Ettinger: How much is Jeter actually worth?

The contract dispute between the Yankees and their prized captain, 36-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter, has gone public. Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, has hinted to the media that his client is seeking a deal worth $23-24 million annually for four or more years. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, whose three-year, $45 million offer was roundly rejected, has suggested Close take a “reality potion” and see if he can find Jeter better offers on the open market. Needless to say, with the winter meetings fast approaching, the two sides remain far apart.

There’s a lot to consider in determining the value of Jeter’s next contract. Both Jeter and the Yankees need to assess the value of his finishing his career in pinstripes (and the potential costs of his putting on a new uniform). They need to evaluate the value he brings to the Yankee brand independent of his performance on the field. They need to think about the financial returns of upcoming milestones, such as 3,000 hits. They also need to evaluate the strength of this year’s free-agent market, which, behind a few notable superstars, is remarkably thin.

In the end, though, the most important consideration is Jeter’s play on the field. Obviously, over the past 15 years, Jeter has been one of the most consistent and productive hitters in baseball. He’s also snagged five gold gloves. Jeter, however, is not without his critics. At 36, Jeter’s best years at the plate may well be behind him. His 2010 season, which saw his batting average plummet to .270, his OBP fall to .340 and his SLG drop to .370 (all three his lowest averages since his rookie season), didn’t help. Perhaps even more important, most statisticians, who questioned Jeter’s defensive abilities to begin with, project that his skills at shortstop (a demanding position, especially for someone of his size) will quickly fade. Indeed, most assume that a switch to first base or the outfield might be necessary to keep Jeter in the lineup.

Before looking to the future, however, it can be useful to consider the past. Jeter just completed his massive 10-year, $189 million contract. In the eyes of most fans, Jeter is the rare exception to the rule that megadeals ultimately backfire for the teams that offer them. Some, however, hold that Jeter underperformed his contract and, as a result, the Yankees owe him nothing.

Fangraphs.com has a fun tool called “dollars” that aims to quantify just how much a player is worth in a given season. The details are a bit complex, but the basic premise is simple: statisticians plug Jeter’s offensive and defensive statistics into a computer, use them to calculate how many extra wins Jeter contributed to the Yankees, multiply by the price of a win on the free agent market in any given year, and end up with his estimated value. Statistics like these are somewhat subjective and aren’t without flaws: Fangraphs’ “dollars” is held by many to overweigh unreliable defensive metrics. Still, it’s a cool concept and a good starting point for a discussion of a player’s value.

So how did Jeter do over the life of his contract? Fangraphs claims that Jeter only outperformed his average annual salary in two years (2006 and 2009). However, over the life of his $189 million contract, the site estimates his total value to have been a respectable $165 million. He certainly didn’t outperform his enormous salary, but considering the record for contracts of this magnitude, a $24 million gap is actually pretty small. When you consider all the revenue he brings to the Yankees off the field, Jeter probably did earn his salary over the last 10 seasons.

So where does that leave us for the future? To estimate his future value, we turn to PECOTA. PECOTA is a pretty cool system, developed by the incomparable Nate Silver, that estimates a player’s future production using his career trajectory. Essentially, it takes his past production and adjusts for how gracefully it thinks that player will age. To do this, it finds the players in history most comparable according to position, height, weight, handedness, hitting tendencies, etc., and models the player in question according to the trajectory of their careers. Like any projection system, it is riddled with uncertainty, but over the years it has proven to be the most reliable system available and is thus accepted by most baseball statisticians as the go-to forecaster.

Simply put, PECOTA is not a fan of Jeter. The system likens his attributes to those of Jeff Conine, Stan Hack, Craig Biggio, Melvin Mora, Wade Boggs and a host of others who, on average, saw a steep decline after 36. Despite the fact that the projections were tabulated after Jeter’s fabulous 2009 season (when he was runner-up for the MVP) rather than his atrocious 2010 season, PECOTA projects a steep drop-off in production. When the wins he will be worth to the Yankees are converted into dollar amounts by a system known as MORP, PECOTA projects that Jeter will be worth $10.6 million in 2011, $6.7 million in 2012, $5.1 million in 2013, $3.4 million in 2014, $1.2 million in 2015 and will be minor-league material after that. They project the majority of this decline to be due to defense and health, with offensive averages tailing off gradually.

Of course, PECOTA is by no means the final word on a player’s future value. It’s entirely possible that Jeter plays at an MVP caliber level until he’s 42. That said, I’d be shocked if that were the case. Certain facts are unavoidable. Jeter is a 36-year-old shortstop who, at 6’2”, is far too large to play his position for more than a few more years. He is coming off the worst offensive season of his spectacular career. The most accurate projection out there estimates he’ll be worth just $22.4 million over the next four years and $27 million over the next six. Even after factoring in the additional revenue the Yankees can expect from his racking up milestones and finishing his career in pinstripes, it seems as if the three-year, $45 million contract offer the Yankees have extended is far more reasonable than the four-year, $96 million deal he is asking for. That said, only time will tell whether Jeter takes a dose of Cashman’s “reality potion.”

John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • River Tam

    > Indeed, most assume that a switch to first base or the outfield might be necessary to keep Jeter in the lineup.

    Is Derek Jeter’s bat even worth moving to first base or the outfield? At either position, Derek Jeter’s career numbers .314/.385/.452 don’t look so spectacular (certainly not first-ballot Hall of Fame-level). Swisher and Granderson are both better options in the outfield, Tex is much better at first, and the Yankees can certainly scrounge up someone better than Jeter at DH.

  • chasingutley

    I wonder what reality potion tastes like.