Aging Derek Jeter Adjusts Familiar Swing
But, even with that said, Jeter is showing many signs at the plate that the dynamic player of old is now just a memory. Many of his struggles at the plate here in 2010 are mechanical in nature, but those mechanical issues appear to be stemming from a far more serious problem.
Yankee fans and people around baseball have seen Derek Jeter struggle this season like he never has before. For many, it's likely been difficult to accept, but the fact is that Jeter is, at least for now, not the hitter we've come to know. Not only are the results not the same, but the way he approaches his at-bats has changed as well. And, whether it is subconscious or not, he has changed his approach to compensate for raw ability that may no longer be there.
Give Jeter time, and he's more than resourceful and smart enough to make adjustments. But, as of this moment, he has his work cut out for him. Anyone who has watched Jeter this season has seen him become much more of a free swinger than he has been in the past, and chase pitches that he never has before. Let's not think for a minute that suddenly, 15 years into his Hall of Fame career, Jeter has become an impatient hitter who doesn't know the strike zone.
The reality is that Jeter is starting the bat earlier to compensate for a quickness that just may not be quite what it used to be. And what has made Jeter such a tremendous hitter over the years has been his ability to let pitches track deep in the zone. By doing that, he has been able to recognize pitches as well as anyone in baseball. By committing to pitches earlier, we're now seeing him fooled more often and rolling over on more pitches. He's committing to the breaking ball earlier and lacking the quickness to let the fastball track deep inside.
Even more significantly, though, Jeter's adjustments in timing seem to have greatly impacted his overall swing mechanics. His problems start harmlessly enough. Compared to last season, he is ending up with quite a bit more weight on his front side. While he has never been a back-foot type hitter, Jeter's multiple toe taps have come earlier this year and allowed him to drift onto the front foot quite a bit more. By doing that, he is losing much of what typically has made him such a threat in the past.
With his weight coming forward, he is more or less pulling his upper body forward as well. And, that's causing his hands to essentially come along for the ride rather than jumping through the zone like we've seen before. The key to Jeter's entire career at the plate has been his ability to stay inside the baseball. With his lower half coming forward, his swing has become much more upper-body dominant and that makes getting inside the ball a far more difficult task.
Far more often this season we've seen Jeter roll over on that good inner-half fastball and chop it to the left side. He's committing early enough that he's not getting completely beat on this pitch, but he's at least temporarily lost his knack for consistently shooting those pitches to the opposite field with authority. There's just too much separation between his hands and body for that to happen. And all these root issues lead to the reason why. Most of it has to do with hand position at the point of contact and bat angle. Too often this season at the point of contact, we've seen a very flat bat angle from Jeter and a general inability to keep his hands inside the ball.
Instead, his swing has become more rotational. His shoulders look like more of the guiding force for the swing and he's consistently coming around the ball. When he was staying back well in previous seasons and using his hands, no one was better than Jeter at tucking his back elbow, keeping his hands above the barrel of his bat and staying extra short to the baseball.
The swing Jeter has now is longer, and much more dependent on his arms and upper body. The fact is when you have to commit earlier to pitches and don't allow pitches to track deep in the zone, the swing is bound to get longer and less efficient. And, when you lose your lower half early in the swing and your upper body becomes dominant, it's very difficult to be as quick with your hands or have the same bat control.
According to FanGraphs.com, Jeter has a groundball percentage of nearly 66 percent this season. Considering that figure is about eight percent above his career average, it's a rather startling number. But it's also pretty explainable. When your weight comes forward, you lose the quickness in your hands, and Jeter's hands are moving pretty sluggishly through the zone this season compared to years gone by. Sluggish hands produce flat swing paths and groundballs without much on them.
Only Jeter knows why he is committing to pitches just a bit earlier this season. And if it's fixable, you can bet he'll figure it out. If it's not, and he truly is compensating for raw tools that are no longer there, this is more along the lines of the player Jeter will be from here on out. Right now, he's a hitter lacking the quickness in his hands to let pitches track deep so he can read them. And rather than producing those classic inside-out swings, it's likely that he'll continue to be tied up inside like a mere mortal hitter.
Right now, the swing is just a little too long and the hands just a bit too sluggish for him to resemble the Jeter of old. You can certainly argue that it's simply a prolonged mechanical slump, but the potential root of those problems have to at least make you pause and wonder if age is catching up with the Yankee captain.
Frankie Piliere spent the last three seasons working as a scout, most recently in the professional scouting department for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He now serves as the National Baseball Analyst here at FanHouse.