Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jeter Rage

Jeter's final season has been one to forget (NewsDay)
Barring a ridiculously hot finish the New York Yankees, five games out of the second wild card with 21 to play, aren't going to make the playoffs this year. The irony is that Derek Jeter, a leader and key contributor on all the great Yankee teams of the last two decades, is a big reason why. Not the only reason, of course, because when a team fails to reach the postseason there's always a bunch of reasons, but a pretty big one. With his punchless bat and shoddy defense at a premium position, he's done more harm than good.

It should come as no surprise that Jeter allowed himself to become such a detriment for his team. Because for all the praise showered on his leadership abilities, he has never been one to demote himself. Like Joe DiMaggio, he has too much pride and cares deeply about his image.

This was evident when Jeter did not offer to change positions to accommodate Alex Rodriguez when the Yankees traded for him in 2004, even though everyone knew that A-Rod was superior defensively. Rodriguez graciously shifted to third, even though he'd just won two straight Gold Gloves and was among the game's slickest-fielding shortstops at the time. Jeter did not want to defer to Rodriguez, to admit he was the inferior shortstop, so he remained at the infield's glory position. The following offseason, when Bernie Williams was in decline and New York needed a center fielder, Jeter's name was brought up, but once again he stayed put.

Now, ten years later, Jeter is still entrenched at shortstop long past his expiration date. 40 year-olds aren't supposed to play short on a regular basis, especially when they were never that good there to begin with. Jeter's defense has been statuesque for awhile now, his already iffy range demolished by recent ankle injuries, rendering him too immobile to man the most important infield position. One need not look at his range factor--by far the worst of his career--to know that he's not getting to many balls hit his way.

This all could have been avoided before the season. When Rodriguez was suspended and Robinson Cano departed via free agency, two less challenging positions opened up. Jeter did not volunteer to fill them, leaving the Yankees to settle  for doomed-from-the-start alternatives Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts. Had Jeter volunteered to switch, New York could have at least found a quality shortstop replacement in Jhonny Peralta or even Stephen Drew, who remained a free agent until late May. Drew's been terrible this year as well, but five months ago he looked like a much better player than either Johnson or Roberts (Jeter too, for that matter).

Jeter's done even more harm with his bat, which has produced an empty .260/.308/.311 batting line thus far. Adjusted for league and park, his .618 OPS is 23 percent below average. Throw in his mediocre baserunning, and Jeter's offense has been worth 17 runs below average, or almost two wins.*

*Two wins might not sound like a big deal, but when you're in the playoff hunt at this stage in the season two wins can mean the difference between life and death. Credit New York with two wins and remove two losses, and suddenly they trail Seattle by just three games for the second wild card, and their playoff chances look much, much better.

That wouldn't be so bad if Jeter was hitting eighth or ninth, where his poor bat would be minimized and not really a liability compared to the production most teams are getting from the bottom of their order. But Jeter, as you know, is not buried at the bottom of New York's star-studded lineup. He's batting second--the most important spot in the lineup--because that's where he's always hit, and because Joe Girardi has too much respect for Jeter to move him down (even though Joe Torre had no problem batting Alex Rodriguez--a much much better hitter than Jeter--eighth in a playoff game).

And Jeter, being Jeter (passive), has not volunteered to hit lower in the order, even though the Yankees would be better served by batting just about anyone else second.  A table-setter with a league average OBP and no pop or speed is a problem, especially when he has the third-most plate appearances on the team (only Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have more).

When you have a flaw like Jeter or, more accurately, an offensive black hole, you're supposed to hide him, not expose him. Minimize your weaknesses and maximize your strengths, not the other way around. Jeter's 40 years old and is in his 20th big league season. He had to know he wasn't the same hitter he used to be, and that batting second was going to hurt the Yankees more than help them. He should have made it clear from the get-go: I'm going to try to play as much as I can and do what I can to help the team win, but realistically I'm limited and shouldn't be batting second.

Jeter did not do this. He did not do what was so clearly obvious for the best of the team. He left it up to the manager, knowing full well that Girardi would not have the gumption to slot the game's biggest icon and most popular player down in the order. Jeter was not proactive. He did not take the initiative. He wasn't, you know, a leader.

I take nothing away from Jeter as a ballplayer, because he's been a great one for many years. It just really makes my blood boil when people start going on and on about how what a great leader Jeter is and what great intangibles he has and how he's a winner. Great leaders know when to lead and when to defer to others, and in this regard Jeter has to be considered a failure. He is not the selfless saint that people make him out to be, and lately his teams have suffered as a result.

So when the playoffs start next month and New York is on the outside looking in, and fans and media are looking for someone to blame, they ought to point a finger at their beloved Captain.

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