10 Degrees: Jeter a ground hog
Now that the terror alert in Boston has been downgraded and the Red Sox cataclysm has passed, the rest of the baseball world can return to more important things. Like wondering when the New York Yankees are going to bury Derek Jeter(notes) at the bottom of their lineup, where at this point he unquestionably belongs.
This is coming, of course. The Yankees won’t do it yet. Looks too panicky, and they already spent their diss capital during their offseason disparaging Jeter in the media. Reality is, though, Jeter has no business hitting first or second in the Yankees’ mega-lineup, not when he’s busy earning a new nickname: 4-3ter.
Groundouts to the second baseman have become Jeter’s go-to plate appearance. Whether via the strideless stance he adopted this offseason or the traditional one he reverted to a few days back, Jeter has become an expert at the meager tapper to second base. He had two more in the Yankees’ 4-0 loss to Boston on Sunday night, bringing his season total to seven. Of the 29 balls Jeter has put into play this season, 23 have dribbled along the ground. Jeter is playing basketball with a baseball bat.
Of the six hits Jeter has managed this season, three have come in the infield, three more on groundballs that skated into the outfield and a lonely line drive that is yearning for company. It may not get much.
Jeter is 36. He has chosen to age naturally. Juxtaposed with Manny Ramirez(notes), who ended his career this week rather than accept a 100-game suspension for trying to lengthen it with performance-enhancing drugs, Jeter looks like a moral paragon and a physical runt. His body is betraying him, and he wouldn’t have abandoned his new swing this quickly if that thought hadn’t crept into his head.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he wants to give Jeter more than 100 at-bats before assessing him. That’s enough to assuage any sample-size fears. The rest of New York’s lineup can compensate. And perhaps sometime in the next month Jeter can find what has, for the last year-plus now, eluded him.
More likely is facing the fact that this decline is real and worthy of concern: for Jeter, who must live with his failings; for ownership, which still owes him $51 million for this year and two after it; and for a team that can’t fall back on its bad-hitting shortstop’s defensive bona fides because there aren’t any of those either.
With all of the faux fright from the first week out of the way, this week’s 10 Degrees are players whose bad starts deserve varying degrees of panic, starting with …
1. Derek Jeter, who has been so bad his new walkup music should be the beep from the Emergency Broadcasting System. Pitchers are acutely aware of Jeter’s shortcomings and pitching him accordingly. Jeter didn’t see one breaking pitch against the Red Sox on Sunday. On a night when Josh Beckett’s(notes) curveball and changeup were deadly, he threw Jeter 12 fastballs – six straight and six cutters. Jonathan Papelbon’s(notes) one pitch to Jeter, a 95-mph fastball, induced a groundout to second.
Jeter looked most incapacitated during his fourth-inning at-bat, when Beckett blew a cutter by him. Jeter didn’t attempt a swing so much as he moved his bat in the general direction of the ball, his wrists late and limp. As filthy as Beckett was Sunday night, nobody looked the fool like Jeter did on that high-and-away cutter.
Even more bothersome are the grounders. They’ve poisoned Jeter’s game. Two years ago, he had one of the best seasons of his career, and 57 percent of his balls in play were grounders. In 2010, that number spiked to 65.7 percent, and though this season is young, he’s on the cusp of 80 percent, behind only Joe Mauer(notes). And yet Jeter isn’t even the most vexing Yankee, not when …
2. Phil Hughes(notes) can’t get his fastball over 89 mph. Hughes, remember, was supposed to be the other stable piece of the Yankees’ rotation alongside CC Sabathia(notes). Though his velocity drop is not alarming – late in spring training, scouts were warning of it – it is disconcerting.
No power pitcher wants to get by on subpar stuff, and Hughes’ attempts to do so have resulting in shellackings by Detroit and Boston. He’s throwing his fastball about as hard as he did his cutter last season, and because it’s such a meatball, he’s using it less than 50 percent of the time. Getting the large share of the work is his cutter, which is 4 mph off from last year, an even better treat for hitters.
Hughes insists he isn’t hurt. The Yankees agree. He’s starting Wednesday against Baltimore, where both parties hope he’s following a path he has trod: build up velocity early in the season instead of spring training like most pitchers. Fastball drop-offs are fashionable among those experiencing early-season struggles, from Hughes to …
3. Francisco Liriano(notes) and his disappeared-once, reappeared-again, disappearing-once-more fastball. Liriano arrived throwing 94 mph. He blew out his elbow and threw 91 for two years. Last year, suddenly, he was back to 94. And now, after a scare with his shoulder during spring training, Liriano is throwing again in the low 90s.
Which, for a left-hander, isn’t awful. Trouble is, he’s doing so with no command, and the hallmarks of Liriano last season – a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and minuscule home run rate – were MIA in his first two starts. Over 9 1/3 innings, Liriano struck out eight, walked eight and allowed two home runs. The Twins are in last place thanks, in part, to Liriano’s struggles, and he should be thankful he’s not getting the …
4. John Lackey(notes) treatment, which includes the occasional boo, the frequent mock and the perpetual lament that a guy who, in 35 starts with the Red Sox, has a 5.23 ERA was somehow given a five-year, $82.5 million contract of which he’s got roughly four years to fulfill.
Lackey’s fastball has gotten beaten so badly since joining Boston that it’s considering filing battery charges against him. Left-handers particularly hammer him, a problem compounded by a changeup that’s little more than a show-me pitch. He’s not throwing first-pitch strikes and not striking out anybody. And if not for …
5. Brian Wilson(notes), who has the worst ERA in all of baseball, Lackey and his 15.58 would be even closer to the bottom. Wilson is sitting at 33.75, and that’s actually an improvement from his first outing returning from a strained oblique.
Wilson is still throwing plenty hard with 95-mph life on his fastball. It’s just how few he’s throwing that’s the odd takeaway from his two-game return. Nearly two-thirds of Wilson’s pitches have been cutters, an exorbitant number for anybody not named Mariano Rivera(notes). The cutter is a Wilson weapon. He ended the World Series by blowing one past Nelson Cruz(notes). Still, the fastball is the meat to his cutter’s potatoes, and, really, who gorges on potatoes when it’s not Thanksgiving?
If his side is still bothering him and preventing him from throwing fastballs more often, it’s an issue for the Giants. Oblique injuries are menaces; they recur more often than any. And San Francisco’s troubles multiply without a productive Wilson nearly as much as …
6. St. Louis’ get exponentially worse when Albert Pujols(notes) is in a funk. Of the 211 players with at least 3.1 plate appearances per game, Pujols ranks 197th in batting average (.143), 192nd in on-base percentage (.225) and 189th in slugging percentage (.229). It was supposed to get better after his 0-for-5-with-three-double-plays opening day. It hasn’t.
And, accordingly, the Cardinals are 3-6, Tony La Russa is getting mad that people dare question his team’s awful start, Colby Rasmus(notes) is losing games by dropping fly balls and, with Adam Wainwright(notes) out for the year and Ryan Franklin(notes) a closer in title only and Ryan Theriot(notes) trying to commit an error a game, it’s fair to ask how all of this affects Pujols and his future. Tough to tell now. The only certainty of this early funk: He looked a lot better Sunday on “60 Minutes” than he has the first 10 days swinging the bat, though …
7. Dan Johnson(notes) has made Pujols look Ruthian by comparison. Certainly the funniest occurrence of the early season is seeing Johnson’s .088/.139/.206 line penciled in daily in the Tampa Bay Rays’ cleanup spot.
The Rays are really bad right now. In nine games, they’ve scored 20 runs; nine of those came in their lone victory, and five of them in that win’s final inning, and, all right, three of those from a Johnson home run. The other games, they’ve put up 1, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1, 2 and 1. Yes, Evan Longoria(notes) has all of five at-bats this year and has been on the DL with an oblique injury. Yes, Manny decamped 17 pathetic at-bats into the season.
Still, Dan Johnson?
It’s gotta be the name, because …
8. Dan Uggla(notes) can’t hit right now. Thirty-four at-bats into his career with the Atlanta Braves, Uggla is stuck hitting .158 with two RBIs, both from solo home runs. He’s not walking nearly as much as usual, though he’s not striking out close to as much. If anyone’s start is being skewed by a small sample size, it may be Uggla’s.
Production is production, though, and he’s looking like the antithesis of the $62 million the Braves locked up for five years this offseason. Already a sketchy deal because of his age (31) and his defensive capabilities at second base (diminishing), the slow introduction to Atlanta hasn’t helped. Hey, he could be …
9. Vernon Wells(notes), hitting .100 on the dot for his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, who haven’t seen an extra-base hit from him since his second at-bat of the season. Only Michael Cuddyer(notes) has a worse slugging percentage than Wells’ .125. Remember his blazing start last season, with a .345 batting average and .931 slugging percentage in the first eight games last year? Yeah. Not quite this year.
Wells is perhaps the biggest indictment against Angels general manager Tony Reagins, a case that was baseball criminal from the jump. How the Angels could possibly believe a 32-year-old left fielder with his best years behind him was worth $81 million for the next four seasons required an amazing amount of creative thinking. Because only in Middle-earth and Narnia is that deal explicable.
It’s even more egregious than giving …
10. Derek Jeter a $51 million deal because the Yankees needed to pay bring back the Captain. There was too much bad public relations at stake to let him go, and while almost nowhere else should P.R. come into play with on-field moves, the rules are different in New York, and they are different with Derek Jeter.
Even if his offense continues to consist of dinks and dunks and death-by-paper-cut, Jeter will reach 3,000 hits sometime this season as long as he stays healthy. He’s 67 short now, and those appearances at the top of a lineup card only give him more chances to reach the milestone and start the celebration. Putting him at the bottom of the lineup would hinder that pursuit.
Preferential treatment is self-defeating, though, and Girardi, GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees brain trust cannot continue to sacrifice victories for the ego of one man, no matter how important. Were Brett Gardner(notes) not off to a disastrous start as well, it would make this choice so much easier: hit Gardner first, an on-base threat (Nick Swisher(notes)? Russell Martin(notes)? Robinson Cano(notes) even?) second, Mark Teixeira(notes) third, Alex Rodriguez(notes) fourth, Cano fifth (if not second), Jorge Posada(notes) sixth, Martin/Swisher seventh, Curtis Granderson(notes) eighth and Jeter ninth. If he starts hitting, move him back up.
It shouldn’t be difficult. It is, and not because Jeter is, too – he’d go along with it because he goes along with everything – but because of the hubbub it would cause from others. It’s another distraction, and the Yankees learned a long time ago that such a thing in New York is best avoided when possible.
So for the foreseeable future, at the top of the Yankees’ lineup will be 4-3ter, swinging his bat like a lumberjack, chopping the objective into the ground and cursing the aging process, the one thing that could turn Derek Jeter from myth to man.