10 Degrees: Derek Jeter drawing screams on the panic scale

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Scouts love to say their eyes don't lie, even if they know better. Most of them buried David Ortiz almost half a decade ago now, certain his swing had slowed irreversibly. He's still pummeling home runs today. Certainty does not exist anywhere in baseball.

Naturally, scouts are certain again that the full decline of a star is unfolding before us, and as with Ortiz, the evidence – both physical and statistical – reinforces their belief. The first month of Derek Jeter's final season was a disappointment. The second day of the second month birthed one of the worst games of his career, an 0-for-7 stinker that personified much of his farewell tour: a lot of ground balls and weak contact, negligible ability to pull the ball.

The distinct lack of pull is the most telling sign – and the one that backs up the scouts' reports. It's not entirely a paucity of bat speed, they said, though that is a factor. Jeter, who for his entire career has strode with a fairly closed stance, is tilting his front shoulder even more toward the right side of the field. When he does pull the ball, it's either a huge mistake by the pitcher or a happy accident for Jeter. There’s a good reason only three of his 23 hits have gone for extra bases (all doubles) among a meager .240/.311/.271 line.

His spray chart on FanGraphs shows the difference between Jeter's last healthy season, 2012, and this year. And the Brooks Baseball version does an even better job illustrating the patch of white space in left field. It's grim when a right-handed hitter is almost incapable of shooting a ball to left field. It's worse when he's a No. 2 hitter.

So begins the talk about when New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi will consider dropping Jeter in the lineup, where the proper place may be, how Jeter would handle it and whether it's too early to panic. Like last year, we'll answer that final question with the most panicked face possible, Edvard Munch's "The Scream," and offer the level of concern on a scale of one to five floating heads.

And considering how ...

1. Derek Jeter has performed thus far, how flaccid his swing looks, how he's still playing a demanding position coming off a grueling ankle rehab and how next to no shortstops last until age 40, the evidence leads to the sort of verdict nobody likes to see during a swan song.

The issue isn't as much the start itself as the start confirming fears: the slight change in mechanics trying to compensate for something, the remainder of his inside-out swing an opposite-field crutch on which he relies, the balls in the field others get to that he simply can't. If not for Jeter ...

2. Robinson Cano's dreadful start might be garnering some more attention. Part of that, of course, is that he's underachieving in Seattle, where a .369 slugging percentage does not raise the ire – or the national consciousness – like it would had he stayed in New York. The biggest news Cano made, in fact, came when he went back to Yankee Stadium and spurred a debate over the appropriateness of boos.

If they're going to boo him anywhere, Seattle deserves the opportunity. The first month of the 120 to which Cano and the Mariners are married went about as poorly as possible. Almost 60 percent of his balls in play are scooting on the ground. He's popping up almost half as much as he's hitting line drives. He's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and looking at more inside it. He has one home run. Considering he signed the third-richest deal in professional sports history this offseason, perhaps this grade is kind.

A mild panic. And here's why it's not more: It's one month. One month on a new team, in a new division, away from everything and everyone he knows. Acclimation can take time. So can getting used to Safeco Field, where home runs go to die. Nine seasons of incredible, consistent play do not vanish inside of one month. For those like ...

3. Curtis Granderson, with massive stretches of inconsistency and cavernous holes in their swings, such leeway does not exist.

Granderson is hitting .170/.276/.270. Gone is the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium to which he grooved his swing, replaced by Citi Field's humbling dimensions. Granderson fetched his four-year, $52 million deal on reputation as much as anything. The Mets wanted a hitter, didn't want to pay for Shin-Soo Choo and settled. Welcome to life on the cheap with the Wilpon family.

It's too bad, too, because the Mets have what looks like the semblance of a solid rotation. Especially when Zack Wheeler's ERA evens out – no need to panic about him – and Matt Harvey returns. In the meantime, the Mets are stuck with Jason Bay 2.0. Granderson's heat map looks like an ocean, all blue, all cold, pretty much how the ...

4. Pittsburgh Pirates looked through their first 28 games. They were 10-18, bad at home, worse on the road, right in the middle of all teams in ERA, down at the bottom in runs scored. The magical Pirates of last season looked all but vanished, replaced by the Pirates we'd all come to know over the previous two decades.

Run differential, and a weekend manhandling of Toronto, said these Pirates weren't laying down, that a bad start is just that and nothing to extrapolate. And yet one gander at the lineup, and what does Pittsburgh look like?

Certainly the Pirates weren't offensive juggernauts last season. That said, with Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and a platooning Gaby Sanchez providing the only offense on a team that already relies too heavily on the benevolence of its pitching staff, the Pirates a) need to summon Gregory Polanco to play right field and b) hope that Milwaukee, St. Louis and even another struggling team like the ...

5. Cincinnati Reds don't suddenly get hot. Which remains possible considering the Reds soon will get closer Aroldis Chapman back, are perhaps a month away from Mat Latos rejoining the rotation and cannot be much worse among a bullpen with the 26th-ranked ERA in the game.

Don’t forget Joey Votto’s typically stellar start, the potential breakout of catcher Devin Mesoraco and Johnny Cueto looking like a bona fide No. 1 starter – only 22 hits over 47 innings is incredible, even with good fortune – and the Reds become a pick to click. Though losing Jay Bruce for a month with a knee injury does add an extra face to the original projection.

It's not the easiest division to ascend, though with the Cardinals foundering at the moment and ...

6. Shelby Miller pulling off some serious David Blaine sorcery to escape his own flaws, St. Louis' vulnerability is at least worth noticing. Allen Craig could just as well be the focus here, though the roots of Miller's issues go far deeper – and are hidden by a 3.15 ERA that makes everything look hunky dory, which it most certainly isn't.

Miller's command is a mess. He leads the major leagues with 21 walks allowed, in just 34 1/3 innings. He is elevating his fastball, and scouts say it doesn't have nearly the arm-side movement it once did, a fact confirmed by PITCHf/x numbers that show a decrease in horizontal break since last season. Accordingly, he leads the big leagues in home runs allowed, too. It's not good when one pitcher sits atop the two worst statistical categories possible.

The only thing preventing a fifth face is an arm injury, and at least Miller, unlike so many of his young brethren, has avoided that. Granted, getting older has its perils, too, something ...

7. Billy Butler continues to learn as he struggles to do what he used to. Like drive the ball. Or keep it off the ground. Or do much of anything with it.

Right now, Butler is the most worthless thing in baseball: The designated hitter who doesn't hit and the cleanup guy who doesn't clean up. Royals DHs this year are hitting .229/.287/.294. That adds up to the worst OPS among American League teams. Royals cleanup hitters this year are hitting .162/.213/.216. No team in baseball puts up more feeble numbers.

On more than 60 percent of the balls he puts in play, Butler hits them on the ground. It's unconscionable for a power hitter to do that. Perhaps it's changing. Butler did hit his first home run over the weekend, a line drive that curled around the foul pole. It showed hope, enough to warrant a more optimistic amount of panic than deserved.

It's tough to give up on a 28-year-old after a month – and probably a little more including the last half of 2013. The same principle applies when ...

8. Prince Fielder catches flak from Texas, Detroit and everywhere else over the continuation of his punchless October. Fielder has hit at least 25 home runs in every major league season. Power does not disappear like that, not at 29 years old, not usually at least, and only fools try to predict outliers, so here's to Fielder rediscovering his stroke.

The complication, as with Butler, is a ground ball rate that far exceeds his career average. More than 50 percent of Fielder's batted balls skim on the ground, an unacceptable ratio for a player whose speed is measured on the Molina Scale rather than by stopwatch.

Whether it's the shift, something physical, mental or emotional, or another different factor altogether, Fielder does not look like Fielder. Give it another month or two before panic becomes a houseguest. And extend the same courtesy to ...

9. Brian McCann as he figures out life in the American League. Or at least that's what one Yankees official offered by way of explanation for the $85 million catcher's troublesome .228/.264/.376 line: "He's got to learn his staff, he's got to learn the other pitchers. Give it some time."

While that theory sounds like an excuse – Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his 1.000-plus OPS are doing just fine in the National League, thank you very much – the sentiment about giving McCann the benefit of the doubt in this case makes sense. There are no huge changes in McCann's game that can't be fixed. He is walking less these days. He'll walk more. He is swinging at more strikes outside the zone. He'll swing less.

It takes faith to award just one face, to signify that, yes, chances are everything's going to be fine, unless the precipitous downfall is upon us and we simply don't see it yet. Years ago, we wondered when ...

10. Derek Jeter was going to start aging, and the question turned him into something of a Peter Pan. The idea of Jeter being anything other than The Captain, the guy who collects 200 hits, the perfect Yankee, felt far-fetched, even after the ankle injury proved him fallible and the re-injury erased so much of last year.

Finally, Jeter seemed mortal. He lived in the baseball ether for all those years, winning championships, getting his 3,000th hit, personifying what the ideologues wanted him to be. To a great extent, he still fulfills much of that. The on-field greatness remains AWOL.

And maybe it can come back. Maybe Ortiz isn't the only star who was written off only to find what was missing. They share a similar face-of-the-franchise pedigree, though Jeter's task is far more herculean. Not only is he in the doldrums, his clock ticks, his games left disappear and he fades from his game.

Plenty will say he deserves better, and in a purely emotional sense, perhaps that's true. After all these years what he deserves most, though, is the game playing arbiter and challenging him with one final tribulation.

It's Derek Jeter vs. time. And as it ticks, he's still not panicking.

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