July 8, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Chasing the Chase
It's not easy being Derek Jeter. Fresh off his 37th birthday, he is simultaneously on the precipice of making history—the first player to attain 3,000 hits as a Yankee, the 11th player to do so with a single team, and the 28th player to do so, period—and of being written off. Mere months after signing a three-year, $51 million deal (plus a player option) following a stretch of contentious negotiations, he is in the throes of the worst season of his 17-year career, his contract even more obviously an albatross than it appeared when he signed it. For a player who has always downplayed personal accomplishments in favor of team success, this is an uncomfortable time.
Since returning from a stint on the disabled list due to a calf strain earlier this week, six hits shy of 3,000, Jeter has been quizzed about nearly every at-bat, regardless of whether the Yankees have won or lost. A player who—at least in the public eye—has made a career-long mantra out of not looking too far ahead, has been routinely asked to look beyond the next day's game, the next series, to project himself onto the other side of his accomplishment. Take this exchange with YES Network's Kim Jones after Wednesday night's loss in Cleveland:
Do you look at the one [hit] you got today as taking some pressure off, because you do have the four-game set now to get the three [remaining hits to 3,000]?
There you go again, Kim [laughs, shakes head, rubs eyes, pauses]. I don't know how I should answer that question. You just try to have good at-bats, really. I was happy with my at-bats today…
Jeter's pursuit of hit number 3,000 has included insult as well as injury. After suffering a calf strain on June 13, he was reduced to bystander status while the team enjoyed its best stretch of the season, a 14-3 run that neutralized a similarly torrid stretch by the Red Sox to open the month and lifted the Yankees into first place. Rookie shortstop—did somebody say heir apparent?—Eduardo Nunez hit a sizzling .339/.381/.525 while filling in for Jeter, even bopping two home runs during that stretch to equal the Captain's season total. Meanwhile, Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher combined to hit .261/.385/.391 from the leadoff spot while the offense cranked out a robust 5.72 runs per game.
On another team, or on one with a less iconic player, such coincidences would signal high time for a changing of the guard. But the past winter's nasty negotiations aside—if general manager Brian Cashman telling Jeter to test the market after being offered $15 million per year for three years can indeed be read as nasty—the Yankees are stuck in deferential mode. Not only are they not going to bench a player with an eight-figure contract and a multiyear commitment, but manager Joe Girardi isn't even willing to mess with his batting order. "He has been our leadoff guy. We will see how he feels but, yeah," said Girardi two weeks ago, in what wasn't exactly the most articulate defense of the status quo ever uttered by a manager. He might as well have shrugged his shoulders and added, "It is what it is." He may have, although no journalist recorded such an utterance for posterity.
After a two-game rehab assignment for the Yankees' Double-A Trenton affiliate—one featuring the sight of the pinstriped legend wearing a garishly star-spangled uniform that drew mockery from Cashman—Jeter rejoined the Yankees in Cleveland on Monday. After an 0-for-4 showing in his return, he went 3-for-9 with a pair of doubles in the final two games, pushing him to 2,997 hits. Alas, the Yankees dropped two of those three contests, their first series loss since being swept by the Red Sox June 7-9.
Jeter came into Thursday's contest hitting .258/.322/.327 in 307 plate appearances for the season, runaway career lows in all three triple-slash categories. His preseason work with hitting coach Kevin Long has more or less been abandoned, and for the second year running he is the league leader in groundball rate, killing worms on 65.9 percent of his balls in play. His .252 True Average is last among Yankee regulars, far lower than Nunez's .270 (on a .278/.320/.435 line in 126 plate appearances). That .252 ranks a middle-of-the-pack 15th among the 28 shortstops with at least 200 plate appearances. Weighted down by below-average defense (-3.3 FRAA, though given sample sizes, such a number should be taken very lightly), he has accumulated just 0.3 WARP. Nunez, despite making an astounding nine errors in just 29 games, is only 0.6 runs below average afield and has been worth 0.5 WARP overall.
Yet for all of the handwringing leading up to the moment—including the ongoing, distracting question of whether he would get the hit at home—the 3,000th hit, whenever it lands, isn't about Derek Jeter circa 2011. It's about his entire body of work, a Cooperstown-worthy run that includes five world championships, seven pennants, 14 trips to the postseason (during which he's hit .309/.377/.472), 11 All-Star appearances, the 1996 Rookie of the Year award, three top-three finishes in the AL MVP voting, and a virtually unassailable reputation for professionalism—for showing up every day with his eye on the prize and withstanding the harsh glare of the spotlight in the game's largest market. When the fans stand and cheer the moment of that momentous hit, the ovation will be richly deserved in spite of Jeter's current struggles and controversies. Whatever the flaws in his game, he has given far, far more than he has taken as far as the Bronx crowd is concerned.
Yet, some do assail. Jeter's line also includes five Gold Gloves of admittedly dubious provenance given the avalanche of advanced data to the contrary, but then the Gold Gloves—Fielding Grammys, as I've long called them—have been a joke since at least 1999 when AL managers proved they weren't paying attention by awarding Rafael Palmeiro the trophy based upon 28 games played in the field. Beyond the advanced metrics and the hardware, Jeter's continued presence at short remains a sore spot among his detractors. For one thing, it was the defensively superior Alex Rodriguez who stepped aside to third base upon being traded to the Yankees; for another, there's no obvious landing spot once Jeter moves from shortstop, particularly with the offensive bars at other positions rising while his own performance flags.
With all that baggage in tow, Jeter stepped into the batter's box at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, the first time in over three weeks that he had played in front of the home crowd. Greeted by public address announcer Bob Sheppard's beyond-the-grave introduction as well as a warm ovation from the sellout crowd of 47,787, he came to bat in the bottom half of the first inning after the Rays had scratched out a run in the top half. He smoked a first-pitch double off Jeff Niemann, a pitcher against whom he'd gone 5-for-9 previously—a promising stat, but hardly a meaningful one. After the game, he would admit that collecting hit number 2,998 had him thinking this might be the night. "Probably," he responded later when asked if it was the first time he had consciously thought about the milestone in the middle of a game. "You think about it just because everywhere you go there's signs and people are mentioning it. It's still a ways away, but after that first one, I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't think it was attainable today."
Jeter was stranded at third base when the first inning ended, but he quickly got another opportunity, coming to bat with two on and runners on second and third in the second inning, with fans on their feet, cheering intently. Alas, he slapped a first-pitch grounder to Sean Rodriguez at third base (Evan Longoria was the night's DH) and was thrown out easily, stalling his quest and snuffing the Yankees' scoring threat.
By the time he got another opportunity, the Yankees' deficit had expanded from one run to five, the lineup unable to take advantage of the small openings Niemann had granted them while Yankees starter Bartolo Colon struggled. Darkness had fallen, intensifying the effect of the flashbulbs popping everywhere, but the crowd was raucous even with Yankees down 5-0 with one out in the fifth. After getting ahead 1-0, he ripped a sharp shot down the third base line. It looked like it might go through—even in the press box, some could be seen trying to apply some silent body English—but Rodriguez made a diving stop, then recovered just in time to throw him out. "That hurt my feelings a little bit," Jeter quipped afterwards. "They were joking on the bench that I hit two or three balls a year down the third base line, and he caught one of them."
When Jeter hit a routine grounder to shortstop to end the seventh inning, it was clear that the milestone would have to wait at least one more night barring extraordinary circumstances, namely a meltdown by a Rays bullpen which has closed out 40 out of 42 games when leading after seven innings. He would get one more chance to chip away at the mark, however. With two outs and a man on in the ninth inning, Brett Gardner swung at strike three, but Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth's cutter eluded catcher John Jaso and the ball squirted to the backstop as the fleet-footed batter reached safely. The Yankees were down 5-1, and while Jeter didn't represent the tying run, when Gardner took second on defensive indifference, a single would have cut the deficit in half while bringing Curtis Granderson to the plate to represent that run.
It was not to be. Though he battled Farnsworth to a 2-2 count, Jeter ultimately produced yet another soft grounder to Rodriguez, ending the game and leaving him two hits shy of the mark.
Jeter wasn't the only key Yankee to come off the disabled list in the past week; starting pitchers Phil Hughes and Colon returned as well, the former from a mysterious lack of arm strength which shelved him after three horrific starts in the first half of April, the latter from a hamstring strain that cost him just three weeks. Their returns gave the Yankees' rotation—which has performed surprisingly well thus far, ranking fifth in the league in ERA at 3.63—a facelift, with Hughes exiling Ivan Nova to the farm despite his recent good works, and Colon bumping Brian Gordon's feel-good story to the back burner in favor of resuming his own remarkable comeback, complete with cutting edge medical treatment. Hughes threw five innings of two-run ball against the Indians on Wednesday night, surviving a rocky first inning in which he was plagued by minor mechanical woes but showing much-improved velocity relative to his early-season stint. Colon, who had picked up right where he left off with six scoreless frames against the Mets on Saturday—his third scoreless outing in four turns dating back to his May 30 shutout of the A's—did not have his brand of magic on this night.
The burly 38-year-old comeback kid came into the night two-thirds of an inning shy of qualifying for AL top 10 rankings in strikeout rate (8.3 per nine), walk rate (1.9 per nine), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3), but his fastballs lacked the characteristic movement that made him such a revelation over the first two and a half months of the season, and he was beaten soundly. Eleven of the first 21 Rays hitters reached base over the first four innings with Ben Zobrist collecting a game-opening triple and coming around to score, then adding a third-inning solo homer to key an early cycle alert. Casey Kotchman—still persisting as the Rays' cleanup hitter and first baseman, hitting .345/.401/.466—and B.J. Upton teamed up with a double and a single to plate a third run. Tellingly, Colon threw first-pitch strikes to just 10 of those 21 hitters and walked four—more than he had allowed in his previous four starts combined—while striking out none.
Having labored through his 68 pitches, it was apparent to all that it just wasn't Colon's night. "He didn't seem to have the movement or the command, and he was up [in the strike zone] a little bit as well," said Girardi of Colon's outing afterwards. "That's a combination that you don't want to have. He just wasn't sharp tonight."
Were it not for double plays by the Yankees' defense in the first two innings, the damage would have been even greater, but even with Hector Noesi warming in the bullpen, Girardi sent his starter out for the fifth inning. Trouble ensued instantly via a single by Kotchman and a two-run homer down the left field line by Upton; the frame dropped the Yankees' win expectancy from 24 percent to 9 percent. Colon was still toiling with two outs and a man on in the fifth inning when Noesi finally came in and received a quick reprieve when Russell Martin threw out Zobrist trying to steal following a single.
Noesi wound up throwing the final 3.1 innings without allowing a run, yielding just three baserunners while striking out four, including Matt Joyce, Longoria, and Kotchman in succession in the ninth. Had he come in two innings earlier, when the score was still 3-0, he might have kept the Yankees in the game, but Girardi wasn't buying that line of questioning when asked by this reporter after the game if he had considered an early hook. "Bartolo's been so good for us. The fourth inning, he didn't give up any runs. He got through that inning," he said, looking beyond the fact that he had again allowed two runners to reach base and threw a lower percentage of strikes than in any other inning to that point (nine out of 17). "You'll fry your bullpen. You'll just fry it, and you can't do that. I have a lot of confidence in Bartolo and that he can turn it around. He's an experienced guy that's been through stuff like this, where they find it."
This reporter isn't buying that answer. Colon came in having delivered eight quality starts out of 11 this season, and in none of the other three was he as obviously off as he was on this night; the only other time he walked four hitters—leading to a season-high six runs surrendered—two of them were intentional passes that came amid an an overmanaged five-run sixth inning that spiraled out of control. In his lone disaster start (more runs than innings) on May 7 versus the Rangers, Colon surrendered five runs in two innings but pitched another two scoreless with a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As for Noesi, the rookie has demonstrated the ability to throw multiple innings out of the bullpen—no frying here—giving the Yankees at least three frames in three of his first four appearances. Of his nine runs allowed thus far, six of them came in one awful outing against the Reds; in the other 10, he has pitched to a 1.15 ERA.
Whatever Girardi's bullpen machinations, the Yankees offense still had to come through, and they did not on this night, as Niemann stifled them for 7.1 innings while allowing just six hits, two walks and one run via Robinson Cano homer. So it was that the Yankees fell shy of their mark just as Jeter fell shy of his. The loss, their third in four games since the shortstop's return, dropped them a half game back of the Red Sox in the AL East and pulled the plucky Rays to three-and-a-half back, still maintaining the league's third-best record and fourth-best run differential. History and victory would have to wait for another night, and it is only fitting that Jeter would want it that way.