Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 1, 2010
BASEBALL: A Tale of Two Shortstops
2009 was the best of times and the worst of times for New York's star shortstops, Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes. Jeter had one of the best seasons of his storied career, batting .334/.406/.465 in 716 plate appearances (OPS+: 125, his second-highest since 2000) while stealing 30 bases in 35 attempts (only his fourth career 30-steal season, and first since 2002), batted .344/.432/.563 in the posteason as the Hated Yankees won their first World Championship since 2000, and even had a resurgent year in the field; while his raw range factors remained poor, he set a new career-best .986 fielding percentage and, using the Bill James Fielding Bible ratings, had a positive plus/minus (+6) and positive runs saved (+5) for the first time since the Fielding Bible started compiling its ratings in 2005 (over the prior four years his average +/- rating, the number of outs he made compared to an average shortstop fielding a similar number and mix of balls in play, had been -25). By Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating his range was positive for the first time since 2002. He finished third in the MVP voting. Fangraphs lists his Wins Above Replacement as 7.1, the second-best of his career.
Jose Reyes, by contrast, suffered a calf injury and then a season-ending torn hamstring as a part of the Book of Job-like disaster befalling the 2009 Mets. Reyes, who had averaged 158 games and 741 plate appearances the previous four seasons, appeared in just 36 games and was unavailable to start the 2010 season.
2010 was a bit of a snap back year for both, but with both ending below where they'd been entering 2009. For Jeter, age 36 proved a lot more unforgiving than 35. While leading the league in plate appearances (with 739), he batted .270/.340/.370 (OPS+ of 90, career lows in all four of those categories), and didn't bat above .300 or slug above .400 in any month after April; in 536 plate appearances from May 3 to September 10, Jeter batted an anemic .245/.318/.336, and he salvaged his batting average with a late-season hot streak only by slapping the ball without authority (.342/.436/.392 from September 12 to the end of the season, followed by .250/.286/.375 in the playoffs). Away from hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, Jeter batted .246/.317/.317 on the season.
Jeter's fielding regressed as well. He's getting more sure-handed - he set another career-best .989 fielding percentage and the +/- system rates him as +8 on balls hit right at him, his second best of the 2005-10 stretch - but his range is nonexistent, -17 overall due to a complete inability to cover ground to his right or left, and -13 runs saved. His raw range factor was the second-lowest of his career. UZR has him back in the negatives again, albeit not at the colossally incompetent levels of his 1999-2001 or 2005-07 seasons. Overall, Fangraphs rates his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 2.5, the lowest of his career. As with the excellence of Jeter's 2009, the various sophisticated stats are pretty much in agreement that Jeter was down across the board and had the worst year of his career.
As for Reyes, superficially, 2010 was a rebound year. After a delayed start to the season - he missed the first four games finishing up an abbreviated spring training and came back rusty, batting .210/.256/.280 through May 19 (the season's one-quarter mark), and missed time on four other occasions - Reyes batted .310/.346/.485 in 435 plate appearances the rest of the way, cleared 600 plate appearances (603 in 133 games) and finished at a respectable-looking .282/.321/.428.
Yet there were still signs that Reyes wasn't all the way back. While he hit with authority, he abandoned the patience he'd learned; from 2006-09 he'd drawn 54 walks per 600 plate appearances for a .355 OBP; in 2010, that dropped to 31. Perhaps he was just being aggressive to re-establish himself with the bat, but it's a bad sign for a leadoff man. He stole 30 basis, after averaging 64 steals a year before the leg injuries. While he returned with the same strong arm and his raw defensive stats were largely unchanged, the Fielding Bible rated him as just a hair below an average defensive SS in 2010 (a +/- of -1 and -1 runs saved) and also in 2008 (-2, and -2 runs saved), compared to excellent seasons in 2006-07 (+16 and +13, and +12 and +10 runs saved). Fangraphs UZR sees an even more dramatic trend, with Reyes falling from a highly-rated SS in 2007 to around average in 2008 and well below in 2010. While Citi Field is not a hitter's haven like the new Yankee Stadium, Reyes, too, is dependent on the home park's spacious power alleys, batting .291/.338/.453 at home, .273/.302/.403 away. Overall, Reyes rated in Fangraphs' view at 2.8 WAR compared to an average of 5.7 per year from 2006-08.
Which brings both New York teams to the question of what to do about their fan-favorite but now likely overrated shortstops, Jeter a free agent heading into his age 37 season, Reyes with one more year on his contract heading into his age 28 season. On the Yankee side, the team has looked at their declining, aging shortstop and - in light of his years of service, fan sentiment and the fact that he's 94 hits from becoming the first guy to get 3,000 in a Yankee uniform - reportedly offered him the extremely generous salary of $15 million a year for three years, ending at age 39. Jeter's response? He wants 6 years at $150 million, which means he'd be making $25 million a year through age 42, although supposedly he's flexible on the number of years and willing to consider an offer in the $22 million a year range. That would still make him just the sixth player in Major League Baseball earning more than $20 million per year, three of whom (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabatha) are his fellow Yankees (the other two are Joe Mauer and the injured Johan Santana. Albert Pujols makes $16 million a year, Hanley Ramirez' contract will average $14.25 million a year from 2011-14).
As for Reyes, who will make $11 million next season, the Mets are reportedly shopping him around but not that likely to deal him this offseason unless they get a great package back with 3-4 players in it.
Meanwhile, if I can take the liberty of putting a third shortstop deal into the mix, the Rockies have just locked up Troy Tulowitzki for the next ten seasons. Tulowitzki is reportedly inking an extension variously reported as 7-years for $134 million or 6 years for $119 million - in either case, around $19 million a year - presumably depending how you count his current contract, which already runs through 2014; either way the extended deal runs through 2020, when he'll be 35. Tom Tango finds the dollar figure to be an eerily accurate valuation.
Tulo is doing everything Reyes and Jeter haven't; as a 25-year-old whose team always seems to win only when he's healthy and hitting and a natural leader, Tulowitzki had his second straight monster year with the bat this year, and also the glove; the Fielding Bible rates him at +11 and +16 the last two seasons (8 and 12 runs saved), the latter figures despite his one weakness, injuries (he missed 40 games in 2010, 61 in 2008). A far cry from his monster 2007 season with the glove (+35), but impressive nonetheless. (UZR rates him a very good SS in 2010, closer to average in 2009). Tulowitzki's obviously worth the money right now and just entering his prime, and with his strong arm he's a good bet to age well defensively, but the injuries are a huge risk for a contract that long.
To put the Yankees' and Mets' options and dilemmas in context, consider: only six shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances had an above-league-average year with the bat in 2010, by OPS+ (Tulowitzki, Rafael Furcal, Hanley, Stephen Drew, Reyes, and Jamey Carroll). Of those, Tulowitzki's now locked-up long term, Furcal is 32 and injury-prone, and Carroll is a 36 year old utilityman. If you go out to guys with 500 or more plate appearances over 2009-10, it's 11 shortstops - the same group (excluding Carroll), Jeter, Jason Bartlett, Juan Uribe, Asdrubal Cabrera, Marco Scutaro and Miguel Tejada. But Bartlett's had just one above-average season in 7 years in the big leagues, Scutaro one in nine seasons (and is under contract with the Red Sox for next season, when he'll be 35), Tejada is 37 and slowing down severely, Uribe and his .300 career OBP and career OPS+ of 85 just signed a 3-year, $21 million deal with the Dodgers...basically, unless you can get Stephen Drew from the Diamondbacks or pry loose a not-yet-established youngster like Starlin Castro, Ian Desmond or Elvis Andrus, your pickings for filling an open shortstop hole are going to be very slim.
In that context, the usual question - Does it make sense for the Yankees to re-sign Jeter at all? - takes on a different cast. A-Rod's hip injury eliminated the chance that he could slide over to short, so (1) the Yankees will need to fill the shortstop job and (2) if they do re-sign Jeter, he'll remain at the position no matter how badly he fields it. But it's still worth recalling that giving Jeter playing time at all could be a bad bet. You know how many shortstops age 37 and up have had an OPS+ of 100 or better in a season of 400+ plate appearances, in the game's entire history? Ten, of the 42 seasons in which somebody's given that much playing time to a shortstop that age, 22 of which were by Hall of Famers. And eight of those ten were the same two guys, Honus Wagner (who was the only player of his generation to lift weights, and thus had a leg up on the aging process in ways Jeter can't, plus he was a better hitter than Jeter) and Luke Appling, who was more of a slap hitter. The odds of Jeter, coming off a rough year, bouncing back substantially in 2011 aren't great; the odds of him being an above-average hitter for the next three years, let alone six, are poor. Add that to a substandard and declining fielder and only the critical lack of options - and the non-baseball value of Jeter at the box office - justifies bringing him back at any price, and that only barely. Which makes his desire to be one of baseball's highest-paid properties not just wrong but hilarious.
One reason this spectacle has collided so badly with Jeter's image is that Jeter, for all his career, has been lauded as the pinnacle of unselfishness, but it's easy to be unselfish when you are never, ever asked to give up anything - not money or fame, not glory or good press, not the team captaincy or his position afield. Only now is Jeter in a position where he should do what's best for the team - accept a short-term deal for reasonable money - rather than insist, for reasons that can only be adequately explained by an ego-driven desire to be paid like A-Rod, that he be compensated like a superstar rather than a declining commodity with his head barely above replacement level.
(I'm leaving aside here the other consideration: Jeter's contract helps set the scale for other players. Arguably, it's in the Yankees interest to ridiculously overpay their players to drive up the cost of competition, but at some point they are still a profit-making business, moreso I suspect with George gone.).
In years gone by, the Yankees could have used the traditional route for showing respect to an aging team leader with declining skills and made him a player-manager. But the organization hasn't had a player/manager since hiring Miller Huggins in 1917, and neither of the last two guys hired for the job fresh off their playing days (Yogi and Bob Shawkey) lasted more than a year, even though Yogi won the pennant. Jeter's not gonna unseat Joe Girardi, so he has to be paid purely as a player.
As for the Mets, dealing Reyes now may well be the best way to capitalize on his value in a time of scarcity. But it's a painful decision; Reyes and Wright are the homegrown face of the franchise, popular in the community. And more importantly, unless they can get one of the other good young shortstops, they run the risk of opening a hole of their own that can't be plugged (the internal options are of questionable value as shortstops, and the only thing worse than Ruben Tejada in the lineup is two Ruben Tejadas in the lineup).
The wild card, given that it looks like a deal of Reyes is unlikely, is what effect the rumors will have on him. Reyes is an emotional, upbeat player, but the flip side of that is that he's been known at times to get in a funk and not have his head in the game. I tend to think that rap is somewhat overstated, but the reality is that just like Beltran's Olerud-like expressionlessness, Reyes' highs and lows are part of his emotional skillset just as much as his speed and sometimes balky hamstrings are part of his physical skillset. People are what they are. My guess is that management has leaked word that they're shopping Reyes in part because they are hoping he'll respond well entering his walk year - not just with a good work ethic (which he's always had) but a renewed focus on plate discipline and work on his defensive positioning.
The Yankees seem likely to put a resolution on Jeter's contract status sooner rather than later, with more meetings in the past 24 hours. The Reyes situation may linger much longer, and only when the games are played will we see how he reacts.