Monday, February 13, 2006

Question No. 9: Is Jeter's Defense That Bad?

I really think I bit off more than I can chew with this question. Defensive metrics have been a hot topic of late, and it seems that there are plenty of new statistics to help us more fully understand how each player actually performs behind their pitcher. Most of these metrics depict Derek Jeter in an unfavorable light despite his two Gold Gloves.

But you know what? Gold Gloves are based on reputation, and I haven’t come close to understanding the nature of these defensive metrics. I’m not going to go blabbing about statistics when I don’t have a clue about how they’re calculated.

(And yes, I realize that I have done this in the past. But I do have an elementary understanding of offensive metrics and what they’re based on. If you’re interested in defensive metrics, then you’ve probably already seen this nifty chart over at Baseball Musings. They’re of intrigue, but like an old person I’m afraid of things not familiar to me.)

So if I’m not going to delve into Jeter’s defensive performance, what am I going to talk about? Or more importantly, why did I choose this as a question? I really am interested in defensive statistics and intend to study them in the coming year, but this isn’t something you can learn overnight. With the aid of MLB.tv, I hope to compile some of my own data on Jeter’s defense this season. But until then, I’m as confused as most of you on the defensive conundrum.

I’m really stuck on the subject of Jeter’s defense, mainly because I didn’t hear a peep about it during the Glory Years. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t privy to the sabermetric community at that point, but it came as a shock to me when reports were finally published that ranked Jeter at the bottom of the league in defense. Various metrics have been tweaked and created in the interim, and they all come to a similar conclusion: Jeter is not a solid defensive shortstop.

But then we all see him ranging to his right, picking up a ball nearly out of reach and throwing an off-balance cross-body strike to Tino. The explanation: he’s terrible at nabbing balls to his left. This should have been aided by the arrival of Alex Rodriguez. As one of the best shortstops in the game, it would make sense that he’d have better range than a typical third baseman, thus allowing Jeter to shade further to his left. Well, this has been going on for two years with no discernible improvement in Jeter’s defensive metrics.

Hopefully Larry Bowa has the answer. Not that he’s going to single handedly make Jeter a more adequate defender. Rather, he could more optimally position the infield as to accent Jeter’s strong points and off-set his weaknesses. In theory, Jeter should be able to play closer to the bag than most shortstops because of his range to his right combined with A-Rod’s range at third.

Baseball Prospectus ranks the Yankees 22nd in the majors in defensive efficiency. As I stated at the outset, I don’t know exactly how they calculate this, so I’m not going to make conjecture as to how accurate this is. But suffice it to say their defense is not among the league elite. Well, they were second in runs scored and have some quality arms on the mound, so it seems that defense is the one area in which they can improve upon a 95-win team.

So that’s my take on the defensive situation. Insightful, no? I’ll have something later today to supplement this sorry excuse for a column.