10 Degrees: Yankees' Derek Jeter doesn't want his historic hot start jinxed by talking about it

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! SportsMay 7, 2012

Derek Jeter poked two more hits and drew two more walks Sunday. Nobody in the major leagues owns a higher batting average than his .397. None of his American League peers can beat his .439 on-base percentage. And only four everyday players in the big leagues are older than him, Captain Graybeard, now 37.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote Jeter off. Called him 4-3ter because of his preponderance of groundouts. Said he should be dropped in the New York Yankees' lineup. Were the Player Hater's Ball a real thing, Silky Johnson, Buck Nasty and Beautiful would've stood no chance.

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I later offered a mea culpa, but still, what Jeter's doing now – shaving away 10 years of wear and tear to resemble the best version of his prime self – deserved more than an apology. When I saw Jeter this week, I told him the truth: I really do enjoy watching him play, seeing him grind out at-bats, flick balls to the opposite field, muster the power to belt five home runs so far. To not have let all that mileage and the vise of the New York stage squeeze the life out of him.

He was appreciative – until I started telling him I'd been looking up some numbers, and …

"Don't wanna hear it," Jeter said.

"Hear what?" I said.

"Anything," he said.

"But …" I said.

"I don't want to know," he said. "Don't jinx me."

Seriously, Derek Jeter is worried about getting jinxed.

This registered as the funniest thing in the world. The guy with literally a handful of World Series rings. The guy who has the greatest dating resumé in modern American history. The guy who for nearly two decades has lived in New York, among the most gossipy places in the world, with barely a negative story circulating about him.

And he's worried about jinxes?

Well, he is a baseball player, and baseball players, as much as anybody, grow up in a bubble of superstition, where talking about a no-hitter is akin to slander, where underwear changes coincide with hitting streaks, where slumpbusting means partaking of portly pleasures.

Baseball, in other words, is full of idiocy. So knowing that, let's forgive …

1. Derek Jeter for not wanting to know that he's in line to break all sorts of marks among 37-and-older shortstops. Like he's halfway to passing Honus Wagner and Pee Wee Reese's record of nine home runs. Or that he's already more than a quarter of the way to Wagner's record 181 hits. Or that among all 37-and-ups, while he's unlikely to crack Paul Molitor's record 225 hits, he could become just the fourth hitter since 1930 – along with Molitor, Tony Gwynn and Pete Rose – to surpass 200.

Now … Jeter is going to regress. Logic says so. The numbers accompany it. At 63.7 percent, his groundball rate remains problematic. He has hit 15 flyballs this year; five have gone over the fence. That won't continue. His average on balls in play is .418, which is somewhere between LOL and ROFLMAO.

Still, other stats work in Jeter's favor – namely his contact rate. As strikeouts have spiked throughout the game, Jeter has learned to control his swing and evolve into a bad-ball hitter. The numbers mimic the words of one scout who saw him this week: "It's like he's turned into Vlad Guerrero."

Jeter is swinging more than ever – on 51.1 percent of pitches – but has the lowest swinging-strike percentage of his career. He's hacking at 20 percent more balls outside the strike zone than he did six seasons ago … and making contact on 75.8 percent of those swings. Yes, it's one reason Jeter's groundball-out percentage is so high, and as the season progresses, it will hurt him. And yet he's got 48 hits and a 10-to-16 walk-to-strikeout ratio and baseball genuflecting to him again, and Minka Kelly is dating Fez.

As always, the Captain wins. As for …

2. Albert Pujols it took a little longer to get his win on, and when he did it the entire Los Angeles Angels franchise celebrated like it was a momentous occasion that a man to whom ownership guaranteed $240 million hit a home run. The team emptied the dugout before he completed his trot around the bases (a prank usually reserved for rookies). The fans huzzahed (in lieu the recent booing). The TV broadcast played the shot of rookie Drew Hutchison again and again (baseball's new version of the Zapruder film).

[Related: Big League Stew: Pujols' first home run is met by an empty dugout]

Perhaps this is the start. Scouts still believe in Pujols – believe this was nothing more than him pressing, a brief mental decomposition that would fix itself upon him recalling the sort of performances to which he's accustomed. If not for Pujols' struggles, we might be focusing more on why …

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3. Jose Bautista is once again human. His .183 batting average is 183rd out of 190 qualified players. He continues to walk enough to keep his on-base percentage a mediocre .313, but his .356 slugging percentage resembles that of his pre-power surge years.

Bautista has won back-to-back AL home run crowns, and through May 6 last season he had nine, with a triple-slash line of .357/.530/.762. Bautista's five home runs this year rank third on his team, behind Edwin Encarnacion and Kelly Johnson. Whether, like Pujols, this is nothing more than random statistical noise early in the season or there's a legitimate concern is better discussed at the end of May.

Let's not forget: Bautista was human in the second half last year, hitting .257/.419/.477, great but not otherworldly. And there was the expose concerning the man in white, the alleged sign-stealing mole opponents believed fed the coming pitches to Bautista and his teammates. It's likely nothing more than coincidence, something from which Bautista will recover soon enough, though last season the same could be said about …

4. Adam Dunn until he spent the entire year in a cocoon of awful. It makes Dunn's comeback this season all the more edifying to watch – and more surprising than Jeter's.

Dunn put up one of the worst seasons in baseball history last year, and certainly the worst from a player who had become a power-hitting paragon, a paean to consistency in the dark arts of the three true outcomes. He hit homers, he walked and he struck out. That was Adam Dunn's game. Only the homers stopped. And the Ks piled up. And the walks couldn't overcome the .159 batting average that had he qualified for the batting title would've been a record almost as unbreakable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

Dunn continues to strike out too much and walk enough. The power is back, though, with a monster go-ahead home run off Detroit closer Jose Valverde on Saturday and a first-inning blast off Rick Porcello on Sunday. It gave him an AL-leading nine, and while we may be back to discussing whether Dunn can break his own strikeout record come September, we can in the meantime chuckle at how …

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5. Chris Davis managed to go 0 for 8, strike out five times and end up the most valuable player of the Baltimore Orioles' raucous 9-6 victory in 17 innings over the Boston Red Sox that pushed the O's to 19-9, the best record in baseball.

Repeat: A month into the season, the Baltimore Orioles own the game's top record.

Back to Davis first. He threw scoreless innings in the 16th and 17th to win the game. His final inning was particularly impressive. After getting out of the 16th thanks to a beautiful Adam Jones-to-J.J. Hardy-to-Matt Wieters relay, Davis allowed the first two runners on. He then struck out Adrian Gonzalez on a downright nasty changeup – perhaps the single best pitch I've seen a full-time position player throw – and induced a double play out of Darnell McDonald, another position-player-turned-emergency-pitcher.

Davis was a closer in junior college, and what manager Buck Showalter knows he implements. "He has all sorts of contingency plans that he lays out in spring training," Orioles GM Dan Duquette said. "He used this one."

[Related: Big League Stew: Chris Davis earns first position player win in AL since 1968]

The Orioles have another contingency plan if they happen to stay in contention, and …

6. Dylan Bundy is his name. If you haven't heard of him, it's because he's 19 years old and pitching at Class-A Delmarva. And yet in five starts this year, Bundy has pitched 17 innings, allowed one hit and two walks and struck out 25. He sports a 0.00 ERA.

Because he signed a major-league contract, Bundy is eligible to join the Orioles any time. Of course, the chances of doing so this year are next to none. The plan is for him to throw around 130 innings this season, and if Baltimore happens to defy everything and continue to win, Bundy may be at his limit in September. The goal, Duquette said, is for him to end the year at Double-A, even though some scouts believe Bundy was so advanced coming out of high school in Oklahoma that he should've started there.

Duquette wasn't taking for granted that talking about Bundy in September meant the O's were doing well. "It's always nice to get off to a good start," he said, "but that's all it is: a good start."

He was planning on decompressing from it all by driving seven hours from Boston to Baltimore after the series finale Sunday. While the 17 innings didn't change his plans, they did leave Duquette in New Haven, Conn., around 11 p.m. – about five hours from Baltimore, which is one half of the new epicenter for baseball, the Beltway, what with …

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7. Bryce Harper getting plunked by Cole Hamels because he's a punk or has a silly haircut or got paid a bunch of money or something, then making Hamels look doubly stupid by stealing home off him later in the first inning.

Harper's first week-plus in the big leagues included all sorts of those exciting moments – the rocket throws, the clutch hits, the strokes to the opposite field, the hustle down the first-base line. And if there were any question as to whether Harper was here for good, Jayson Werth's broken left wrist suffered Sunday night solidified the Nationals' need for his bat and his energy.

[Big League Stew: Cole Hamels admits he hit Bryce Harper on purpose]

He's already a remarkable presence, generating boos his first at-bat in Los Angeles, drawing the ire of a pitcher who's going to get $150 million this offseason, trending nationally on Twitter. That he's this good this soon is little surprise, either, Harper's talent that overwhelming. He's got the goods, and the Nationals share the best record in the National League because of it. Actually, more like because of …

8. Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Strasburg and Zimmermann were near-sure things, and scouts in spring training raved about Detwiler, but Gonzalez was something of a question because of non-existent command and control best described as jittery.

And yet his stuff. It's filth, funk, unhittable at times. Since his first start, in which the Chicago Cubs touched him up, Gonzalez has allowed 13 hits in 33 innings and struck out 35. Most impressive: He is one of just four MLB starters who hasn't allowed a home run this season. For a month at least, Gonzalez has been the best left-hander in baseball. By the end of the season, the title likely will return to …

9. Clayton Kershaw, though he has some healthy competition in Cliff Lee and David Price (my preseason NL and AL Cy Young picks), Hamels, CC Sabathia, Jon Lester and another new entry into the conversation: Madison Bumgarner. Lefties dot the countdown of our best pitching matchups this week, listed in descending order:

Tommy Hanson vs. Jeff Samardzija, Monday: Curious to see whether Hanson confronts Samardzija and asks if he stole his missing velocity.

Brandon Morrow vs. Brandon McCarthy, Wednesday: Brandon Walsh should write the game story.

Derek Holland vs. Jason Hammel, Thursday: Hammel leading a resurgent O's staff.

Ross Detwiler vs. Erik Bedard, Wednesday: Lefty alert.

Johnny Cueto vs. Zack Greinke, Wednesday: Cueto might be the fastest starter around. Had a great first half last year, too.

Ricky Romero vs. Jarrod Parker, Tuesday: Keep an eye on the Oakland rookie.

Neftali Feliz vs. Jake Arrieta, Tuesday: Gas, baby.

Jamie Moyer vs. Chris Capuano, Saturday: Lefty alert. Really, really slow lefty alert.

Felix Hernandez vs. Hiroki Kuroda, Friday: King Felix facing his future teammates. (Kidding, sensitive Mariners fans. But not really.)

Lance Lynn vs. Joe Saunders, Monday: The fifth- and second-best ERAs in the game square off.

Jordan Zimmermann vs. Mat Latos, Saturday: Battle of the attitudinal, stuff-heavy righties.

Matt Cain vs. Trevor Cahill, Saturday: Should see plenty of these over the years.

C.J. Wilson vs. Yu Darvish, Friday: Wilson back in Texas. Darvish at home. Takes a gem to beat this one.

David Price vs. CC Sabathia, Thursday: Lefty alert! Classic matchup between two great pitchers and two great franchises. Better yet, Price gets to face …

10. Derek Jeter, who hits .312/.378/.512 off him. Jeter is lots of pitchers' nemesis. Tom Glavine hated pitching to him. He crushed Livan Hernandez. He has more hits off Brian Matusz than outs. Curt Schilling. Jon Lester. Lord, Rodrigo Lopez did nothing against him. Kenny Rogers, Brad Penny, Sidney Ponson. He hit .600 off Hideo Nomo.

Stick around this game long enough, have the talent to accumulate 3,000 hits, maintain work habits and hope like hell your body doesn't break down, and what Jeter's doing now isn't impossible. It's just unlikely and, though not unprecedented, shocking still. And if he keeps this up, he might break …

Shhhhh. Don't jinx him.

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