Can October still belong to Derek Jeter?
Season-long struggles sent him back to the batting cage, raising hopes for a resurgence
It has been obvious for a while now that the 2010 regular season was not going to be one to remember for Derek Jeter.
Maybe it was too much to expect him to match his resurgent 2009 -- in which he hit .334, the fourth-highest batting average of his career, raised his on-base percentage to over .400 and posted 212 hits, just seven below the high-water mark he reached in 1999, when he had more hits than anyone in baseball.
But now that the regular season is over and Jeter has officially achieved career lows in just about every offensive category -- his final batting average, .270 is 44 points lower than his career average of .314, his OBP of .340 is not only the worst of his career as a regular but the lowest of any New York Yankees regular other than Curtis Granderson -- it is time to do what Jeter himself would do.
Namely, move on. To the next phase of the season, the next game, the next at-bat.
"One thing you understand when you play here is it's not how you start, it's how you finish," Jeter said last week. "Once you get to the playoffs nobody cares too much about what you did in the regular season."
The implication, of course, is that now that the weather has turned chilly and the games more important, Jeter's bat will heat up and production will improve. Just like it always has.
But is that still possible? At age 36, is Jeter still capable of the kind of postseason play he routinely accomplished 10 years ago -- or even last year, when he batted .343 overall and .407 in the World Series?
"Don't count Derek Jeter out in the month of September and the postseason," Joe Girardi has said repeatedly over the past month. "There's still a lot of good baseball left in him."
Ask the manager how he knows this and he responds, "Because I know him here," pointing to his head. "And because I know him here,'' tapping his chest with a closed fist."
But the unique qualities of head and heart that made Derek Jeter the player he has been for the past 15 years no longer seem to be enough to carry him through. He started this season as if 2010 was going to be 2009 redux, hitting .330 in April. But then came a steady and eventually precipitous decline: He hit .281 for the month of May; .243 for June; .245 for July and a ghastly .239 for August.
Even worse, he couldn't seem to drive the ball anymore, sometimes couldn't even seem to get it out of the infield. He hit ground balls at an alarming rate, more often than any player in the game, and his percentage of batted balls classified as line drives fell to the lowest level of his career. Advanced metrics, notably BABIP (batting average on balls put in play) pretty much eliminated the hope that he had been the victim of bad luck.
The harsh reality of it seemed to be that at 36, Jeter was beginning an inevitable and irreversible slide.
For a time there, Derek Jeter was as close to an automatic out as you could find in the Yankees' lineup, and often two outs; the 21 double plays he grounded into this year matches the second-highest single-season total of his career.
But he had a better September, supporting Girardi's admittedly emotional contention, and there is hope that his October will be one to remember, if not comparable to last year's or the 2000 World Series, when he hit .409 and single-handedly took the Mets out of the Series by belting the first pitch of Game 4 out of Shea Stadium just when the Mets were starting to believe they could get back into it.
And the reason is simple: Somewhere along the line this season, Derek Jeter came to recognize that he was having not only a bad stretch, but also a real problem at the plate. And that he needed help to get out of it.
And as many Yankees in the same spot have done over the past four years, he turned to hitting coach Kevin Long to provide the answers. They came together on Sept. 11 in Arlington, Texas, a "rest day'' for Jeter after his average had plunged to a season-low .260.
Of course, the situation had been festering for some time. "There were some concerns," Long said. "A lot of people were raising questions and wanted answers to, 'Is Derek done?'"
Long says the questions weren't coming from within the Yankees' organization, but they were out there and Jeter was aware of them. It was only a matter of time before he would have to seek help. "Derek's not the type to say so, but I knew there was something eating away at him that was saying, 'This is embarrassing, this isn't where I need to be, I'm better than this,'" Long said. "And rightfully so. Guys who are struggling are more apt to buy into [making changes], and he was at that point."
Long noticed Jeter's tendency to step toward home plate rather than toward the pitcher, to overstride and lose some of his momentum toward the ball, and to catch up to pitches with his hands too far back. The result was an inordinate number of ground balls.
"He wasn't going to go down without a fight,'' Long said, "And neither was I."
Long suggested Jeter try replacing his step toward the plate with a toe-tap of the type Albert Pujols uses, and to generate power through hip rotation rather than a stride. For a player who had gotten used to hitting a certain way -- and who may have felt the need to "cheat" to catch up with certain fastballs -- it was more than a minor adjustment and one that Jeter did not immediately take to.
"I just don't feel comfortable doing it,'' he told Long at their first session. Long asked him to give it a few days because, frankly, things couldn't get much worse than they already were.
The next night, Jeter returned to the lineup and smacked an RBI double off Cliff Lee to account for the Yankees' only run in a 3-1 loss. "To his credit, he was willing to do some things to get the monkey off his back, to be aggressive and try something new."
Jeter, who is normally loath to admit to any sort of problem, physical or mechanical, has been no different about this one.
"I made some adjustments," is all he would say in a recent pregame interview. "I don't really want to get into what kind of adjustments they were. It took me awhile to get comfortable with them, but you just do it and hope things work out."
Long said Jeter still occasionally slips back into the kinds of bad habits that brought him to where he was earlier this year, but after that Sept. 11 session, Jeter went 24-for-69 (.348), put together a 14-game hitting streak and raised his average eight points at a time in the season when gains are extremely hard to come by.
"There's still plenty of bat speed in there,'' Long said. "I can see him driving balls again. And he's still the kind of guy who can go 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and still believe that the fourth time up, he's going to get a hit. He's always been that way."
Long said he has discussed with Jeter his desire to work with him throughout this offseason, something Jeter has never done and something Long never saw a need for him to do until now.
"Most players slow down between ages 36 and 42, and at some point, it's going to happen to him, we all know that," Long said. "We're on the cusp of it now. But we're not there yet and it's my job to keep him performing at the level he's accustomed to for as long as possible."
As far as Yankees fans are concerned, they need Jeter to play at or close to that level at least through the next few weeks, if the Yankees are going to have any chance of repeating last year's playoff run.
The overall numbers say he is not the same hitter, and with the regular season over, nothing can ever change that.
But this is the time of year that has always been Jeter's time, and for reasons both emotional and practical, his manager and his hitting coach believe it can be again.
"I know his determination and his work ethic," Girardi said. "He's a smart player, and the law of averages says the guy is gonna hit. He's got 2,900 hits. And he's 36, not 45, you know. I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I wouldn't bet against him having a big postseason for us."