Derek Jeter faces physical cliff

Now that the nation has narrowly avoided going over the fiscal cliff, it is time to ponder a much more important question:

Can Derek Jeter somehow avoid going over the physical cliff in 2013?

By just about any yardstick, Jeter had an outstanding 2012 season, batting .316, his highest average since 2009. His on-base percentage of .362 was third-best among Yankees regulars, trailing just a superstar in his prime (Robinson Cano) and a player who specializes in OBP (Nick Swisher). At 38, Jeter was remarkably durable (159 games and an MLB-leading 740 plate appearances). His power numbers were up: 15 home runs and a .429 slugging average, virtually the same as Alex Rodriguez's.

He even won the Silver Slugger, with the highest batting average -- by 20 points -- of any shortstop in baseball. Remarkably, in his 17th major league season, the oldest everyday shortstop in the game was, in many ways, the best.

Which leads us to the inevitable question: Can he do it again this season? Or even come close?

It's a valid question, considering Jeter's age (he will turn 39 on June 26) and physical condition (after hobbling on a bone bruise for the last month of the regular season, he suffered a fractured ankle in the first game of the ALCS that required surgery and kept him off his feet for much of the offseason).

Jeter and the Yankees insist that he will be ready, willing and able to answer the bell when it rings on April 1 for the season opener against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, and even a casual observer of Jeter's career should know that to bet against him being ready to play is a fine way to part company with your money.

But which Jeter will we see?

The ground-ball machine who seemed to be off-balance on every swing and behind every fastball in 2010 and very much near the end of his rope?

Or the Derek Jeter who was rejuvenated midway through the 2011 season, who only needed two hits for No. 3,000 back on July 9 but went 5-for-5 instead, and didn't look back?

"In the second half of that season, he just took off," said Yankees GM Brian Cashman. "He's been a well above average hitter ever since."

Jeter has looked like a different hitter since that day, but is it truly realistic, or fair, to expect he will be able to pick up in 2013 where he left off in 2012?

On that subject, the verdict is decidedly mixed.

"I gotta believe he can," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said. "He was really, really good last year and going off that, even if he does drop off, it's not going to be very much."

"What can you expect from him this year? The same kind of performance you've always seen from him," said Casey Close, Jeter's long-time agent. "This is certainly not a guy at the end of his run."

But stats guru Bill James, projecting Jeter's numbers for next year, has his batting average falling off 18 points, to .298, and his slugging percentage dropping nearly 30, to .400, while his OBP remains steady at about .359.

And Dan Szymborski, of ZiPs projections, sees an even steeper drop, to .277/.334/.369. "That's definitely not a good Jeter year, but it's at least serviceable," Szymborksi said in an email. "It comes out right at the level of his 2010 season."

That season, of course, was the worst of Jeter's career as a full-time major leaguer. It was the season that started the whispers that Jeter's career was in its victory lap, and in many ways fueled the rancorous contract negotiations that followed that winter.

And even in spite of his bounceback season, one Yankees insider who requested anonymity said he regarded Jeter's 2012 season as "an outlier."

"My gut says he will revert (to 2010)," said the insider.

The reason for the skepticism is that in several key ways, 2012 was an unusual year for Jeter. He posted his highest line-drive percentage (21.6 percent) since 2006 and the second-highest HR-to-fly ball percentage of his entire career -- 16.7 percent of the balls he hit into the air left the ballpark, or one out of every six, a rate he surpassed only in 2005.

And his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a measure of how likely a player was to get a hit on a batted ball excluding home runs, was .347, more than 50 points higher than his team's, or the American League's, average.

An unusually high BABIP is sometimes seen as an indicator that a hitter had a fluky year and is likely to regress, the same way an unusually low BABIP can indicate a hitter was the victim of bad luck and would likely improve. The Yankees used Nick Swisher's low BABIP (.249) as a reason to discount his career-worst .219 batting average for the Chicago White Sox in 2008, and were rewarded by getting him cheaply and getting four mostly good seasons out of him.

Jeter's BABIP in 2012 was the highest of any shortstop in major league baseball, indicating he either hit the ball very well, or in very good luck.

"I think there's something to be said for that, and you should factor it in," Long said. "But I look at more than BABIP, and what I see tells me he had a very good year."

Long said he keeps a chart of what he calls "hard-hit balls," i.e. balls hit on or near the sweet spot of the bat that he considers well-hit regardless of whether they are line drives, grounders, home runs or double plays.

According to Long, 49 percent of Jeter's batted balls were hard-hit, second only to Cano's 53 percent.

"There weren't a lot of cheap hits for Derek last year," Long said. "His bat speed was back, his strike-zone discipline was good. He didn't swing and miss a lot.'

Long acknowledged that in 2010, it often looked like "his bat speed's gone, but then suddenly last year, he's catching up to everything.

"Sometimes you just can't explain it," he said.

One explanation Long came up with is that Jeter got off to a strong start in 2012 -- as late as May 4, he was hitting .404 -- and never really let up all season.

"So much of this game is confidence, even for a Derek Jeter," Long said. "I think it was just a matter of getting back to what he had done his whole career and reminding himself that he could still be as good as he had always been."

In other words, Jeter has always done well because he believed he was going to do well, and has always believed he would do well because he's always done well.

Long also doesn't discount the possibility that Jeter's competitive nature, stirred up by the doubts following his 2010 season and rekindled when he felt he was being treated unfairly by the Yankees in the contract negotiations, drove him to have an outstanding season last year.

"All of that had to weigh on him, and probably had some effect on his performance, good and bad," he said. "But he took all of the criticism and said, basically, 'Now what do you all have to say?'"

Close, on the other hand, doesn't see it that way. "Derek is not a guy that typically presses," he said. "He looks at himself as a completely different kind of player. He doesn't need any extra motivation."

The agent sees 2010 as Jeter's "outlier" year, the one that simply doesn't belong. "It started badly and it just became what it became," he said.

Aside from Jeter's age, there is another wild card thrown into the mix this year -- the broken ankle, his first major injury since Opening Day 2003, an injury he still has yet to run on, and which will result in him having a shorter-than-normal (read: fewer game at-bats) spring training than he normally would.

"He had his fair share of at-bats and innings played last year," Close said. "It would not make any real difference."

Long, too believes the injury will not affect Jeter's mechanics at the plate. "If it was his back (right) foot, I'd be more concerned, because he'd have to rotate on it and push off it," he said. "But since it's his front foot, it shouldn't bother him at all."

No one knows for sure what 2013 holds for Derek Jeter or the Yankees, but everyone can agree on one thing: Jeter is human, and human beings eventually break down.

"At some point, a career ends for everybody," Close said. "But Derek is a very positive person and there's nothing he thinks he can't do."

"He had a good year last year, but that can't last forever and the odds definitely favor him being a tad slower even before the ankle injury," Szymborski said. "There's only so much even a smart player like Jeter can do to compensate for losing bat and leg speed as time marches on. Late 30s stars tend to decline quickly. At his age, there's a lot of cliff potential."

The Yankees have to hope that the physical cliff Derek Jeter is facing this year can be avoided, at least one more time.