Batting leadoff in our Pinch Hitters series is Ryna May, a professor of literature and philosophy at a college outside of Baltimore. Ryna grew up watching the Yankees with her grandfather. She still considers Don Mattingly her favorite player to watch, and says her favorite memories “are actually of listening to baseball games on the radio during those warm, Tennessee summer nights.” She says if she weren’t teaching students how to write about Hamlet, she’d probably be writing all about baseball.
This is Ryna’s first turn as a Pinch Hitter, and her topic is a big one: If necessary, is Derek Jeter ready to take on a smaller role? And in its own way, wouldn’t that be a perfect part of the Jeter persona?
In Derek We Trust
“I trusted him more than any other player I had managed. I trusted him to be prepared mentally and physically every day, and to prioritize winning above all else.”
– Joe Torre on Derek Jeter, 2011
July 1, 2004. Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees. All Yankee fans know this play. Trot Nixon hit a foul ball into the stands behind third base and Derek Jeter went face-first into the bleachers to make the catch. Not a playoff game, just a July game, but the Yankees went on to win 2-1 in 13 innings. Beyond the significance of the game (which actually wasn’t that important), that moment perfectly encapsulates what we have all come to believe and revere about Jeter.
He always gives himself up for the team.
Fast forward now to January 2014 — almost a decade later. First, you might wonder if Jeter still has the speed to make that catch. Next, given his recent injury history, you might want him to just let the ball drop into the stands.
Jeter is not the same player physically that he has been. Mentally, I think we all still believe in his toughness. It’s become harder, however, to believe in his defense. Stats aren’t everything, but they do mean something. The data is not kind to Jeter. His Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) was a bleak -7.8 in 2012 (according to Baseball Prospectus). So equated to other shortstops, Jeter is significantly below average. Compare that to the outstanding FRAA score of newly acquired center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury at 11.6, and you get a sense of what that stat means. Historically, 40-year old shortstops do not improve defensively. As much as I would like to believe it, it is doubtful that Jeter will defy those odds.
When healthy, Jeter is a great offensive shortstop. He may not ever be fully healthy again. The question this season will be: Where does Jeter bat in the lineup?
Jeter likes to lead off and has done that with some success in the past. But the Yankees just signed Ellsbury to be their leadoff hitter. Perhaps Jeter can bat second. Perhaps. But Baseball Reference has Jeter at No. 3 among active players grounding into double plays at 272. What difference does it make for Ellsbury to get on base if he consistently gets erased?
The three hole is a place for a guy with a combination of average and power. Jeter just doesn’t fit this profile. And since he is not a power hitter, he doesn’t fit well into the four or five spots either. Could Jeter bat sixth? Could his ego handle it? Think back to May of 2011. When dropped to the ninth spot for the first time in 12 years, Jorge Posada threw a tantrum and took himself out of the lineup. That is not the kind of leadership we had come to expect from our all-star catcher.
So what will Jeter, recovering from several difficult injuries, bring to the table in 2014? The Yankees hope he will be healthy and bring those magical intangibles — the preparation and mindset Torre spoke of — and one more thing above all: leadership.
It is easy to be a leader when things are going well. It is harder to be a leader when faced with real adversity. Time is the adversary now. Jeter has been the biggest star on the biggest stage since 1996, but he is what he is now: An older player. But if it really is about winning, if it really is about the team, Jeter needs to be willing to take a lesser role and like it. He has to show the other guys in the clubhouse that he is okay with it. If Jeter hits sixth and is out of the lineup a couple of days a week, everyone will be watching to see how he handles that.
Everyone is always watching Jeter. In a New York Newsday article by David Lennon, Russell Martin is quoted as saying, “If Derek Jeter does it, then you should do it, too… He’s so consistent, day in and day out, same personality, same guy, in his approach to the game and approach to people. That’s why he’s a good leader.” Jeter needs to display that consistency of attitude more than ever. The narrative about Jeter is all about leadership — always has been. He leads on the field. He comes up with big plays in big moments — remember “The Flip” against the Oakland A’s in the 2001 ALDS? I bet you do. He is a presence. Jeter exemplifies focus and competitiveness and claims not to be impressed with the image others have of him, saying to Men’s Health Magazine, “Character is who you are.” We are about to learn what kind of character Jeter is.
In my fan fantasy, I want to believe Jeter will come back healthy, play serviceable defense at shortstop, and knock about 200 hits. But we are all facing the dawning of a brave new world in the Yankee Universe. Jeter probably can’t play at that level anymore. But he might be more important to the Yankees this year than he has ever been. Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for the entire year. Mark Teixeira may or may not bounce back from injury and, frankly, several down years. Mo and Andy are retired. There are a lot of new faces who will have a lot to learn about The Yankee Way. We have to trust in Derek to do the right things. Be a teacher to the younger guys. Probably swallow some pride. Be the classy guy he’s always been.
No matter what happens, Jeter will still be the heart of this team, but this year Jeter will get to demonstrate the kind of leadership he has become so famous for — the guy you want to watch and emulate, a humble team-first guy, the guy with the same attitude day in and day out.
The real test will be if that is still true whether he’s hitting second or sixth.
Associated Press photos