Derek Jeter is still a universally beloved Yankees icon, but he now has his share of detractors who appreciate his past and dread his future. He’s sparked more debate than any other Yankee this season, but he’s also provided the year’s most memorable moment.
The batting average is the exact same, but Jeter is hitting for less power and drawing fewer walks than he did last year. He’s remained in the leadoff spot at least partially because Brett Gardner has struggled in that role (and because Curtis Granderson has laid claim to the No. 2 spot in the order). Defensively, he seems roughly the same as last year, still without a ton of range, but as sure-handed as anyone. After a calf injury cost him the second half of June, Jeter returned as a significantly better hitter in the days leading up to the all-star break. He’s been driving the ball for the first time this year.
If the last week was a sign of things to come, then the Yankees are in good hands. It wasn’t only the 5-for-5 game on Saturday, even in the days leading up to that unforgettable performance, Jeter was hitting line drives for the first time this season. But the bulk of the year suggests last week was an outlier. It’s hard to expect him to return to his 2009 form, but he left some reason for hope heading into the second half.
Most of the shortstops in the Yankees system seem to be little more than role players – if that – at the Major League level. Walter Ibarra is having a nice year in Tampa, but this is also his third year at that level. Jose Pirela hasn’t done much in Trenton, and the Yankees know what they have in Ramiro Pena. That’s why there’s considerable focus on Staten Island, where last year’s first-round pick Cito Culver has been pretty good after a slow first week. He’s been outstanding against lefties – batting average around .500 against them – and the Yankees have no doubt that he can handle the position defensively.
Why is Jeter so good in the first inning?
It’s easy to understand why so many fans prefer Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot, but Jeter’s hitting .281 with a .342 on-base percentage as the Yankees leadoff hitter this season, and he’s been unusually good in the first inning. When leading off the game, Jeter is hitting .404/.475/.500. Is that a matter of experience? Is he better prepared for the game to begin than any starting pitcher he’s going to face? Is that a meaningless statistic?
Unless Culver flies through the system – which isn’t likely to happen – the Yankees have two shortstop options for the next few years. They can stick with Jeter, or they can find a new place for their iconic captain and hand the position to Eduardo Nunez. He’s not as polished as Jeter, but Nunez has shown why the Yankees like him. He can hit, he can run and he has a powerful – if erratic – arm. It remains to be seen how long Jeter can hold down the position, but the Yankees have an alternative in place.
Associated Press photo