Amid the ongoing struggles of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira it has been convenient to overlook Derek Jeter's poor performance at the plate. TYU has been all over this (and deserve credit for helping inspire this post), but few if any analysts have pointed out that Derek's current wOBA of .337 would be the lowest for his career since he first debuted in 1995. His career mark is .374.
Broadly put, Jeter is having a bad year because he is walking less than usual and has the lowest BABIP for any season of his career, ever. At the moment Jeter's career IsoD is .070 even. This season that has fallen to .053. He's drawing walks at a 6.3% clip, well below his career 8.9% rate. Although he's been more patient of late, and may well be getting free passes at his career average by season's end, he leverages himself to his batting average so long as he's being less disciplined. As for BABIP, Jeter is currently hitting .307 on balls in play, versus .358 for his career. Some of this is bad luck, and some may be because he's reaching for balls he shouldn't swing at and bouncing them to 2nd.
The result is that Derek is on pace to have the worst season of his career, in his contract year. Jeter is a career .316/.386/.458 hitter. This season he's batting .283/.336/.423. It's too early to make predictions about where Jeter's numbers will be come September, particularly for a contact hitter like Derek who can easily hit .400 in any given month. That said, a quick glance at these kinds of figures helps demonstrate why Brian Cashman has such a tough job managing veteran Yankee talent.
Forget for a moment that this is Derek Jeter. Instead, imagine it is a high-end shortstop who is showing this kind of decline in his age 36 season. Would you want your team to re-sign this expensive, aging middle infielder for a plus salary, probably to a multi-year deal, if his numbers don't recover? If you answered yes then you didn't pretend we were talking about someone other than Derek.
Of course, it's impossible to imagine Captain Clutch donning another team's uniform. Lost in these bad numbers are several strong arguments for keeping Derek right where he belongs. History jumps out at number one. Jeter is currently on pace to have 198 hits this season. If this is the case then Derek will be roughly 50 hits shy of 3,000 entering the 2011 season. It will be worth millions of dollars to Derek and the Yankees to have him pass that milestone in pinstripes.
In addition, Derek may be having a bad season (so far) relative to his own incredibly high standards, but he remains one of the best offensive shortstops in all of baseball. Jeter has the 6th highest wOBA among all players at his position. In the American League, only Alex Gonzalez is having a better year so far, and it's difficult to imagine these two not swapping places in a few months. Using WAR, which takes defense into consideration, Derek is having a strong all around year at short. His 1.7 WAR is also 2nd-best in the AL, and really a virtual tie with Marco Scutaro, who scores a 1.8.
Taking this into consideration, it is unlikely that the Yankees could upgrade on Jeter's performance via free agency, even if his numbers don't recover to career norms. The only thing the team can do is find a less expensive player, but odds are that player will be worse than the Captain.
I predict that Jeter's numbers will improve by year's end, but they may still come in a bit below his career norms. I also both predict and want Derek to remain in pinstripes as long as he's a viable option at short. The big question this offseason doesn't appear to be if Jeter will be such an option next season (he will). Instead, it appears to be whether or not Derek and and the team can agree on how long he will be such an option, and at what cost.