Flash back to last Thursday night at Yankee Stadium. In a year that had already been improbable, the impossible happened. (Yeah, I know.) Derek Jeter, in his final game at Yankee Stadium, with the crowd chanting his name in four beats, singled through the right side in the bottom of the ninth inning to plate pinch runner Antoan Richardson and give the Yankees a walk-off 6-5 win. Captain Clutch came through one last time in front of the home crowd. It was one of those baseball moments that make you tingle. It’s one of those reasons I love the game. It was … staged?
I suppose that right after Orioles first baseman Steve Pearce hit a home run into the left-field seats to tie the game in the top of the ninth and people looked down at their scorecards and saw that it would mean De-rek Je-ter would get one more at-bat in pinstripes and would hit third in the order, the script was written in everyone’s head. Jeter would have one more chance to come through on his special night. And maybe, just maybe, he could be the hero. Could life work out so perfectly?
Spoiler alert if that one’s still in the DVR queue: Jeter came up and the night ended with a bunch of people pinching themselves and asking if that really just happened. Yes it did. And shortly after that, the conspiracy theories started. (The second link, by the way contains statistical “analysis” that would have gotten a C+ in my intro stats classes.) About 20 minutes earlier, the game looked destined to end in a 5-2 win for the Yankees. Closer David Robertson was on the mound in relief after eight innings of two-run pitching by Hiroki Kuroda. Robertson uncharacteristically gave up two home runs to the Orioles. And after a Jose Pirela single and a Brett Gardner bunt, Evan Meek threw one pitch to Jeter, who poked it into right field for the decisive base hit.
Did Meek groove the pitch? After all, it was an amazing feel-good moment for MLB, especially in the New York media market, which will not be represented in the forthcoming playoffs. Maybe someone pulled Meek aside. Or he did it of his own accord? It was all an elaborate plot to make sure that Jeter got to be the hero on his night with everyone watching.
Like most conspiracy theories, it sounds plausible until you look at the actual evidence.
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Let’s start with the obvious. Why on earth would Evan Meek groove a pitch to Derek Jeter? The Orioles, at the time, were two-and-a-half games behind the Angels for the best record in the American League. (The Angels were idle on Thursday night.) A win would pull the Orioles to within two games with three to play and perhaps win them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Orioles didn’t have great odds of catching the Angels, but it was still something to play for. The Orioles certainly didn’t send a spring training lineup out that night and the Yankees, recognizing that the game had meaning, played in the spirit of honor and sent out a strong nine on their side. Joe Girardi deployed his closer to protect a three-run lead even though the Yankees had nothing on the line in the standings. Evan Meek might have been a fan of Jeter’s growing up, but he had other priorities.
On top of that, by the time Jeter came to the plate in the ninth, he had already doubled in a run and reached on an error (two runs scored on that one), and it’s not like his legacy was hanging on what happened in this game either. Still, if someone wanted to manufacture a moment worth taping on your VCR (a little 1996 reference in honor of Jeter’s career), this would be it. I guess.
Backing up a bit, if there was a conspirator in this business, it might have been Joe Girardi. After Pirela’s single (and Richardson’s announcement as the pinch runner), Girardi ordered Brett Gardner to bunt Richardson to second. It worked. I’m not as anti-bunt as many of my sabermetric friends, but this was a head-scratcher from an objective perspective. Why take the bat out of the hands of the guy who led your regulars in OPS (yes, Gardner) to let Jeter hit? Girardi has some plausible deniability here. He could simply say that it was the bottom of the ninth, he needed only one run, there was a runner on first with no out, and his best bunter was at the plate. It’s not silly to bunt there. Even still, if Girardi was trying to help write the script, it was a script where the Yankees won. And that is his job.
Most of the conspiracy theories have focused on the one and only pitch Meek threw to Jeter. It was clocked at 87 mph, and Meek’s fastball generally sits in the low 90s. (Apparently people have not heard of pitch types other than “fastball.”) Plus, the ball was out over the plate and, well, Jeter singled on it. Did Meek leave it there for Jeter to hit? According to Meek, it was a cutter that he tried to throw outside and low. A look at his card at Brooks Baseball shows that against right-handed hitters, Meek likes to go there a lot on the first pitch.
Jeter hits right-handed and Meek probably knew that Jeter had made most of his solid contact in 2014 by going the other way. He would probably be looking to do that here. He might ground to second, but he would move the runner to third in the process. Meek could have tried to jam him inside, or he could bait the hook and give Jeter something that looked like a pitch he could slap to right, but that would in actuality move out of the way. Meek went with the latter strategy. In fact, Meek threw five pitches in that inning. Three of them were the cutter, and three days earlier, Meek had faced Jeter and threw him at least one similar cutter.
Go back and watch the actual pitch Meek threw. Watch Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph set up lower than where Jeter made contact. Meek usually gets four to five inches of movement on his cutter. Had he executed the pitch like he normally did, Jeter might have swung over the ball or perhaps pounded it into the ground or poked it foul. The problem was that Meek only got three inches of break and a tiny bit too much of the plate. It wasn’t an awful pitch, but it gave Jeter enough room to make decent contact and do what he came to the plate to do. The ball found a hole. Sometimes you get the bear. Sometimes you get what the bear left in the woods.
If Meek is guilty of anything, it’s that he threw a cutter that didn’t cut it and a veteran hitter took advantage. It happens. The pitch Meek threw was not a meatball. It was a reasonable approach to Jeter. And it didn’t work.
I get that there are people who were annoyed by the Farewell Tour™. I get that there are people who find the adulation Jeter got a little much. Maybe some folks just don’t like the Yankees. (If the fans at Fenway can do the De-rek Je-ter chant, I think it’s okay to maybe just appreciate a guy who had a really long and really good career.) And yeah, the ending was a little too perfect. But once in a while, the stars align, and even though it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, it sure is fun to watch when it happens.
To buy into the conspiracy theory, you might have to buy that David Robertson gave up two home runs on purpose to get Jeter an extra at-bat. And that it was to two guys who hit 20 homers had nothing to do with it. You’d have to buy that Girardi made decisions with potential Jeter heroics in mind. (Plausible, but even if it’s true, it’s not much of a conspiracy.) You’d also have to believe the Orioles were content with being just a decoration for a party the Yankees were throwing, rather than honestly concerned about their own real potential opportunities.
Can we just nip this one in the bud?
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