Derek Jeter Lite

Alex Belth already shed a clump of hair over this yesterday, but Sunday’s Yankee loss — capping a sweep by the Angels in which the Bronx Bummers scored just four runs — contained yet another rally-hampering sacrifice bunt from Derek Jeter. In the bottom of the third with nobody out, the Yanks were up 1-0, with Bernie Williams on second, having just laced a double down the rightfield line on a picture perfect hit-and-run. Jeter laid down his 13th sac bunt of the year to move Williams over to third. Gary Sheffield, the only Yankee swinging the bat with any authority during this now 5-out-of-6 losing skid, tore a double down the leftfield line to drive in the run and put the Yanks up 2-0. It was the last hit they would get until the eighth, when Brendan Donnelly gave up a solo shot to Sheffield.

As Alex pointed out via this Joel Sherman quote in the NY Post, Jeter’s adopted some amnesia towards this maddening tendency to bunt:

Why would Derek Jeter, struggling again on offense, sacrifice with Bernie Williams on second, one run already in and no outs in the third? Jeter said because he felt the team needed to build toward another run and that Kelvim Escobar’s 95 mph fastball tails into righties, and he did not feel he could shoot the ball to right field. But he also disputed he has sacrificed more this season, though the 12 [actually 13] he has are one more than he had produced in the three previous seasons combined.

Call it frustration, call it heresy, call it my true-blue Dodger blood finally returning to my brain after being cut off by a Fox Group tourniquet for five years. I sometimes find myself loathing the ballplayer which Derek Jeter seems intent on becoming. His slump earlier this year was tough enough to live through, but those things happen. It’s his sudden loss of plate discipline and his morphing into Derek Jeter Lite that’s truly galling. If he insists on quacking like a ’70s-model shortstop on the flip side of his meager defensive abilities, then I’m done defending this particular duck to the player-haters.

Through Sunday, Jeter had played in more or less the same number of games and drawn the same number of plate appearances as in last year’s injury-marred season, but he’s fallen a long way without the convenient excuse of a major boo-boo:

Year    PA  OUT   AVG   OBP   SLG   ISO  BB/PA  SO/BB

2003 542 345 .324 .393 .450 .126 .079 2.05
2004 550 392 .272 .326 .429 .157 .049 3.07
career 356 .313 .384 .459 .146 .093 1.78

The change in shape of his performance between this year and last is striking. He’s lost 67 points of on-base percentage but only 21 points of slugging; his isolated power (SLG-AVG) is actually up, thanks to 15 homers, compared to 10 last year. But his walk rate has dropped nearly 40 percent. He’s also seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.54) than ever in his career (3.76, never lower than 3.68). In short, he’s gone hacktastic.

But at the same time there are those annoying bunts. Jeter has never had more than 8 in a single season (1997) and from 1998-2003 had only 20. Thirteen this year? Jeebus Cripes, that’s Bucky Dent territory. Craptastic hitter (but architect of champions) Gene “Stick” Michael (.229/.288/.284) never reached double digits, for crying out loud.

As Baseball Prospectus’ James Click neatly summarized awhile back, “One of the most striking discoveries of much of the statistical research done in baseball over the last 20 years is that outs are more valuable than bases.” Using a run-expectancy matrix — something every player and manager would have tattooed on the inside of their forearm, if it were my team (we’ll do temporary ones that wash off during the offseason if that’s an issue) — Jeter’s bunt on Sunday cost the team an expected .145 runs, not as bad as a typical no-out, first-to-second sacrifice (.213 runs), but still, a net negative.

Which isn’t to say that there are times one shouldn’t bunt, but that makes a difference on who’s hitting and what the objective is — whether you’re playing for one run or to maxmize scoring. In a three-part series, Click did some serious math and calculated the breakeven point for a sacrifice bunt given certain base-out situations and those two objectives. Just cherry-picking the numbers , in the situation on Sunday, the breakeven point for a hitter — below which it makes sense to sacrifice, above which it does not — is .249/.305/.363 if the team is trying to max out, and .364/.450/.646 if they’re playing for one run. In other words, if the Yanks were playing for only one run (something that may make sense late in the game, either tied or one run down), having even Gary Sheffield or A-Rod (neither of whom is actually that good a hitter, though both have approached those gaudy numbers in their careers) bunt in that situation would have been the correct percentage play.

But given the point in the ballgame where the bunt occurred — third inning, one run ahead, and with the meat of the lineup coming up — playing for one run is a cockamamie idea in the first place, and for all of Derek Jeter’s supposed smarts, this is a lunkheaded move. The Yanks should have been playing for a big inning, and deep down we all know that Jeter is better than some .249/.305/.363 Neifi Perez clone.

At least for now.

• • •

With social obligations — including a stint hosting Baseball Prospectus’ Chris Kahrl and another one putting up my future brother-in-law, Adam — occupying my last six nights, I haven’t had a chance to follow up my Gary Sheffield piece yet. But I’ve been chipping away at it during my spare hours until it’s evolved into the Zeno’s Paradox of blog entries. In other words, Part II of what is now projected as a three-part piece will be up, probably tonight.

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