franchise, world icon. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Yankees team without him. It was also almost impossible to imagine a Yankees team without Mariano Rivera. Rivera got hurt on May 3, when the Yankees were 13-11. The Yankees finished 82-56. The argument isn’t that the Yankees wouldn’t have been better with Rivera healthy; the argument is that the Yankees obviously weren’t crippled by his absence.

With Jeter, you could make it as simple as just looking at his WAR, if you wanted to. Three years ago, he was worth 2.8 wins. Then 2.3 wins, then 3.2 wins, for an average of three wins per 162 games. Let’s say he has a replacement-level substitute. Against an average team, you’re talking about roughly a two-percent drop in win expectancy. That is, this year, the Yankees won 58.6 percent of their games. Subtract three, and they would’ve won 56.8 percent of their games. It’s a meaningful difference, but it isn’t a dramatic difference. The Yankees didn’t just lose Robinson Cano or CC Sabathia.

As hard as it is to process the Yankees without Jeter, and as hard as it is to process the idea that downgrading from Jeter to Jayson Nix isn’t devastating, that’s the truth. Given Jeter’s injury, the Yankees are a worse baseball team, with worse odds of beating the Tigers in a game or a series. But the Yankees are about a lot more than just Derek Jeter, and the healthy roster that remains is quite talented. So this series isn’t over, which is something I guess I didn’t need to type.

Maybe I’m not saying enough about the potential psychological impact. Maybe the Yankees are going to be super deflated. The Yankees lost after hearing about Rivera’s injury. But they won the next day, and they actually won seven of their next 11, and there’s way too little signal in here and way too much noise. When you hear that Derek Jeter’s done for the playoffs, your immediate response is “holy crap, no way.” You can’t picture the Yankees without him. But a picture will form in time, and it’s still going to be a picture of a World Series contender.

So we turn now to question number two. It’s not really much of a question, because the Yankees have already decided that they’re going to replace Jeter on the roster with Eduardo Nunez. Jayson Nix is expected to take over as the starting shortstop, and Joe Girardi already said that, no, he will not play Alex Rodriguez at shortstop instead. That would’ve been a neat way to avoid the difficulty of benching him, but it also would’ve put Rodriguez in a weird spot under the brightest lights.

Just because the Yankees have made up their minds doesn’t mean we can’t talk about all this, though. What should the Yankees do? First of all, all of Rodriguez, Nix, and Nunez are right-handed, so there aren’t handedness considerations. I’m of the opinion that the Yankees’ best shot to win involves starting Eric Chavez at third base over Rodriguez, at least when facing righties. So I’m looking at three would-be shortstops.

Neither Nix nor Nunez has much in the way of a defensive track record at short. Nix has been below average in his limited opportunities, but he’s been above average in a lot more time at second and third, so as a shortstop, he might be five or ten runs below average over a season. Nunez’s defense is kind of a disaster. He can cut it, but that’s about all he can do, and that’s why he’s expected to be the backup, behind Nix. That’s why he wasn’t on the roster before.

Rodriguez hasn’t played shortstop regularly in a decade, and his defense at third seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of average. Were Rodriguez to be shifted over to shortstop, we’d expect his defense to be poor, especially at first, but maybe it wouldn’t be a nightmare. Bear in mind the Yankees have been putting up with Derek Jeter forever. Rodriguez would certainly look awkward and many things would feel unfamiliar, but it’s not like Alex Rodriguez would be incapable.

So we look at the offense. Nix has a career .289 wOBA, while Nunez checks in at .308. Nix was at .304 this year. Rodriguez was at .362 last year, and .342 this year, and based on those differences, Rodriguez should probably be the fill-in shortstop. Based on those differences, the offensive improvement outweighs the defensive downgrade. But a big question is just how much those other Rodriguez hitting numbers mean, since he’s been so much less effective since returning from a fractured hand. His postseason woes continued on Saturday. Prior to the postseason, he had an underwhelming month, and we’ve discussed how his contact rate has gone way down. There’s reason to believe that Alex Rodriguez isn’t at 100 percent, which means we have to take away from his offensive projection.

What’s Alex Rodriguez’s “true talent” offense right now? Is it .360, or .340, or .330, or .320, or lower than that, or what? How does it compare to Jayson Nix’s “true talent” offense right now? Figure Nix is, I don’t know, maybe ten runs better than Rodriguez as a defensive shortstop over a full season. Is Rodriguez at least ten runs better offensively, the way that he is right now? It’s on Joe Girardi to evaluate where Alex Rodriguez stands as a hitter, and clearly, Girardi doesn’t think that Rodriguez is himself.

I think there’s a very compelling argument to be made that Derek Jeter’s playoff replacement at shortstop should be Alex Rodriguez. I’m not in a position to be able to know that for sure, and obviously, it would be challenging for Rodriguez to move over overnight. The Yankees can’t really afford to have Rodriguez make some crucial defensive mistakes in Game 2, after having lost Game 1. It’s safer to go with Nix, and it might well be wiser to go with Nix. I don’t think Girardi even gave the Rodriguez idea much consideration.

And one can imagine how things might’ve gone for Rodriguez in New York if he went hitless and also made some miscues in the field. The Rodriguez idea is just an idea; the reality is going to look a lot more like Jayson Nix, filling in for Derek Jeter. This is going to be weird. It’s probably not going to be crippling, but it’s most definitely going to be weird.