Jeter, Ortiz, and the Value of Youth

Would the Yankees have made the playoffs this season without Derek Jeter?

Let’s start with a disclaimer.  The following words are by no means a judgment of the Yankees’ decision to keep Jeter on the roster in 2014.  That wasn’t really a decision, and even if it were, there’s a justification for letting a legend have one last lap around the league.  If you would rather not read about how bad Jeter has been this season, don’t click below to read more.

Derek Jeter is batting .255/.303/.304, 30 percent below league average according to wRC+.  Even in a down year for offense, that slugging percentage is the worst in the American League among qualified hitters.  Fangraphs doesn’t frown upon his defense as much as they have in recent years, docking him 1.3 runs for his efforts.  Baseball Reference sees him as having been 10 runs below average this year, but gives half of that back in positional adjustment runs.  All told, the two agree that he’s having a replacement-level season (-0.2 WAR per fangraphs, +0.1 per B-R).

There are worse players getting regular reps in the big leagues, even on contending teams.  Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer have combined for -0.7 fWAR in key roles for Kansas City.  Torii Hunter’s been right around replacement level for the Tigers.  In theory, a readily-promotable AAA guy wouldn’t have offered any more production in the Bronx this year.

But is replacement level really relevant for the Yankees?  Jeter made $12 million this season.  Jhonny “sic” Peralta signed with St. Louis in the offseason at an average annual value of $13.25 million.  Peralta’s been worth 5.3 or 5.8 WAR this season, depending on whom you believe.

Would adding Peralta in Jeter’s stead have guaranteed the Yankees another 5 or 6 wins this year?  Of course not.  WAR’s not that simple.  But I’d guess it would have been worth at least that, because Peralta’s aura wouldn’t have pressured Joe Girardi into hitting him second all year, as Jeter’s did.  He may have landed there anyway, as Peralta’s 124 wRC+ is better than any regular on the Yankees this season, but here’s a guess that early in the season, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann would have moved up a spot, adding 5 to 15 PAs apiece.  None of those guys was Mike Trout this year, but taking 30 or 40 PA away from Jeter and giving them to anyone with a pulse would have added some runs.  It’s one thing to employ a replacement-level player; most teams do.  It’s another thing altogether to give 600+ plate appearances in the heart of the order to a 40-year-old who’s hit worse than Billy Hamilton.

Five more wins would put the Yankees 81-64, still five games behind the Orioles, but just ahead of Oakland for the first Wild Card spot.  Furthermore, had New York been 2 or 3 games better at the July trade deadline, they might have dealt in the David Price/Jeff Samardzija market, rather than the Brandon McCarthy/Chase Headley discount bin (though I’ll admit those acquisitions have paid off).

Acquiring Peralta is an extreme example, but Asdrubal Cabrera may have been available in trade.  If the Yankees had signed him in March, Stephen Drew might have played more like the 3.5-win guy he was in 2013 than the no-bat, misused glove midseason acquisition he turned out to be.  Neither of these guys would have guaranteed a playoff game in the Bronx, but they would have redistributed those wasted plate appearances and perhaps brought meaningful baseball in September.

Ok, enough Jeter bashing.  Everyone ages and the few of us who are fit enough to play into their forties deserve to do what they love for the team they carried for decades.

Let’s talk about Mariano Rivera.

In Rivera’s farewell season in 2013, the Yankees’ bullpen had a 3.66 ERA, 20th in MLB.  Their 3.91 FIP was 26th, as despite striking out a batter an inning all season, the relievers combined to surrender 1.21 homers per nine.  In 2014, Dellin Betances stepped up with a prime-Rivera year.  David Robertson (2.77 ERA/2.34 FIP) has approximated Rivera’s 2013 numbers (2.11 ERA/3.05 FIP), and the setup team of Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren has been solid.  The relief crew has worked a 3.56 ERA, 15th in MLB, and a 3.51 FIP, which ranks 12th.  The whole bullpen could be bought for less than the $10k the Yankees paid Rivera in 2013.

Basically, the Yankees lost nothing by exiling the best reliever ever, even after a reasonably productive final season.

Again, I’m not taking a shot at Rivera.  Rather, I’m ruminating on the relative values of past greatness and youth on a baseball roster.  Jeter and Rivera are probably two of the 100 best players ever to play the game and were central to a Yankee dynasty that won five championships and made the postseason every year from 1996 through 2007.  During their farewell tours, they combined for 0.7 WAR over two seasons and their team would have been better off (or at least no worse) without them.

Let’s talk about David Ortiz.

At 38, Big Papi can still hit.  His .263/.358/.511 line in 2014 is a far cry from his peak, but it’s 33% better than the league average and ranks fourth in the league among regular designated hitters.   Ortiz’s presence in the middle of the lineup has been a fountain in an endless desert.  His 32 home runs are almost a third of Boston’s 110, and his 99 RBI nearly match the totals of the next two guys on the team leaderboard (Mike Napoli has 55; Dustin Pedroia 53).

The future outlook, though, is a bit more complicated. Ortiz put up 5 straight .400 wOBA seasons in his prime, then struggled for two seasons (.372 and .342 in 2008 and 2009, respectively) before finding his swing again in 2010 and 2011 and raking at an elite level (.425 wOBA) in 2012.  Since then, he’s aged as expected, dropping to .400 in 2013 and .367 in 2014.  It would be foolish to assume that a 39-year-old Papi will bounce back next year, or even create a reasonable facsimile of 2014’s numbers.

You may have heard that the 2015 Red Sox have a few candidates vying for three outfield spots.  Shane Victorino and Yoenis Cespedes each have one year left on their contracts.  Jackie Bradley’s elite centerfield defense might be worth waiting for his bat.  Mookie Betts is the future, whether in center, right, or on some other team’s infield.  Brock Holt played well enough this year to warrant a look at some position in 2015.  Rusney Castillo is on the way.   Daniel Nava and Allen Craig struggled to various degrees in 2014, but were both great hitters in 2013 and could bounce back.  Meanwhile, first baseman Mike Napoli has a degenerative hip condition that makes him look like a future DH for some team.

Doesn’t it seem like the Red Sox might be better off parting with Ortiz and using the DH spot the way other AL teams have, resting some outfield legs while keeping good bats in the lineup?  An outfield of Cespedes, Castillo, Betts, and, Bradley, with the former two working in and out of the DH spot, is pretty appealing.  Napoli could get a break from defense on occasion and Holt could fill a superutility role.

But it won’t happen.  Ortiz is a Boston legend on par with Yaz and not far short of Ted Williams (maybe even ahead of the Splinter, given his postseason heroics).  Red Sox fans are likely to watch a past-his-prime Papi continue to fade away in 2015, providing a big homer here and there, but probably costing the team a win or two while one of the aforementioned outfielders rots on the bench or succeeds on another roster.  Maybe he’ll decide in 2015 that 2106 is his last year and the Red Sox will decide that he’s worth a Jeterian farewell tour, in which he’ll play below replacement level, but still bat in the middle of an otherwise-potent lineup.

The Angels have the best record in baseball this year.  Their best player is 22 and their oldest key contributor is 34.  The Orioles are running away with the AL East.  Their best player (Adam Jones) is 29 and their oldest key contributor (Nelson Cruz) is 34.  The Nationals have the best record in the National League behind 24-year-old Anthony Rendon and the Harper-Strasburg core they built through the draft.   None of these teams is running out an over-the-hill superstar and feeling compelled to keep testing him in high-leverage situations.  Other older players like Paul Konerko, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Giambi accepted reduced roles in what look like their final campaigns.

Aging is cruel.  Smart baseball teams are avoiding long-term contracts and putting younger players in positions to put their skills to use while they’re still sharp.  The Red Sox and Yankees are smart baseball teams, but sometimes superstars don’t give you a choice.

Maybe Jeter wanted to see the Royals in the playoffs before he retired.

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23 Comments on "Jeter, Ortiz, and the Value of Youth"

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Lawrence Azrin
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First poster! It’s easy to denigrate the Yankees for running Jeter out at SS all year, but – what was their alternative? Who is in their farm system, and what MLB shortstops were available, not just free agents (Peralta?) but possible trades? Then again, the Yankees kind of dug themselves into this hole when they gave him the extension after the 2010 season. They had to know that if Jeter was healthy, it would be very difficult to bench him, or try to play him anywhere but SS. I do agree that he should’ve moved out the #2 BOP a… Read more »
Mike L
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It’s easy to focus on Jeter, and he has unquestionably been a drag. But I think the Yankees made a nuanced decision that didn’t pay off. First of all, they couldn’t say no to him after the lost to injury season. Second, they probably thought he would be somewhat better (at least with the bat) than he has been. But third, they almost certainly felt they could cope with sub-par numbers from the shortstop position because their new acquisitions (Elsbury, Beltran, McCann, Tanaka) plus a returning Texiera, plus fewer injuries, would make the difference. Obviously, they were wrong, but I’m… Read more »
mosc
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Ok, so I look at this completely differently. Three facts of life I think you really need to consider further 1) You can’t buy young talent. In general, you can’t call up the angels and offer them $50m for the rights to Trout (even if you pay him from there on out). Rules stuff aside, they’d laugh at you. His rights are worth more than that. I’m talking about the right to buy a seat at a stadium kind of thing. The seat sure looks like a great value at $100 when you can sell it for $450 but really,… Read more »
David P
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“You can’t buy young talent.” Actually you can via the international market (Abreu, Puig, Tanaka). Furthermore you can acquire it via trade. Looking at my Indians, many of the best players was acquired via trade when the player was still in the minors or while they were still transitioning to the majors (Santana, Kluber, Bauer, Gomes, Brantely, Carrasco). Of course it’s impossible to acquire these sort of players when you’re giving long-term contracts to players age 30+. You’re investing in a declining market. No one wants Rodriguez, Sabathia, etc. “The Yankees have money to spend and they spend it”. Just… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
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@7/David P; “Is just wearing the uniform all it takes???” – BINGO!! – as Jerry Seinfeld famously observed: “We’re just cheering for laundry!” As fans, many of us love to knock the highest-payroll teams (usually the Yankees, but often others) as little more than teams of mercenaries, high-priced players acquired from other teams that can’t afford them anymore. Of course, when Most Desirable Player X becomes available on the open market through trade/ free agency, we often hope our team can get that player, regardless of cost -it’s NOT OUR MONEY, right? So to answer your question – yes, wearing… Read more »
Doug
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I suspect the Yankees calculated (correctly) that they would not be a championship team this year, with or without Jeter. So, why put your fans in an uproar and create a season-long distraction by keeping Derek on the bench. Yes, they’ve likely sacrificed some wins by playing him almost everyday, but even if they had managed to squeak into the playoffs with someone else at short, I think it would be a very long shot for them to take the pennant. OTOH, long shot or not, it is a chance they won’t get this year, barring a few miracles. Incidentally,… Read more »
Richard Chester
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I mentioned recently that Jeter has a chance to break Honus Wagner’s record for most hits as a 40+ SS.

Wine Curmudgeon
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Well done. One of the problems with number is that they don’t take into account managing people. It’s easy to say, “This guy stinks, get rid of him. But business is more complicated than that. A running a baseball team, whether as the manager, general manager, or owner, is a business.

Bill Johnson
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Interesting topic though I will take exception to the thought that Ortiz approaches Teddy Ballgame as a Boston legend.

Jimbo
Guest

Ortiz’ legendary post season career and championships are worth plenty.

He seems to be producing just fine for now. 10 months ago he was s world series MVP. I think you are spot on about jeter but i think ortiz deserves more credit for now. He would be the best hitter on most teams including some playoff teams.

Mike L
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Wanted to make a point about WAR, Otiz, Ford, Jeter, and the Hall of Fame. I’ve been arguing that Ford’s lifetime WAR is unfairly reduced largely by an imperfect evaluation of the fielding stats of his teammates. What are Boston fans going to say 6-7 years from now? The often maligned Jeter is at 71.4. Ford is at 57.3 Ortiz is 47.7. He may be legend, but it’s still 47.7. Edgar Martinez? 68.3.

eorns
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I’m not sure we can use 76-72, the Yankees’ current record, as their base record in this hypothetical exercise. They have been outscored by 29 runs, meaning they’d only be around 70-78 if their luck had been neutral. If you attribute the extra 6 wins to Jeter’s intangibles (not included in the WAR calculations!), you’d have a push.

MikeD
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This is two straight seasons where the Yankees have been outscored, but yet still play .500, comfortably beating their expect records. I suspect it has something to do with their late-inning bullpen. In 2013, Robertson to Rivera gave the Yankees a strong closing duo. In 2014, Betances to Robertson is even better. This past few games have illustrated the counter of that, where the Yankees have lost three of four games in the 9th or later because their normally lock-down late inning bullpen has failed.

MikeD
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I think this exercise could be applied to just about anyone on the Yankees this year short of Gardner and Elllsbury. In a year of bad, the Yankees offense has been extra bad. Still have no idea how they’re above .500.

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