ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – So the SABR rattlers have pronounced Derek Jeter(notes) old and creaky. The captain’s average is average and his OBP is WTF. The New York Yankees hit king was once the belle of the ball, but now he’s dragging along like a tin can behind a “Just Married” car. The $50 million over three years he’s sure to get from the Yankees this winter is more like a Wall Street golden parachute than a worth-every-penny contract, at least if you listen to the stat wonks.
They do have a point.
And they’re missing the point.
Jeter is not above the laws of age or numbers. His age will go up, his numbers will go down. Those are facts.
But just for a moment, let’s move past that. Let’s move past the huge contract he’ll sign and not statistically earn. Abandon All Stats Ye Who Enter Here. Because in one important way, Jeter is worth as much as ever.
Shut your eyes and think of a Jeter moment. Maybe it’s the behind-the-back toss against Oakland. Maybe it’s him falling into the stands. Maybe it’s a home run against the Mets at Shea. But most likely it’s not a statistical moment. It’s a moment when he did something that altered the arc and the feel of a postseason game.
Curtis Granderson’s(notes) shut-your-eyes moment came in 2006, when he lined up in centerfield as a Tiger in the ALDS. He looked in at Jeter and damned if it felt like Jeter was staring right back at him. “It felt like he was thinking, ‘I’m going away from you,’ ” Granderson said. “I thought I was positioned right but at least two of his hits were just out of my reach. And I thought, ‘That’s why they call him what they call him.’ ”
Yes, that was four years ago. Yes, Jeter’s hitting and fielding have eroded since. But his postseasons haven’t yet. Jeter had 11 hits in the World Series last year – more than in any playoff series in his career. (Sorry – that was a stat.) Of course playoffs are a tiny sample size, but when you add up 28 postseason series – and all those moments – you get a bigger sample size. And that sample size speaks loudly to players even if the regular-season numbers are starting to rasp.
Crawford continued: “I remember one year he was struggling. I was thinking, ‘This is the year he’s not going to hit .300.’ I had my own doubts about him.”
Crawford then took out his iPad and logged on to Baseball-Reference.com, which he has bookmarked. And lo and behold, in 2004, Jeter hit .379 in September and October to ramp his overall average up to .292.
OK, OK: The iPad thing didn’t happen. The point is: “You keep playing to the end,” Crawford said. “I remembered that year and I learned from it.”
If Crawford learned from it, imagine what the Yankees learned from it. And that brings us to Jeter’s consistency. Not the consistency of his stats, but the consistency of his ways.
“He’s my all-time favorite player,” Yankees outfielder Marcus Thames(notes) said. “So his numbers are not up. You wouldn’t know it. He seems fine to me. He’s a helluva leader. I check him out to see how he handles things. Every single night, he wants to win.”
Jeter says he’s never changed a thing about his game. Never unwound his swing, never altered his preparation. Never tinkered at all. Cal Ripken, Jr., the model of consistency in the modern era, repeatedly changed his batting stance. But not Jeter. Not even during this rough patch.
“Baseball is baseball,” Jeter said Tuesday on the night of his 2,279th regular season game. “The game doesn’t change. If you try to change things, you’re in trouble.”
It’s easy to be steady when you bat .300 every year. Hell, even a superstitious worrywart can do that. But the fact that Jeter hasn’t changed this season is a new kind of leadership – one that reaches even further.
There’s nothing to empirically prove consistency of method is a good thing, but it certainly must settle nerves when Jeter acts the exact same way in November as he does in March. If the Yankees are down 0-2 in a series, or if a teammate gets caught up in a scandal, or if the team gives up a six-run lead to the first-place Rays (as the Yankees did Tuesday night) after losing four straight games, Jeter is going to be Jeter. How many other players are like that? How many other players have the exact same unafraid look in their eyes every single at-bat?
So next year, maybe Jeter will bat lower in the lineup, or hit .250, or play the outfield. But when October comes, every teammate will know Jeter has seen it all before. And October seems to always come for the Yankees, even with Jeter in a slump. The Yankees can afford pay younger players for the regular season. They will pay Jeter for October. They will pay him for the moment, and for the moments.
The stats have changed. They may never change back. But Jeter himself hasn’t changed. Maybe that isn’t worth a boatload on the open market.
But it’s worth a fortune to the Yankees.