Jeter makes long strides at shortstop
Improved range, mobility shows in Ultimate Zone Rating
It was last spring that Derek Jeter offered dismissive smirks to a small gathering in front of his locker at the Yankees' Spring Training complex. He chose his words carefully, but expressed clear skepticism regarding a statistical study that pegged him as the worst defensive shortstop in the big leagues.
Jeter didn't buy into that brand of defensive analysis then, and he still doesn't. But Jeter had another reason not to worry about the data that computer programs had spit out concerning his fielding ability: Upon recommendation from the Yankees, Jeter had already started working to improve his range and mobility.
The Yanks saw some improvement in 2008, and as Jeter's second full season under the new conditioning program passes the midway point, the numbers are again focused on one of their favorite subjects. But this time, the raw data claims that Jeter, 35, is playing his best defensive baseball since he was in his 20s.
"You have to make adjustments throughout the years, and if things don't go the way you want them to go or you don't feel the way you want to feel, you make adjustments in order to compensate for it," Jeter said. "I just wanted to be healthy; that's it."
Late in 2007, a joke still circulated through press boxes throughout the country that delivered the following punch-line: the most commonly heard phrase on Yankees telecasts was, "Past a diving Jeter." Crude as it was, there was some truth in it. For a multitude of reasons, Jeter was not ranging well, especially to his left.
The pivotal conversation with team brass took place after the '07 season, when it had become clear to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his staff that his shortstop's defense was an issue that needed to be addressed.
"Whatever weaknesses we may see develop in our players, we talk to our players about it," Cashman said. "We look for ways to attack it. He changed his workout routine to improve his lateral defense, and that took place before last year. He's been better the last two years."
According to FanGraphs.com, a sabermetric analysis Web site, Jeter's 2007 Ultimate Zone Rating (or UZR) was -15.3, projecting that Jeter cost the Yankees 15.3 more runs than the average Major League shortstop over the 155 games in which he played. That ranked worst among American Leaguers.
Coupled with poor self-test data from the Yankees, the constructive criticism was accepted by the three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2004-06), and a new set of exercises were formulated to improve Jeter's explosiveness.
"Obviously, the older you get, you're not going to be the same," Cashman said. "You're going to have to find ways to either stay the same or to improve. In Derek's case, he's constantly interested in doing nothing but improving. That's why he's one of the greatest players who ever played for the Yankees."
Jeter's numbers improved markedly in 2008, as he ended the season with a -0.5 UZR in 148 games, close to league average. And he has continued the ascent -- through his first 90 games for New York this year, Jeter produced a UZR of 1.8.
If that holds over a projection of 150 games, Jeter would save the Yankees 4.5 more runs than an average shortstop, the first time since UZR came into use in 2002 that he would finish a year saving runs with his glove. Not that Jeter takes any satisfaction in moving the numbers back in the right direction.
"I don't really sit around and look at that," Jeter said. "You can criticize -- everyone gets criticized. I don't pay attention to it. If someone wants to write an article, let them write it. It doesn't really matter to me. My job is to come out here and to improve and try to help this team win. That's all I've been doing. All the other stuff, I don't pay attention to."
Thanks to a number of variables, Jeter has continued to find ways to turn back the hands of time defensively this year. He continued to follow the program outlined by Yankees strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea, but he has also been assisted by aggressive defensive positioning on the part of infield coach Mick Kelleher.
Better health has also been a factor, as Cashman said there was "no doubt" at times that Jeter's health inhibited him in past seasons. So has adding a Gold Glove first baseman and receptive target in Mark Teixeira.
But Jeter -- who claims to not even use the Internet -- isn't about to crunch his own numbers to check up. He still turns a quizzical eye toward an analysis performed at the University of Pennsylvania, which read every ball put in play between 2005 and 2007 and labeled him at the bottom of the pack.
"You can't sit around and figure out a defensive chart on somebody," Jeter said. "I mean, that's impossible to do, so I don't pay attention to it. There's different pitchers, different hitters, different runners and different people playing different positions. You cannot do it.
"Everybody doesn't play the same position, everybody doesn't get hit the same ground ball, everyone doesn't have the same runner. So you can't figure out a mathematical equation on it. If Ichiro hits a ball in the same spot that a slower runner does, how can you compute that in a computer? You can't do it."
Not that Jeter was perfect even in his younger days -- far from it, famously committing 56 errors in his first full season at Class A Greensboro. Blue Jays bench coach Brian Butterfield served in the Yankees' system then, and once spent 35 days working with Jeter on isolated diamonds, focusing strictly on defense.
"It was just Derek and I in the mornings, trying to clean things up," Butterfield said. "We would work in the morning and then go in and watch some videotape. There would be a guy in the tower taping him or behind the backstop and we'd go in and study that. Then, we would come back out and do some more."
Butterfield remembers Jeter as a confident kid, but one in need of reinforcement as he hammered out mechanical flaws. Watching from across the field this year with Toronto, Butterfield sees a player that has found a way to keep improving from those early days on sun-splashed Florida diamonds.
"I don't care how old you are or what sport you're playing, you have to constantly reinforce your feet," Butterfield said. "You have to work lateral balls. Guys who don't work hard in their preparation on lateral movement ... if you don't do that on a daily basis, you're going to lose it.
"He may be dedicating himself even more to lateral movement in his preparation. He's very intelligent. I'm sure that he is much better this year than last year."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi believes the difference is Jeter's "hard work -- what he does in the winter, the way he takes care of himself. He continues to work during the season, and he's been great. We've seen him make plays to the left, to the right, that have been great plays."
And that much, the Yankees can agree on. The example Teixeira produces came from New York's recent 10-game homestand on July 18, when Jeter made a highlight-reel play on a ninth-inning ground ball hit to his right.
With the Tigers' Brandon Inge running well down to first base on a Mariano Rivera cutter that transformed into a weak ground ball, Jeter ranged wide toward the third-base side and flagged the ball on the lip of the outfield grass, launching into a jump-throw and nailing Inge with a very strong throw.
As Rivera pumped his right fist by the mound, Teixeira immediately pointed his right index finger at Jeter, who nodded slightly behind his sunglasses as the Yankees tossed the second out of the ninth inning around the infield.
"He throws what I call a 'catchable ball,'" Teixeira said. "There's a lot of guys who throw balls that move a lot -- they're dipping, they're sailing, they're cutting. Derek throws one of the most catchable balls out there.
"Two things that I see is his quick release and the arm strength when he needs it. He made a play in the hole [on Inge] that was unbelievable."
With the next statistical study no doubt already in the works, Jeter will continue to pick his spots to discuss his defense. But with more pep on the bases -- he has already stolen 18 bases, his highest total since 2006 -- it seems clear that Jeter has found a new gear to work with.
"People always try to overanalyze things," Jeter said. "I mean, sometimes, some years, you may feel better than other years. That's pretty much it. I think people always try to figure out, 'Well, what's the reason?' I just feel good. I just think there's really not much more than that."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.