Fighting the Mendoza Line

Derek Jeter is a “.300 hitter,” let’s just make that clear. After going 12-for-48 (.250) in a brief stint with the Yankees as a 21-year-old in 1995, he hit .314, .291, .324, .349, .339, .311, .297 and .324 over the next eight seasons. He came into this year with a .317 career batting average in 1,212 games.

Jeter started this season with an 0-for-5 against the Devil Rays in Japan and his batting average was at its highest on April 18, 12 games into the season, when Jeter went 2-for-4 against the Red Sox to raise it to .260.

Immediately following that game, Jeter went 1 for his next 37 (.027), including an 0-for-32 dry spell that brought his batting average all the way down to .161. He broke the 0-fer with a leadoff home run against the A’s on April 29 and went 5-for-14 (.357) from April 29 to May 1. After a three-hit game against the Royals, a lot of people said, “Okay, Jeter is on track finally.”

Well, he wasn’t. He has gone 24-for-106 (.226) since then and on Wednesday night, after a three-hit game against the Orioles, his batting average cracked .200 for the first time since May 15. He followed that up with another three-hit game against Baltimore last night and 45 games, 199 at-bats and 218 plate appearances into the 2004 season, Derek Jeter is hitting .211.

A lof of people have been putting Jeter’s struggles this year under the “It’s still early” category, and I don’t blame them. I don’t see any other way — aside from Jeter hiding an injury — that would explain a dropoff in performance as drastic as this one. He’s still in his 20s, he isn’t suddenly striking out more than usual, and he doesn’t seem to have lost any of his physical skills.

At some point though, it’s just no longer that early. We’re coming up on 30% of the season being completed. For Jeter to get his batting average to .300 by the end of the year (in 625 at-bats), he would need to hit .343 for the rest of the season. To raise the average all the way to his .317 career average coming into this season, he would need to hit .366 from here on out.

All of which is a long way of saying that, yes, it is early, but it’s just not that early.

There is still time left in May and Jeter just might get on a roll this weekend and end the month hitting .230. As of this morning, he has hits in six of his last seven games and he is hitting .333 during that stretch. And, of course, he has back-to-back three-hit games. If he doesn’t continue to hit well this weekend though — if he’s still hovering around .200 when June begins — recent history won’t be on his side when it comes to ending the season with a lofty batting average.

For instance, last season just two everyday players — Royce Clayton (.186) and Brad Ausmus (.193) — ended May with a sub-.200 batting average. Clayton finished the season hitting .228 and Ausmus’ final batting average was just .229.

Of course, Brad Ausmus and Royce Clayton aren’t even in the same universe as Jeter when it comes to hitting. However, Pat Burrell and Paul Konerko are both good hitters who struggled mightily through May last year. Burrell was hitting .203 when June began and Konerko was at .206. Burrell finished the season batting .209 and Konerko ended up hitting .234.

In all, six everyday players ended May hitting below .210 last season. The highest batting average any of them finished the year with was Gary Matthews Jr.‘s .248.

Since the strike-shortened 1995 season, here are all the everyday players who finished May hitting below .210, along with their season-ending batting averages:

(Sorted by raw improvement)

                             JUNE1    FINAL
PLAYER              YEAR      AVG      AVG      +/-
Marvin Benard       2001     .199     .265     +.066
Kevin Stocker       1996     .191     .254     +.063
Quilvio Veras       1997     .205     .265     +.060
J.T. Snow           1998     .191     .248     +.057
Mark Lewis          1998     .194     .249     +.055
Michael Tucker      1996     .206     .260     +.054
Royce Clayton       2002     .198     .251     +.053
Gary DiSarcina      1996     .207     .256     +.049
Gary Matthews Jr.   2003     .204     .248     +.044
Royce Clayton       2003     .186     .228     +.042
Scott Brosius       1997     .163     .203     +.040
Bret Boone          1997     .184     .223     +.039
Alex Gonzalez       2000     .162     .200     +.038
Brad Ausmus         2003     .193     .229     +.036
Delino DeShields    2001     .204     .234     +.030
Paul Konerko        2003     .206     .234     +.028
Charles Johnson     1998     .193     .218     +.025
Greg Vaughn         2002     .140     .163     +.023
Carlos Garcia       1997     .198     .220     +.022
Jose Valentin       1998     .207     .224     +.017
Adrian Brown        2002     .200     .216     +.016
Derrek Lee          1999     .190     .206     +.016
Brady Anderson      2001     .188     .202     +.014
Jeromy Burnitz      2002     .201     .215     +.014
Omar Infante        2003     .208     .222     +.014
Lee Stevens         2002     .195     .204     +.009
Pat Burrell         2003     .203     .209     +.006
Mike Cameron        1998     .208     .210     +.002

No everyday player since the strike-shortened 1995 season who entered June hitting below .210 has gotten his batting average above .265 by season’s end. Only six of the 28 players got their season-ending batting average above .250, and 11 of them finished the year hitting below .220.

Now, there are obviously some things to mention here before we conclude that Jeter’s 2004 season is ruined already. For one thing, that’s a sample of just 28 batters over eight seasons, which isn’t particularly big. Still, that does show just how rare it is for an everyday player to finish May hitting as poorly as Jeter is in danger of doing.

Beyond that, the fact is that Jeter is a far better hitter for batting average than anyone on the above list. In fact, coming into this season, Jeter was a better hitter for batting average than all but five of the active players in baseball. Again though, that just shows how unique it is for someone as good as Jeter to be hitting this poorly this far into a season.

To find a sub-.210 hitter through May who ended up with a batting average in the “respectable” category, you need to go all the way back to 1993. Tony Fernandez hit just .197 through May, but turned things around to finish the year at .279. That same year, B.J. Surhoff hit .180 through May and ended the season hitting .274. Of course, even a .279 batting average would be 38 points below Jeter’s career mark coming into this season.

The last player to make a semi-serious run at .300 despite finishing May below .210 was B.J. Surhoff (again) in 1991. Surhoff hit .206 through May and still finished the year at .289. He hit .306 in July, .343 in August, .313 in September and .414 in October.

The amazing thing about these sub-.210 batting averages through May is that they often meant the end of a player’s days as a good hitter. Greg Vaughn, Delino DeShields, Brady Anderson, Lee Stevens — even going back to the early-90s you find guys like Jack Clark, Dave Parker and Howard Johnson — they were never the same after their sub-.210 starts.

That’s not to suggest that Jeter finishing this month at .209 is going to signal the end of his days as a good hitter, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It would seem as though this weekend is pretty important for Jeter. A few good games could put him past the Mendoza line for good and get him away from comparisons to the sub-.210 group. A couple of bad games though, and he’s right back to .200, and being a “.300 hitter” is going to be pretty damn tough this year.

Finally, just to see what Jeter is up against in his quest for .300, here are his post-May batting averages during his career (remember, he needs to hit .343 for the rest of the year to finish at .300):

1996     .335
1997     .302
1998     .322
1999     .339
2000     .351
2001     .310
2002     .293
2003     .325
-------------
TOTAL    .322

I’ll say this … if anyone can overcome this slow start and finish the year hitting .300, it’s Derek Jeter.

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