Heading into the 2009 season, Joe Girardi knew he had a small problem on his hands. By most measures, his Nos. 1 and 2 hitters, Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter, ranked among the best in the league. In 2008, Damon posted a .375 OBP, a solid mark from the leadoff spot. Jeter, even in a down year, had a .363 OBP. They were both proven players who figured to get on base plenty for the power bats in the middle of the order. The problem was, Damon’s on-base skills sometimes went for naught. Jeter simply grounded into too many double plays.
It’s expected that Jeter, a groundball hitter, will hit into his share of twin killings. When he was younger he used his above-average speed to keep that mark in the low double digits. As he crossed the age-30 barrier, however, that number started to rise. In 2007, he grounded into a double play in 14 percent of his opportunities, and in 2008 that rose to 18 percent. Worse, because Damon got on base so frequently Jeter found himself in many double play situations — once every 4.94 plate appearances.
Girardi didn’t want to see his leadoff hitter eliminated so frequently. It would kill rallies and take men off base for their new No.3 hitter, Mark Teixeira. As it turned out, the World Baseball Classic, in which Jeter participated by Damon did not, gave Girardi his opening. Maybe he read John Walsh’s article on double play opportunities, maybe he didn’t. In that piece, Walsh showed that Damon is historically good at avoiding the double play. A leadoff man much of his life, he hasn’t faced tons of situations, but when he does face them he tends to avoid making two outs. When Jeter returned from the WBC he found himself in the leadoff spot, with Damon hitting behind him.
The outcome was as good as it could have been. Jeter still grounded into a double play in 17 percent of his opportunities, but he faced those situations only once every 6.75 PA. It saved the Yankees a few outs in the 2009 season. Even when Damon departed after the season and the Yankees acquired career leadoff man Curtis Granderson to take his place, there was little question of who would bat first. There was just no way Girardi would move Jeter out of that spot after he had performed so well in 2009.
This year we have seen a strange development in this case. In 2009, the Yankees’ No. 9 hitters posted a .309 OBP, which is part of the reason why Jeter saw fewer double play opportunities. In 2010, that number is up to .324, mainly because Brett Gardner has frequented that spot. Moreover, Jeter’s groundball percentage has risen more than 10 points this season, to 67.2%. Combined with yet another year of slowing physically and it sounds like a surefire recipe for a bevy of double plays. Yet that has not been the case at all.
Jeter has faced a double play situation once every 5.86 plate appearances, and has grounded into one eight times. That is a 14 percent mark, his lowest since 2007. That includes his two double play grounders last night. If he keeps up this pace he would finish with 17, one fewer than last season. The two double plays last night make it a bit tougher to get a read on his pace, too. After all, before then he had grounded into six double plays in 55 opportunities, 11 percent. For all we know he could drop down to that rate for the rest of the season. Or, of course, he could ground into double plays in five of his next 10 opportunities and end the season with an inflated rate. Such are the perils of situational stats like these.
It still seems odd, though, that Jeter has avoided double plays this year despite conditions that indicate that he’d hit into more. More base runners and more ground balls points to more double plays. We still have plenty of time to determine whether this is a fluke — for instance, the No. 9 hitter frequently reaches with two outs. Something tells me it is. I just don’t see how you can see more runners on base and hit the ball on the ground more and end up hitting into fewer double plays. During the course of an entire season, I suspect, we’ll see Jeter’s rate around the 17, 18 percent we saw in 2008 and 2009.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.