Commentary

Simply stated, Derek Jeter can hit

Nearing knock No. 3,000, The Captain's genius lies in his uncomplicated approach

Updated: June 15, 2011, 8:16 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Ted Williams wrote a book on hitting that hitters consult to this day. Tony Gwynn was a disciple of Williams who frequently met with the Red Sox legend to pick his brain on the subject. Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Alex Rodriguez -- they all treat hitting like a science project, endlessly dissecting this, probing that, pinning back layer after layer of their at-bats for closer inspection, then chewing over what they noticed in a sort of ever-changing dialogue between themselves and the game.

But Derek Jeter, who is just a handful of hits from reaching 3,000? Have you ever heard him rattle on about his hitting philosophy?

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter's simple approach to hitting has him on the verge of Yankees history.

"You know, I think this year in spring training was the first time you ever heard about him talk about hitting," says Paul O'Neill, the former Yankees outfielder and current team broadcaster who played with Jeter from 1995 to 2001.

"I'm pretty sure he's one of those 'See the ball, hit the ball hitters,'" says Yankees ace CC Sabathia.

Jeter, shrugging and smiling almost apologetically now, says, "That's exactly what my approach is: See the ball, hit the ball. I try not to cloud my brain with too much else."

It seems almost funny but completely in character for Jeter.

Only 27 players in major league history have reached 3,000 hits. Think about that for a second: Only 27 ever. ("I know -- it's mind-blowing to me," O'Neill says, nodding.) Getting 3,000 hits is about as rare as blasting 500 home runs (25 players have done that) or a pitcher joining the 300-win Club (only 24, with no newcomers in sight).

Of course, one enormous difference between now and when Williams or even Gwynn was playing is the information and analysis that players and coaches have now at their fingertips. Hitters can watch video of their swing, or matchups, against a pitcher as the game is going on. They are given detailed breakdowns that capture every situational or hot/cold zone tendency imaginable. If they have a hunch about something, there's probably an algorithm to prove it out.

Yet Jeter isn't into much of that stuff, either.

"I'm not guessing [what the pitcher will throw next], I don't look at too much video," he says. "I think a lot of times people can overthink things. I don't. I think sometimes a lot of guys get themselves out. I just try to keep things as simple as possible. ... You can't take in too much information. At least, I can't. Some of these guys do it -- they guess at pitches and situations and things like that. I'm not like that. I'm not good enough [at mind reading] to do it."

Jeter has often said, "I don't really have a problem with confidence." And, if you think about it, Jeter's insistence on solely trusting his instincts looks one of the more colossal, yet unappreciated, acts of arrogance in a career characterized by humility.

Having such a pared-down hitting approach doesn't make Jeter unique -- "There are more guys like that than you'd think," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long stresses. But few players with that approach have milked it for greater results than Jeter has on his way to 3,000.

"What that says to me is you have to be really talented to hit the way he does," O'Neill says. "And you have to have a great deal of faith in yourself that doesn't change. He goes up and battles and just loves to compete at the plate against the pitcher. It's a one-on-one thing. And he loves to play the game. But you don't get into the true mechanics talks like you do with guys like Boggs or Mattingly. He just goes up and hits it and runs and looks forward to his next turn, you know? It's kinda the Little League aspect of it. He's not thinking about what he's doing."

But wait, Jeter doesn't talk pitch tendencies on the bench?

"Him? Nah, naaaah, no -- nothing like that," O'Neill says, laughing. "He never gave pitchers credit, which I always agreed with him about and which I love, by the way. It's always, 'I got myself out' or this or that.

"He used to love to know about velocity. He wouldn't talk about much how a guy's specifically pitching. That's not what he does."

In the spring, Jeter worked with Long to change some of his hitting mechanics. And the fact that Jeter ditched the new "no-stride" approach when he was hovering around .200 in mid-May got a lot of attention. But really, the attempt -- a rare concession to age -- was more surprising. It was so ... un-Jeter.

[+] EnlargePaul O'Neill
US PresswireFormer Yankees teammate Paul O'Neill says Jeter doesn't discuss pitcher tendencies during a game.

"It just didn't work for me," Jeter said this week, smiling at some needling he was getting about it from Nomar Garciaparra about not coming to the source (Garciaparra himself) of the no-stride stance.

"You try to make different adjustments, but I just really wasn't comfortable with it," Jeter added. "I had to get back to what I was doing before. And that took a little while to readjust. But I feel pretty good right now."

Long, who recently published a book called "Cage Rat" about the science of hitting and his career in the game, says that when he first joined the Yankees as hitting coach in 2005, he used to sit down with his hitters in the advance meetings before the start of each series to review the scouting reports. He'd review things to the nth detail.

Not anymore.

"We try to keep it simple here now as a team, and to tell you the truth, a lot of that is because of Derek," Long says. "There's so much information available now that, to be honest, I was probably overloading them with information before. I was telling them what every guy will throw in this situation or that, which way his slider breaks, on and on. Derek finally said to me, 'Hey, you know, if you could just tell us maybe two or three things about a guy, it might be more helpful.'"

Long listened. He says now even A-Rod, the consummate information nut, is bending toward a less-is-more approach.

All of this is not to say Jeter doesn't work hard to groove his hitting stroke or adjust his in-game approach. He does both. He might dig in his foot in the batter's box in a slightly different place, depending on what a pitcher is throwing, just to give him more time to see the ball or let the ball travel through the strike zone toward him. He's famous for his inside-out swing, which enables him to drive the ball to the opposite field. ("I used to love it when he was hitting to right-center field, because that's when I knew he was at his best," O'Neill says.)

Sabathia -- whom Jeter hit .500 against before they were teammates -- says Jeter's ability to both turn on the ball or shoot it the other way, combined with his lack of a pattern at the plate, makes him tough to pitch to. The lefty says Jeter is not necessarily a low-ball hitter, a junk-ball hitter or a guy who always works the count -- although he can coax a walk to extend a rally.

"I always found him pretty aggressive at the plate -- not the kind of guy you want to just try to lay a first-pitch strike in there against to start an at-bat, because he'll jump on it and hurt you," Sabathia says.

The stats agree.

Long confesses that he still wishes Jeter would walk more. But before finally whiffing in the third inning Saturday against Cleveland, Jeter hadn't struck out in his previous 66 at-bats.

Long says Jeter's marathon, 15-pitch at-bat to lead off a June 3 game against Jered Weaver and the Los Angeles Angels was such a mesmerizing dogfight, both dugouts were shouting when it was over.

Jeter fouled off an extraordinarily high total of 10 straight pitches before flying out to center. He and Weaver exchanged amused looks as Jeter jogged back to the dugout.

"I was like, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" Weaver said later. "But he is who he is. And he's a battler."

Jeter said he couldn't remember ever having a longer at-bat.

Jeter, now 36 years old, has always hit the ball on the ground a lot, even as a younger man. The tendency has just gotten more pronounced as he's gotten older.

But Jeter is justifiably proud, 16 years into his career, that his faith in himself to simply see the ball, and hit the ball, never seriously wavered.

Even Jeter -- the king of Never Too High, Never Too Low -- admits that becoming the first man to reach 3,000 hits in a Yankees uniform is a very big deal.

As Jeter explained it to Garciaparra, "Every year, I think, numbers go up and down. Home run leaders might be different, the runs scored leaders may be different. But it always seems like there's only a few guys that get 200 hits a year. That's pretty difficult to do. And you have to do that for 15 years to get 3,000 hits. So I think it represents longevity. But more importantly, consistency.

"You have to be consistent to get close to those numbers."

Simple as that.

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