The Yankees, at present, are right in the thick of the American League playoff race, and like most teams hanging around contention, they’ve expressed interest in making a midseason splash. Recently there’ve been rumors about Joba Chamberlain, and about maybe trading Phil Hughes for a hitter. But Thursday, the Yankees went ahead and exchanged Travis Ishikawa for Derek Jeter. Jeter was inserted directly into the starting lineup, albeit as a designated hitter instead of a shortstop.
Whenever a team gets a player back from injury this time of year, someone will refer to it as a midseason acquisition, and that’s basically what this is. After not having Jeter for more than three months, the Yankees now have him for the stretch run, and in his first at-bat on Thursday, he swung at the first pitch and singled. Granted, it was an infield single, weakly struck, but a hit’s a hit, and Jeter took his familiar sprint to first base. The Yankees just don’t feel like the Yankees without Jeter in the order, so now, if nothing else, there’s more excitement. And there’s not nothing else.
This is just an image so many people had been waiting for all season long:
Jeter, of course, received a standing ovation. He was missed, badly. People missed his on-field value, they missed his off-field value, and they missed his name value, as the Yankees were forced to get by with a whole host of inadequate shortstop options. Without Jeter, Yankees shortstops have ranked 29th in average, 25th in OBP, and dead last in slugging. The Yankees acknowledged that Jeter is up sooner than they planned for him to be, but they also said they’re simply better with him on the roster, and there’s little question this’ll provide a boost. The most important question is how big of a boost.
See, there are two separate issues. One is how much the Yankees have missed Jeter so far. The other is how much they might miss him were he out the rest of the season. The second issue is more important today, but we might as well touch on the first, since the season’s more than halfway over.
The good news is that, according to the metrics, the Yankees’ shortstops have been just about average or so in the field. It’s the same with their baserunning, so there’s not much there to discuss. But, as a group, they’ve posted a .248 wOBA. That’s a .248 wOBA, in Yankee Stadium, where this was a home run. That’s a better offensive performance than any National League pitching staff, but position players aren’t supposed to be compared to pitchers with regard to hitting, and the difference between the Yankees shortstops and the Dodgers pitchers is slight. The situation has been dreadful, and shortstop is a big reason why the Yankees have struggled to score runs on any kind of consistent basis.
What might Jeter have done? Well, Steamer projects him for a .324 wOBA. He was at .332 over the three previous years, and now he’s the oldest he’s ever been. The difference between .324 and .248 over 357 plate appearances is more than 20 runs, and though Jeter wouldn’t have gotten every plate appearance, he would’ve gotten the majority of them. Odds are, Jeter would’ve given some runs back in the field, as is his “thing”, but we’re talking about a substantial difference. And last year, Jeter’s wOBA was .347. Here’s a simpler way of putting it: to date, Yankees shortstops have been a little below replacement level. Jeter’s lowest WAR ever is 2.0, and the Yankees have probably missed him by between one and two wins. That’s more than the difference between them and the Orioles.
But that’s all looking back, and there’s nothing the Yankees can do about that. Now what matters is how much Jeter is likely to help. This is complicated, because we don’t know how Jeter is going to perform after his injury and setbacks, but we can at least develop some ideas.
Without Jeter, the Yankees would probably give the bulk of their shortstop time to Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez. Though they’ve under-performed, they’re projected for a combined .287 wOBA the rest of the way. Jeter, again, we find at .324. Nix appears to be a below-average defensive shortstop, while Nunez appears to be shockingly dreadful. Jeter is Jeter and I’d really just rather not talk about his defense. As a shortstop, he’s closer to Andrelton Simmons than he is to you, but that’s mostly because you suck.
Jeter’s the best of the shortstops, obviously. Over, say, 250 plate appearances, he projects to be about seven or eight runs better at the plate, and I don’t know if he’s much worse in the field, given the Nunez factor. So if you wanted to round, you could say Jeter’s return should be worth about a win over the remaining stretch. That’s just taking the projections at their word, and this is a casual approximation. There’s also some value from putting Jeter higher in the lineup, and from leaving Nunez and Nix available to offer support elsewhere.
But the projections don’t know what Jeter’s coming back from. For whatever it’s worth, on his first-inning infield single, he made it down to first base in a hair over four seconds. He wasn’t running awkwardly, but he wasn’t running at 100%. If Jeter isn’t quite himself now, we don’t know if he’ll turn into himself later on, and that could have an impact on his offense and clearly on his defense. Jeter can’t afford, defensively, to give up much in the way of lateral mobility. Even this version of Jeter is probably better than the alternatives, but it remains to be seen how much better. It won’t be a tremendous boost if Jeter has to spend a lot of time at DH. It won’t be a tremendous boost if Jeter seems even more limited than usual in the field.
There’s the potential for Jeter to struggle, somewhat uncharacteristically. But on the more positive side, if he looks more or less like himself, this is a major upgrade in a fairly tight division. Teams that are looking to make midseason splashes are usually looking to make themselves better by one or two wins over several weeks. Seldom is there the opportunity to upgrade by more than that. Jeter might make the Yankees a win better, and if he hits like he did in 2012, it could be even more significant. There’s a lesson to be learned from the fact that, despite all the injuries, the Yankees remain in the race. But Jeter ought to make the Yankees look more like themselves, and in a close playoff race, every win counts.