Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Yankees, Stephen Drew, and Shortstopping in Jeter's America

In the Red Sox trade deadline bonanza that ultimately saw four of last year's World Series-winning starters get traded (all in at least arguably good deals, especially Lackey), a lesser trade occurred, the first between the Yankees and Red Sox since 1997. The struggling Stephen Drew was dealt for the declining yet cheap Kelly Johnson. Stephen Oris Drew, he of .176/.255/.328 slash line in 39 games this year with the Red Sox, was headed to New York. With the Yankees' recent acquisitions of Chase Headley to play third and the suddenly overpaid Martin Prado to play whatever position they needed (including 2nd base), it seemed as though Stephen Drew would fit nicely on the Yankees' bench. However, what the Yankees are actually doing with Stephen Drew is pretty crazy when you think about it for more than two seconds: he's their everyday second baseman.

To clarify, this is not crazy because Stephen Drew is having a terrible year at the plate and should not be an everyday player. Drew missed spring training and the beginning of the season while waiting for a contract offer, and his struggles against players in midseason form aren't overly surprising. He's likely to bounce back, and has always been a productive player at the plate, and also in the field.

And that second part is what makes the Yankees' new arrangement crazy. Stephen Drew has never played another position besides shortstop in his Major League career. Another player on the Yankees can also make that claim, and he happens to be in his retirement tour with the Yankees struggling to stay in the playoff race. That other guy, #2, also happens to be one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball.

This year, according to Fangraphs, Derek Jeter ranks 23rd out of 25 qualifying shortstops in UZR/150 at -11.8. That figure would put him between "Poor" and "Awful" according to Fangraphs's handy guide to UZR. Jeter played only 17 games in 2013, but in 2012 Jeter placed diggity dead last in shortstop UZR/150 at -15.2. That's actually slightly beyond "Awful" for Fangraphs. In UZR/150, Jeter was 21st out of 22 in 2011 and 16th out of 21 in 2010 (almost not terrible!). His last season with a positive UZR/150 was 2009, which is actually the only time he achieved that distinction since UZR/150 has been a stat (it was created for the 2002 season). Before that, Total Zone is the best defensive metric available for advanced-stat-minded folks like me (y'know, the non-WELL HE'S A SURE-HANDED GRINDER WITH A BUNCHA CLASS WHO MAKES THAT PLAY WHERE HE JUMPS HE MUST BE THE BEST crowd). He ranked dead last in Total Zone in 2000 and 2001, and had a positive Total Zone in 1998 and that's IT. For a little context, the average in UZR/150 and Total Zone is 0. Jeter had a few years where he was just below the 0 threshold, but only 2 where he cleared it in either of these stats, and in the majority of seasons, he was pretty clearly below average. Since 2002, Jeter has a -7.0 UZR/150, which is boosted tremendously by 2009's aberrational 7.8. Whether or not you believe in the ultimate accuracy of these advanced defensive metrics (and I'm on the fence about them), one thing is clear given this tremendous sample size: Derek Jeter is a poor defensive shortstop, basically always has been, and has only gotten worse with age.

Meanwhile, Stephen Drew is a very good defensive shortstop. According to UZR/150, Drew had a really tough first three years in the Majors defensively, but has been above average (significantly so a few times) every year except 2012. Since 2009, Drew has posted 18.2 UZR, even with an aberrationally bad 2012 season. Derek Jeter, in that same span, has posted -28.8 UZR, even with an aberrationally good 2009 season. With a UZR difference of 47 in the past five and a half seasons, Stephen Drew is clearly the superior defensive shortstop, and it ain't even close. Put in terms of DRS, Stephen Drew has saved 7 runs since 2009; Derek Jeter has been responsible for an extra 52 scoring.

So why is Derek Jeter still in at shortstop? That question was asked when the Yankees brought on Alex Rodriguez to play third base after having won the last two Gold Gloves at shortstop (for reference, A-Rod's UZR was 23.7 over those two seasons, while Derek Jeter's was -3.8). These questions should continue to be asked now that Stephen Drew is the everyday second baseman. Everyone knows the answer to the question, however: Derek Jeter is the shortstop, The Captain, and he's going to be the shortstop no matter what because Derek Jeter being the shortstop is important.

Is Derek Jeter being the shortstop more important, however, than actually winning baseball games? Is it more important than making the playoffs and giving Jeter the opportunity to win one last championship? Would the Yankees letting Jeter occupy right field or even third base, so that their chances of winning would actually improve, really hurt his legacy? Wouldn't Jeter, in his last year, showing the self-effacement of a GD comic book superhero, sacrificing his post between second and third base for the good of the team, only add to the mystique of the classy winner? I think it would. The fact that the Yankees have pursued a strict policy of Jeter at shortstop, to their quite measurable detriment, will in future generations detract from the great singles hitter's legacy as we understand defensive metrics more and more. Moving Cal Ripken to third base at age 37 certainly didn't detract from his legacy, and he was actually above average at shortstop.

The greatest myth about Derek Jeter is that he's a good defensive shortstop. Baseball fans will look back on Jeter's legacy as a great player who won a lot of championships, but who could have helped his team more if he had only stopped being the damn shortstop.

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