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May 6, 2011

On the Beat

Bronx Burnout

by John Perrotto

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Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera know Derek Jeter as well as anybody from a baseball perspective. They have seen the Yankees’ shortstop and captain win five World Series rings and become the most recognizable player in the sport. They have watched him turn into a legend with the most legendary franchise in professional sports. All three refuse to buy into the idea that Jeter might be at the end of the line, or at least rapidly approaching it. They say that Jeter's slow start this season, which comes on the heels of the worst season of his 17-year career, is nothing to be concerned about.

"Derek has always been the type of guy who thrives in the moment," Posada said. "He is the type of guy who rises to the occasion. He isn't off to a good start, but that just makes his resolve stronger to turn things around. I have no doubt he will because when you've been around Derek you realize that you just don't doubt him."

Rivera also looks at Jeter as almost a mythical figure.

"I've never been around anyone who has wanted to win and succeed more than Derek," Rivera said. "He'll get back on track. Nobody in this clubhouse doubts that Derek will wind up having a good year."

The numbers, though, suggest that there is plenty of reason to doubt whether Jeter can still be an effective player, let alone a premier one. He is hitting just .250/.308/.269 in 120 plate appearances. Jeter's advanced metrics are no better; he is below replacement level with -0.2 WARP, -1.6 VORP, and a .212 True Average. Last season, Jeter hit .270/.340/.369 with a .255 TAv and a career-low 1.2 WARP.

Jeter seems mired in more than just the decline phase of his career, which isn’t unusual for a player who turns 37 next month; it looks like he’s in a freefall. Yet Girardi says he has no plans to drop Jeter from batting leadoff and believes it's only a matter of time until his bat comes alive.

"We're only one month into the season, so you're only talking about one-sixth of the at-bats he is going to get this season," Girardi said. "I don't think you can fairly judge anybody on just one-sixth of the season."

Jeter's early-season struggles have been analyzed and dissected from all angles by the New York media. Girardi believes that has made Jeter's slow start seem worse. Girardi also disputes the argument in sabermetric circles that Jeter's struggles are stemming in large part from his inability to lift the ball. Jeter led the major leagues with a 65.7 ground-ball percentage last season, and that figure has risen to 71.6 this year. Last year, Jeter’s line-drive percentage sat at 16.1 percent, but it has slipped to 11.6 percent; his career percentage is 20.0

"The thing about Derek is, because we're in New York and last year was the first down year of his career, people are going to speculate that he's done," Girardi said. "People talk about him hitting a lot of ground balls, but if you're not hitting the ball out of the park, you don't want to hit the ball in the air. You want to hit line drives and ground balls."

Jeter has yet to hit the ball out of the park this season. In fact, he hasn't hit many balls out of the infield; he has a 12.5 infield-fly percentage and an 11.8 infield-hit percentage.

Girardi is a logical enough guy, as he holds a degree in engineering from Northwestern. However, like Posada and Rivera, he professes to believe Jeter still has something left because he isn't like most humans. Of course, what else can he say after the Yankees re-signed Jeter to a three-year, $51 million contract in free agency last December following negations that became quite public, against Jeter's wishes, and contentious?

"He's going to continue to perform, I believe, at a high level because of his determination," Girardi said. "He wills himself to succeed. If there is a challenge, he meets it head-on and goes about it the right way."

Jeter shrugs off his struggles and says he believes he has indentified his problem as not using his legs enough in his swing. Jeter and Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long worked during the offseason to eliminate the leg kick in his swing, but Jeter went back to the leg kick early in the season. A scout from an American League team who sees Jeter play frequently believes it is imperative that he takes Long's advice and gets his swing moving sooner.

"Derek has always been a free swinger but his bat used to be so quick that he could catch up to any pitch," the scout said. "He's getting older now and his reflexes aren't the same, which is just a matter of Father Time catching up with him, like anyone else who gets into their late 30s. He needs to get to the ball quicker in his swing now to be able to make solid contact, and he's struggling with that. He can still hit the fastball but he doesn't drive it anymore because he's late on it. He's going to have to make the adjustment because you're not to be a productive major-league hitter if you don't hit the fastball."

While opponents have found Jeter's weakness, they still respect the player despite his recent lack of production.

"He's Derek Jeter," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "No, he's not a 19-year-old kid anymore, he's older. But I'll tell you one thing: When he comes up to the plate, you know he is still capable of hurting you. We'll never take facing Derek Jeter for granted."

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Rumors and Rumblings: Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino admits in the new book Shane Victorino: The Flyin' Hawaiian, written by Alan Maimon, that he has struggled with ADD throughout his career. … The Rangers believe Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin, signed to a five-year, $15 million contract this week, is so advanced that he could push center fielder Julio Borbon out in the second half of the season. … Nationals pinch-hitter deluxe Matt Stairs says, at 43, he is leaning toward retirement at the end of this season and wants to get into managing. … The White Sox are giving serious consideration to going with a six-man rotation when Jake Peavy (lat) returns from the disabled list, which should happen next week. … The Cubs could call up veteran left-hander Doug Davis, currently at High-A Daytona, as early as next week to fill one of the holes in the back end of their rotation. … After being held in connection with the shooting death of his cousin in the Dominican Republic on New Year's Eve, Orioles right-hander Alfredo Simon started for Double-A Bowie on Thursday in his first official appearance of the season. The Orioles plan to give Simon two weeks in the minors before deciding whether to promote him to the major-league club, outright his contract and try to pass him through waivers to send him to the minor leagues, or release him.

Mark Melancon will get a shot to close for the Astros now that Brandon Lyon (shoulder) is on the disabled list. … Mariners closer David Aardsma, who has been out all season while recovering from hip surgery, suffered a setback when he felt forearm tightness on his rehab assignment at Triple-A Tacoma. However, he is likely to be activated from the disabled list sometime next week, and right-handed reliever Shawn Kelley (elbow) is likely to join Aardsma the following week. … Now that Bobby Jenks (biceps) and Dan Wheeler (calf) are on the disabled list, Matt Albers moves up in the pecking order in the Red Sox' bullpen. He will join Daniel Bard as the top set-up men for closer Jonathan Papelbon. … Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes is likely to be out at least until the end of June as he tries to build strength in his mysterious "dead arm." … There is an outside chance that Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (knee) could begin playing in extended spring training games by the end of next week. … The Athletics are giving Andy LaRoche the opportunity to take the starting third baseman's job away from Kevin Kouzmanoff.

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Scouts' views:

Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus: "He's been shaky in the field and, for me, defense is his calling card. He has made some bad errors early in the season. He looks like he's not concentrating, like he's distracted by something."

Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum: "He's a lot stronger than in the past. He's still a little guy, but he's bulked up some. He's holding his velocity late in games and not wearing down. They can take him to 120 pitches now and not worry."

Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano: "I wouldn't get too excited about him turning things around after that no-hitter. It had to be the least dominating no-hitter ever. He was behind in the count to everyone and there were a lot of hard-hit balls. He's not out of the woods yet, by any means."

Athletics designated hitter Hideki Matsui: "I think the ballpark in Oakland has gotten into his head. He's finding out that he can hit a ball about as good as he can hit it and it still might not go out. It's a tough part for a guy whose game is predicated on power."

 Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak: "He's swinging the bat better than I've ever seen him. He is just crushing fastballs and he's getting better against off-speed stuff. He's really turning the corner and I think he's going to be a very productive middle-of-the-order hitter." 

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Derek Jeter,  The Who

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