He’s Not Quite Dead!

When Derek Jeter grounded out to end the ninth inning of the Yankees‘ 11-3 win in Baltimore last Tuesday, it was probably the low point of his season.

Oh, to be sure, his numbers had been worse. After a 32 at-bat hitless streak in April, his batting average had dropped to .161, his GPA to .160. But that was after only 87 ABs, when the numbers still barely mattered. If Jeter could hit the rest of the way like he had in 2003, he’d finish with a batting average over .300, and if not for the 0-for-32 slump, nobody would ever remember his April woes.

On May 25th Jeter had over twice as many ABs as he’d had when he broke his slide. His batting average was 28 points higher, but his prospects of turning it around were much lower. To finish at .300, he’d have to hit .341 the rest of the way, an average he hadn’t hit for in any season but his MVP-worthy 1999. .300 was a pipe dream, .270 seemed a more realistic goal. He’d only have to hit .300 to reach that.

Where had Jeter’s bat gone? Everyone was asking that question, and it seemed everyone had a theory. Was he injured? Had he suddenly collapsed like statistically similar players Travis Jackson, Vern Stephens, Joe Sewell and Bill Dahlen? Had Don Mattingly done something to him? Maybe Jeter’s approach at the plate had changed — he was striking out more and walking less.

What made this season especially ironic was that he had become almost the exact opposite of the player he had previously been. Jeter had been an outstanding offensive shortstop, one of the finest baserunners in the game, and a horrid defensive player. Now he was hitting .189, had only been successful on three of his five stolen base attempts, and was statistically having one of the best defensive seasons of any shortstop in baseball. Through Saturday’s games, Jeter ranked second in the AL and MLB in Defensive Win Shares, and second in the league (4th in baseball) in Zone Rating.

Maybe someone should have checked Jeter’s locker for a monkey’s paw.

Jeter collected three hits in five at-bats on Wednesday, doubling twice. It was his best game of the year, but he had garnered three hits on May 1st and 11th, too, but his average was still at .200. When he went 3-for-4 with two more doubles on Thursday, though, it seemed that maybe something was up. In nine at-bats, he had raised his batting average 22 points.

And then on Friday he went 3-for-5 with a double and a homer in Tampa Bay. Three consecutive three-hit performances, with six extra-base hits, and a couple of his outs hit hard, too. Jeter’s average stagnated around .220 over the weekend with back-to-back 1-for-5 outings, but on Tuesday, he finally delievered the coup de grace to his slump. 4-for-5, a double, and two home runs.

In seven days, six games, and 31 plate appearances, Derek Jeter had raised his batting average 44 points, his OPS 139 points, and his GPA 42 points. The totals still stand at a miserable .233, .667 and .224, but Jeter’s likely seen the last of .200 — even another 0-for-32 streak would only drop his average to .203.

In the past seven days, Jeter has had numbers that Barry Bonds would envy: .517/.548/1.034/1.582, a .505 GPA. While obviously a statistical aberration, those 31 plate appearances should be enough to put to rest all the questions about what’s wrong with Jeter. His overall numbers will still look terrible for the for the forseeable future, but those at-bats are past and done.

Also past and done are the events that have made Jeter’s defensive numbers look so good. It’s easy enough to dimiss those statistics as a sample size aberration, and it’s quite likely they are. But Jeter has, to the naked eye, appeared to have more range this season, and it’s possible the improvement is real and sustainable.

But why would Jeter, a terrible shortstop, have turned into a good one? He may not have. Perhaps Jeter has been positioned better this year than in years past, and consequently been able to get to the ball quicker. It could be the addition of more pronouced groundball pitchers Kevin Brown, Jon Lieber and Paul Quantrill, giving him more opportunities, and perhaps the addition of Alex Rodriguez has taken away some of the tougher opportunities to his right. Or, perhaps he’s actually gotten better for some reason. Whatever the reason for the improvement in numbers, if the circumstances that caused them don’t change, his work in the field will be just as valuable as if he himself had gotten better.

If that happens, and he continues to hit extremely well, Derek Jeter might well become for the rest of the season what his most myopic fans blindly claimed he was all along: the best shortstop in baseball.

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