Time for Honesty About the Great Derek Jeter

My father used to clip columns from a popular New York sportswriter named Jimmy Cannon that, in his old age, he enjoyed reading to me. His favorites were about heroes of his youth who were now at their crossroads.  They all had leads which read something like this:  “You’re Robin Roberts, and though it works for you no longer, you’re still trying to win with the style that once brought you glory …”  Or “You’re Stan Musial, and you’re 39, and you still look like The Man at the plate, but now they challenge you with fastballs …” 

If Cannon were around today, he’d have a good subject in Derek Jeter.  Though the New York press and Yankee fandom don’t seem to realize it, Jeter has been on a sharp decline over the last couple of seasons, and 2009 is going to determine a lot about how the next generations of fans remember him.  Thirty-four—he’ll be 35 in June—isn’t old for a bottle of wine or even a first baseman, but it’s like dog years for a shortstop, and right now Jeter is acting like an old dog refusing to learn new tricks.

He just finished the World Baseball Classic hitting .276 and without an RBI or stolen base. If the starting assignment has been based on merit, Jeter would have sat out every game and watched Jimmy Rollins play. Jeter’s devotion to the WBC is admirable, but the truth is if he weren’t one of the most popular players in the history of the Yankees—and I don’t take that lightly since he’s been my daughter’s and my favorite player for the last 13 seasons—he wouldn’t be shortstop right now. I don’t know who would be, but Derek Jeter would be playing another position.

Let’s go ahead and say it: No major league team has ever won a pennant with a 35-year-old shortstop.

This will be Jeter’s 14th season (not counting 1995, when he only played 15 games), and judging from the blogs and radio call-in shows, Yankee fans are assuming that he is a walking Hall of Famer, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true.  If he pulled a Thurmon Munson, I think he’d get in.  His credentials are pretty good.   In 1,985 games, he has a batting average of .316, and that’s always the first thing they look at. He has 206 home runs, a very good total for a middle infielder, and has been in double figures every season since 1996, when he got the starting job. He’s driven in more than 100 runs only once (1999 with 102), but batters who hit first or second in the order aren’t expected to have 100 RBI seasons: they’re expected to score runs, and Jeter has had more than 100 runs scored in 11 of 12 seasons, from 1996 through 2007, missing the mark just once, in 2003 when he played only 119 games (a full season would have projected him to at least 110).

Last year there was an ominous note—he scored just 88 runs, the first time in his career when he played as many as 150 games and didn’t score 100. 

Jeter has been one of the best base runners of his era—some would say the best.  Mets fans are quick to point out that Jose Reyes has more stolen bases in six seasons, 290, than Jeter, 275, for his entire career.  But the comparison isn’t meaningful. Reyes steals on impulse, whereas Jeter runs almost exclusively in situations where a stolen base is meaningful. Reyes’s success rate has been 80 percent in 755 games. Through 2006, by which time he had played 1679 games, Jeter’s success rate was also 80 percent; it’s over the last two years, when injuries and age have taken their toll, that Derek’s been easier to throw out (a combined 26 steals to 13 caught). By the time Reyes has reached his 30s, his career stolen base percentage will likely dip below 80 percent.

Then there’s fielding.  Despite the sensational jump-and-throws that make the postgame highlights and winning three Gold Gloves from 2004-2006, Jeter has never been an especially good fielder.  Up to the last two seasons, this hasn’t made that much difference—the point is that he has always been able to hit and run well enough to play shortstop, even when his fielding has been mediocre.   But now, after two seasons in which his range factor—total chances per nine innings—vs. the league’s average has been bad, his fielding has become very important. 

If Jeter can no longer field well enough to play shortstop, where exactly can he play? There’s been talk of moving him into left field if only because it’s the easiest defensive position of the eight. But left fielders are expected to hit. If you can’t produce say, 25 home runs and drive in 90-100 runs, you probably shouldn’t be in left field. Is there anyone out there who seriously thinks that Derek Jeter can still produce those kinds of numbers?

Others have suggested that the Yankees try him in center field, but if his 35-year-old legs aren’t good enough to cover the ground at shortstop, how are they going to carry him in center field?

There apparently aren’t many out there with me on this, but I’m all for dumping Robinson Cano, who had a considerably lower on-base average than Jeter last year (.305-.363) and who, though he’s just 25, hits with no more power.  A move to second base would hide the decline of Jeter’s range in the field if only because new first baseman Mark Teixeira and whoever replaces Jeter at shortstop will cover more of what he can’t. (And anyone the Yankees play at shortstop is likely to have more range than Jeter does now.)

I know, there are all kinds of objections to this, starting with Robbie Cano’s “potential.” But in three full seasons starting with the Yankees, Cano has an OBA of just .323, and I don’t see any an indication that he’s ever going to get any better. Right now the Yankees could get something for him. If they wait till summer and he’s still hitting around .200, like he was last year, they’re stuck with a lousy player who has no trade value.

The other major objection to moving Jeter to second—namely, who will play shortstop—is beside the point.  In another season the Yankees are going to have to make a change anyway.

I think, in defiance of most Yankee fans, a good 2009 season is critical to Derek’s Hall of Fame chances. His batting average and stolen base percentage and power numbers (for a shortstop) are impressive, and the 2,535 career hits look great for a guy who has only batted a little more than 8,000 times.  And, of course, he has four World Series rings. That’s the argument for.

Unfortunately, for sportswriters outside New York, Jeter may need a bit more. Most baseball analysts I know agree that Jeter should or could have won MVP awards in 1998, 1999 and 2006.  That he didn’t probably reflects the rest of the country’s resentment that New York players receive so much national attention (or at any rate, are said to). But he didn’t win, and that may ultimately be used as an argument against him when it comes time for the HOF vote. In fact, though he’s placed high in several important categories, the only eye-opening statistics he’s ever led the league in are runs scored (1998) and hits (1999).  Given the swiftness with which he seems to be slipping—he hit .343 in 2006, .322 in 2007, and .300 last year—it’s not likely he’s going to be leading the league in anything important from here on in.

Derek Jeter has always been the epitome of a gamer, the Yankees’ symbol of a guy who comes through with the game on the line—in short, not Alex Rodriguez. But since 2000, including the last five years when he played alongside of A-Rod, Jeter hasn’t propelled his team to any titles. Yankee fans owe him a lot, but it’s doubtful they owe him a free pass for his refusal to sit while recovering from injuries and for refusing to voluntarily give up his position, which he is no longer capable of playing at an All-Star caliber.

The unpleasant fact that everyone is going to have to start facing up to very soon is that it is Derek Jeter, and not Alex Rodriguez, who could be the albatross hanging around the Yankees’ neck.

  Time for Honesty About the Great Derek Jeter