Getting a jump on Derek Jeter
Three-thousand hits is a lot of hits by any standard. I feel pretty good about my 1,100 and by the time it is all said and done, Derek Jeter will have three times that number. At least
I didn't play against him as much as I did some of the stars in the NL East during the '90s and early 2000s, but I saw enough to understand how much of a force he was at the plate. Sure, he had an inside-out swing, which gave him a large margin for error to making "good enough" contact. Sure, he had the cool cucumber style, which made him impervious to pressure. True, he had a number of great hitters behind him and probably in front of him over the years. But what I found to be his most amazing attribute is that he is next to impossible to defend.
You hear about the dominant forces in basketball, like Michael Jordan's first step or Dirk Nowitzki's unblockable shot. Or how Andre Agassi's return of serve was so deadly that it was like he was the one serving. But the way Jeter swings makes him practically indefensible from the idea that you cannot anticipate where he is going to hit the ball.
As a center fielder, I was the captain of the outfield and I lived on anticipation. So I had to study the opposing hitters, the patterns of my pitcher, the weather, the environment, where the catcher was setting up. Based on all of these factors and more, I could get a good sense of where the ball was going to be hit.
For example, when Gary Sheffield was up, and he was up 2-0 in the count, and I see that my pitcher, Curt Schilling, was about the throw a fastball up and in, I could practically get a running start toward left-center field, knowing that Sheffield was probably going to pull the ball.
I learned this approach from my outfield coach and legend, Jimmy Piersall. He taught us that an outfielder needs to be in constant motion, that a good jump starts from planning. On every pitch, he expected us to be leaning or even taking a full running step to where we thought the ball was going. He even used to say, "If you have to dive for a ball in the outfield, it just means you got a bad jump!"
Over time, I got pretty good at my jumps.
Then with time, the knowledge came with the skill. I learned every hitter in the big leagues down to which hitter would be most likely to hit a screaming knuckleball into the outfield (see Todd Zeile, Chad Kreuter or Vladimir Guerrero). I could even tell you about pitcher patterns, like telling you when teammate Randy Wolf was going to throw a changeup or when he was about to throw over to first base.
After a while, it became a game within the game, one that I enjoyed. (And who wouldn't enjoy something when you knew what was about to happen.) I could get under the skin of hitters by stealing hits, playing shallow and getting a running start toward the wall. In one game against Alex Cora, I was so shallow that I could have touched the second base umpire. That turned out to be total overconfidence since he burned us all night by hitting balls in the gap, but I had to push the envelope to see if he started thinking about it. Mind games were part of it too.
Then Derek Jeter walked in the box. I knew he was a great hitter, and I understood that what made him great was his ability to spray the ball all over the field. That meant I would have to cover everything, and I would have to position my other outfielders in areas that gave them the best chance to run down a ball in any direction. In other words, I had to put them in the dreaded "middle." The middle is not good. It means you cannot predict much of anything, so you place yourself in some estimated place of wish. Then you get ready to run all night.
Remember, players also have spray charts just in case the on-field experience isn't enough. These charts tell you what you need to know. There is a big blotch of ink indicating where this guy hits everything. Most players have an area that is full of activity, telling you where to position the outfield. Not Jeter. His chart was as if a 2-year-old got hold of the spray paint and got happy with it.
Recently, ESPN research guru Mark Simon introduced me to BABIP (batting average on balls in play) -- and a light bulb went on. Jeter is second all time (.354) in batting average when he puts the ball in play (not including home runs). Defending Jeter is difficult partly because he sprays the ball around and makes it hard for defenders to cover a lot of ground and because, for some reason, when he hits the ball seemingly no one can catch it.
Derek Jeter is a master of disguise. Most hitters tip off where they are going to hit the ball. Sometimes, the tip comes from a pattern in a count or a pitch or a situation. Sometimes, it is just because he hits everything to a certain area or maybe you can see that he pulls open his shoulder when he is about to pull the ball. Jeter tips nothing. He could take any pitch on any count against any pitcher, in any situation and hit the ball you guessed it anywhere.
So what does that mean for an outfielder? It means that you cannot get a good jump on him. You are flat-footed, you lose a split second -- and that split second is a HUGE difference in a fly ball dropping and a fly ball being easily caught. It's HUGE enough to make him one of the toughest hitters ever to defend once he puts the ball in play.
And I am an outfielder. Imagine what he does to infielders who are a split second late. They may lose an arm.
Jeter is cool. He shoots Gatorade commercials, he dates supermodels, he has enough rings to lose circulation in his fingers, he gets 200 hits a year, he signs autographs, he gets 3,000 hits before he is 40 and yes, he is slowing down. I even feel I should apologize to him and his fans for writing about him in the past tense.
But behind this man of mystery is the fascinating reality that he is not a power hitter yet he still dominates a game like one. This is because this guy is practically impossible to defend. You cannot anticipate anything he is going to do; all you can do is hope that he hits the ball to you.
Jeter is the living example of why getting hits in baseball is so hard to do. He does just about everything possible to take the defense out of the equation when he makes contact. And even then, he still gets a hit only 35 percent of the time. Well, 3,000 hits later, I guess that was more than good enough.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville
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