Making amends to productive players we doubted
This is my 4-3a culpa.
I was the nincompoop who started calling you 4-3ter when you couldn’t stop grounding out to second base.
I was the schlemiel who said your walkup music should be the beep from the Emergency Broadcasting System.
I was the dolt who in mid-April figured your decline steep, in May and June felt like he was ahead of the curve and today – well, today I’m here to say I was wrong.
Because even if luck is playing a decent hand in your seven-week-long tear and you’re due for a regression soon, it’s obvious you’re not done.
Now, you’re not the Derek Jeter of your prime. Nor should you be at age 37. Just because the Yankees pay you like an elite shortstop doesn’t mean that’s the standard to which you ought be held. Considering the dearth at the position, you are plenty adequate, which I promise is no backhanded compliment. If I were trying for that, I might compare you to Yuniesky Betancourt(notes).
Since the All-Star break, you’ve swung the bat better than Yuni – not to mention Asdrubal Cabrera(notes), Yunel Escobar(notes), Starlin Castro(notes), J.J. Hardy(notes), Jhonny Peralta(notes), Jimmy Rollins(notes). Every shortstop except Troy Tulowitzki(notes) and Cliff Pennington(notes). Your line-drive rate of late hovers near 30 percent, and while you’re still as grounded as an electrical circuit, at least you’re hitting the ball with more authority.
You need to, of course, because your defense remains subpar. Ultimate Zone Rating says you’re about average. Defensive Runs Saved says you’re abysmal. The truth is somewhere in between, enough to justify keeping you in place to begin next season, when Paul Olden will take to the public-address system and introduce …
1. Derek Jeter as the New York Yankees’ shortstop for the 17th consecutive season. It’s a remarkable number for any everyday player to stick at one position, let alone one in the middle of the diamond, and in one uniform no less. It’s why Jeter’s miserable first three months were such a big deal: Every athlete falters, and it never gets any easier to witness it unfold in plain sight.
Fact: Jeter’s contract would’ve kept him in next year’s lineup. His bat is now giving the Yankees ample reason to believe he can stay atop the order, too. Jeter’s .344/.401/.444 line since the All-Star break recalls his prime, though a .397 average on balls in play during the time does indicate not all of this is skill, that he didn’t one day wake up and remember how to hit.
Still, it’s been fun watching Jeter rediscover himself. Ten of his last 14 games have been of the multi-hit variety. Only three regular shortstops – Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes(notes) and Escobar – have higher on-base percentages this year than his .358. His season is beginning, in many ways, to resemble 2008, which he finished hitting .300/.363/.408. Today, he’s at .299/.358/.389.
And in 2009, remember, Jeter had arguably the second-best season of his career. Which isn’t to say that in 2012 he’ll put up numbers anything like …
2. Troy Tulowitzki should in his age-27 season. Tulo is on one of those jags of his where he’s among the toughest outs in the game. In August, he’s hitting .387/.459/.731, and ever since a wretched May, his on-base percentage ranks 10th in baseball and his slugging percentage third, behind only Albert Pujols(notes) and Carlos Gonzalez(notes).
And it is because of Gonzalez, really, that I owe Tulowitzki an apology. When he signed his monster contract extension this offseason, I criticized him for staying with a Colorado Rockies franchise that, because of its financial inflexibility, would struggle to surround his big-money deal with other top-notch players. Turns out I was wrong. Signing CarGo, who’s still just 25, to a seven-year, $80 million deal ensured two MVP-caliber players in a Rockies uniform for more than a half-decade, a baseball eternity.
While the Rockies have struggled this season, their foundation – from the young players to the cache of young pitching they got in the Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) deal to the solidarity among its executives – remains strong. Tulowitzki is at the core, just like I figured …
3. Jason Heyward(notes) would be with the Atlanta Braves. And, um, hmmm. Might as well say it: Until recently, Jose Constanza(notes), a slap-hitting career journeyman, had been playing instead of him.
Criticize Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez all you will. His managerial style is often akin to a GPS that gives wrong directions. That said, Heyward has been injured often and ineffective when he isn’t. His swing, scouts say, is all sorts of catawampus, and the promise they see in his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame disappears with each out-of-whack at-bat.
All of this is to say: Sorry for pegging Heyward to win the National League MVP this year. Yikes. My only defense is that preseason award picks are almost never right, for who could’ve seen …
For those who base their choices off Wins Above Replacement – a faulty method, I think, because defensive metrics have proven eminently fallible and yet play such a big role in WAR – the choice is Jose Bautista(notes), who’s more than a half-run better than any other player in all derivations of the statistic.
For those who prefer a player on a contender, Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Dustin Pedroia(notes) and Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) may split the Boston vote. Texas offers no standout candidate. The Yankees have Curtis Granderson(notes), who’s got momentum but lacks the name-brand factor toward which voters tend to gravitate. And it’s easy to argue Detroit catcher Alex Avila(notes) (.304/.392/.532) is every bit as compelling a candidate as his teammate, Miguel Cabrera(notes) (.324/.430/.550), because of the positional difference.
And for those willing to look past the Eastern Seaboard and focus on Detroit, it’s easy to argue that Verlander has meant more to the Tigers than Avila or Cabrera. WAR says so as does the eyeball test. Take Avila or Cabrera out of the lineup and the Tigers still are among the better-hitting teams in the league. Take Verlander out of the Tigers’ rotation and they’re a middling team.
Whatever the voters do, may I extend my deepest regrets to Verlander for not including him on a list of aces earlier this year. At the time, an editor asked why. I argued his results never matched his stuff. They hadn’t. Verlander admitted as much to me a few weeks ago.
But players evolve. He has. His pitch sequencing, his approach, his preparation – all of those have taken his stuff and kicked it into overdrive. It’s as much a marvel to watch him pitch as it is to see …
5. Miguel Cabrera hit a baseball. Cabrera is the heir to Manny Ramirez’s(notes) swinging savantism. Cabrera does things with a bat no one else can, and watching his at-bats feels like an I-remember-when moment waiting to happen.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland sees this every day, and it’s why the day after Cabrera got arrested for DUI this spring, Leyland leapt to his defense. Considering this was Cabrera’s second alcohol-related legal incident – his wife placed a domestic-disturbance call when he was allegedly drunk on the eve of a vital Tigers game in 2009 – the words that came out of Leyland’s mouth in February sounded callous and misguided.
“I think Miguel Cabrera is probably going to have the biggest year of his life,” Leyland said.
When I heard him say that, I figured Leyland naïve. There was no way Cabrera was going to be on the field to have a big year. He needed to address his problem with alcohol away from the game.
The Tigers disagreed. They partnered with Major League Baseball and the players’ association to set up a program. An employee monitors Cabrera’s sobriety. Supposedly, he has stayed clean. In which case, good for him. If he can continue on that path, it’s a great story, and it will be the apology I’m happiest of all to deliver.
I’m not nearly as excited to tell this one to …
My last column highlighted with amazement Young’s ability to avoid popouts. He went his first 518 at-bats of the season without recording an out on an infield fly ball. And so what does he do in his fifth at-bat after the column runs? Pop out, of course, just the 22nd time he’s done so over the last six seasons.
If Howie Kendrick(notes), his partner in popuplessness, skies one to the shortstop this week, I beg of you not to seek me out as some curse layer. Coincidence. Law of averages. Etc. Right? I mean, it took two years for …
Problem is, he turns 38 in October. And for the first time in his major league career, Ichiro has shown significant signs of fallibility. Barring a crazy September, he’ll fall short of 200 hits for the first time in his 11-year career. Never has he hit below .300; he’s at .274 right now. It’s a sad .274, too; his slugging percentage is just .326.
I can apologize with Ichiro only for naivete and enchantment. No player in baseball intrigues me more than him. His style, his success, his way with words – his entire being intrigues me, and I’d love to see him stick around for a few more years if only to learn more about him.
Maybe there’s hope. Baseball Info Solutions says Ichiro has been victimized time and again by what it deems “Good Fielding Plays,” and that if he’d gotten hits on even half of them, he’d be over .300 and on pace for 200. Perhaps it is bad luck, and at 39 years old he’ll continue defying time much like …
8. Chase Utley(notes) defied some of the prognoses about his knee. Throughout spring training, doomsday stories floated out of the Philadelphia Phillies’ camp in Florida that not only was Utley going to miss the beginning of the season, he might come back a shell of his former self.
No, the 30-home run power no longer seems to exist in Utley’s bat, and he doesn’t flash all the range he once did, but damn if Utley isn’t still the best all-around second baseman in the NL. Certainly not a guy who – gulp – was going to play just 22 games like some apologetic chucklehead thought.
He’s taking extra bases on hits a staggering 79 percent of the time, according to Baseball-Reference. He’s striking out far less than he has at any time in his career. Utley is the sort of player who not only embraces intangibles but manifests them through his attitude. He plays his way and gives not a damn what anyone thinks, the sort of ethos …
9. Doug Melvin embodied this offseason. The Milwaukee Brewers’ general manager emptied out his farm system, stocked up on pitching, gave not a damn about defense and figured his pitching and offense would fortify him for an entire season.
I picked the Brewers to finish 80-82. They’ve been the hottest team in baseball, and some brave souls may pick them over Philadelphia come October. I’m not there quite yet. Though if there is a team that matches up well with the Phillies, it’s Milwaukee.
Other apologies go to Kevin Towers (I picked his Arizona Diamondbacks to go 73-89), Chris Antonetti (I had Cleveland stumbling to 70-92) and Neal Huntington (his Pirates were at 66-96). All have built overachievers, and that’s an accomplishment anywhere, particularly in a sport whose Darwinian tendencies to weed out the weak and almost grabbed ahold of …
10. Derek Jeter and sapped the dignity that drove him through those miserable days. Jeter faced constant questions from outside and in his own head, constant criticism from the same two places. It’s one thing being a perfectionist; it’s another being one with an audience.
Around the All-Star break, when a calf strain sent him to the disabled list, Jeter reached a crossroads. His slugging percentage was still barely above .300. He could’ve done the Adam Dunn(notes): start awful, get worse. He could’ve done the Dan Uggla(notes): start awful, catch fire.
He went the Uggla route. Jeter started pulling the ball more. He continued to obliterate left-handed pitching. He ignored the issues in his personal life – he reportedly broke up with longtime girlfriend Minka Kelly – and recaptured the verve that for so long defined him. He’ll have games like Sunday’s, sure, in which he went 0 for 4 with three groundouts. Until those become commonplace again, he’s no longer a question mark. If anything, Jeter is an exclamation point.
And so for all the jokes, all the cracks, all the snide remarks from the comfort of a press box, I’m sorry, Derek.
Good to have you back.