Commentary

Yanks need to let The Captain lead off

Who should Joe pencil in atop the Bombers' batting order? Derek Jeter, that's who

Updated: January 26, 2011, 5:10 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

In just more than five weeks, the New York Yankees will hold their first full-squad workout of spring training. And between now and Feb. 14, the day that pitchers and catchers report to George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, ESPNNewYork.com will tackle five big questions facing the Yankees as they head into the 2011 season.

The first question concerns the first name Joe Girardi should write on his lineup card for the season opener against the Detroit Tigers on Thursday afternoon, March 31, at Yankee Stadium.

Should it be Derek Jeter, who led off 137 of the 157 games he played in 2010 and 284 of the 310 games he appeared in over the past two seasons?

Or Brett Gardner, the speedball who seems to be everything a manager could want in a leadoff hitter and everything Jeter once was?

In one sense, the choice may seem easy. Everything about Brett Gardner says leadoff hitter. He is faster than Jeter, a more patient hitter who last year, at least, hit more line drives and fewer ground balls than Jeter, and is less likely to erase baserunners and create outs. He grounded into a fraction of the double plays Jeter did, six as opposed to 22. He reached base more often than Jeter did, walked more often and, once he was on the basepaths, stole nearly three times as many bases.

Despite the fact that he has little or no power, every Gardner at-bat is a double waiting to happen because of his ability to draw a walk and steal a base.

By contrast, after a brilliant 2009 season in which he hit .334, Jeter looked slow and old in 2010, too often a liability in the lineup and a drag on the bases. And if what your eyes told you wasn't enough, his numbers reflected his play and reinforced your perceptions.

His batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.340), slugging percentage (.370) and OPS (.710) all represented career lows since he became an everyday player in 1996. He struck out more often than he had since 2005, and grounded into the second-most double plays of his career.

Perhaps most ominously, a whopping 65.7 percent of his batted balls last year were grounders, the highest percentage of his career. Just 16 percent were line drives, a career low. Clearly, there was a loss of bat speed along with a loss of foot speed, two occurrences that are only natural in a player who has passed his 36th birthday.

And yet, ask ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine to give you an example of an ideal leadoff hitter and this is what he says: "The guy who led off Game 4 of the 2000 World Series. That was a great leadoff hitter."

That guy, of course, was Derek Jeter, and Valentine, standing on the top step of the home dugout, had the best view of anyone in Shea Stadium as Jeter single-handedly informed the Mets that while they might have won Game 3, they weren't winning the series.

Jeter hit the first pitch he saw from Bobby Jones out of the ballpark and snatched back whatever momentum the Mets thought they had grabbed with their victory the night before. A day later, Jeter homered again and the Series was over, and guess who was named the Series MVP?

Of course, that was 11 years ago and it is nuts to think Jeter has many of those kinds of series, or even games, left in him.

But it reminds you that sometimes numbers don't tell the whole story. Sometimes, they even lie.

And it persuades you that despite his struggles last year and the inescapable fact that he will be 37 before the next All-Star break, Derek Jeter deserves another shot at leading off the game, and the season, for the Yankees, until proven otherwise.

At 27 years old, there will be plenty more chances for Gardner to lead off games for the Yankees, a role he has performed exceptionally well in extremely limited duty (17-40, a .425 BA and .521 OBP).

Now that the rancorous contract negotiations are behind Jeter and the Yankees, and Jeter will be here for at least the next three seasons (he has a player option for a fourth), the only prudent way to go is to keep Jeter where he has been for the past two years and where he has seemed especially comfortable for much of his career. Jeter's lifetime batting average is .313 as a leadoff hitter -- .350 as the first batter of the game -- and his career OBP .385.

True, he has hit for higher numbers in other spots in the lineup, notably .339 when batting third, but he's never been a No. 3 hitter and he certainly isn't on this team. (He's also hit .326 as a No. 9 hitter, which is where he may eventually wind up.)

But right now, the top of the order is probably the best place to keep Jeter, not only because he has historically done well there -- even in 2010, he hit .283 batting first, 13 points higher than his final average -- but because with his propensity for ground balls, you don't want to hit him second. He's not a heart-of-the-batting-order type hitter, and you certainly can't insult him by dropping him to ninth, behind Curtis Granderson and Russell Martin, who hit .247 and .248 respectively last year.

No, the leadoff spot is where Jeter still belongs unless he hits his way out of it. Girardi can't go into 2011 thinking he's going to see the Jeter of 2010. He's got to go in hoping to see a player closer to what Valentine saw in 2000, or what the Yankees saw in 2009.

Gardner is a very good player with the potential to get significantly better. As small as he may appear alongside some of the behemoths who play the modern game, at 185 pounds he is heavier than either Hank Aaron or Willie Mays were in their primes, and he is strong enough to hit for a bit more power than he's shown so far.

And his speed adds a dimension to his game that makes him dangerous anywhere in the lineup. At some point, that may be leading off games for the New York Yankees.

But we're not at that point yet. Joe Girardi's first decision of the spring should be whose name to write at the top of his lineup card.

And it shouldn't be that hard a decision after all.

In 15 seasons, Derek Jeter has given the Yankees plenty of second chances and fresh starts, not just the one he gave them in Game 4 of the 2000 World Series.

This year, it's the Yankees' turn to give him one back.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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