Sometimes, life can be truly awesome. But then you see Derek Jeter hit the deck in some serious pain in the 12th inning of a crucial playoff game, and life suddenly becomes the exact opposite of awesome.
You can hate the New York Yankees all you want, but hating Jeter is like hating Morgan Freeman. You just can't do it no matter where your loyalties lie.
Nobody was having any fun when Jeter went down in a heap in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. Even less fun was being had when Jeter was being helped off the field with a grimace on his face.
Then came the diagnosis, which brought everyone down even further. It was announced after the game that Jeter had suffered a broken ankle that would keep him on the shelf for the next three months.
The Yankees went on to lose the game, by the way. And once they did, even Yankees fans seemed to understand that the Bombers were doomed to lose the series. Perhaps it was for the best that they got it over with so quickly by getting swept in four games.
There are many questions that need to be answered in The Bronx this winter. Compared to the others, the one that's being slightly overlooked is what the Yankees can expect from Jeter when his ankle heals up enough to the point where he can play again. The prognosis for his recovery time is one thing, but what kind of effect will his ankle injury actually have on his abilities?
This is a question that requires further discussion, and that's what we're here to do.
Before we get on with it, a quick disclaimer: All of this is strictly speculative. I'm not a doctor, nor do I have a crystal ball. What follows is a rundown of opinions and assorted past scenarios relevant to Jeter's current predicament, all of which are meant to paint a clear picture what may lie ahead for him when he returns.
Just How Bad Is Jeter's Ankle Injury?
At first glance, the injury Jeter suffered in the 12th inning of Game 1 didn't appear to be a big mystery. Judging from the way he went down on the infield dirt and the way in which he was being helped off the field, it was clear enough that he had probably suffered an ankle or an Achilles injury.
When it was announced that Jeter had suffered a fractured ankle, there must have been a lot of head-nodding going on. The diagnosis wasn't much of a surprise.
The curious part came later. It was initially announced that Jeter would need three months of recovery time, which would have put him safely in line to play on Opening Day in 2013. Then he underwent surgery, and his projected recovery time was changed from three months to four to five months, as reported by the New York Daily News.
Thus, Jeter went from being a lock for Opening Day in 2013 to being—to borrow a term from the NFL—questionable for Opening Day.
The most obvious explanation is that things changed when it was decided that Jeter's ankle needed surgery to heal rather than rest and rehabilitation, but there may be more to it than that.
Erik Boland of Newsday consulted Dr. Steven Weinfeld, an orthopedic surgeon and "chief of foot and ankle service" at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he indicated that Jeter may have suffered more than a simple ankle fracture:
The thing that takes longer, that might have caused the timetable to get greater. When you have an ankle fracture, you have a boney injury and sometimes you have a boney injury combined with a ligament injury. It's the ligament injury that may prolong the course of recovery. [The Yankees] may have diagnosed a ligamentous injury at some point later on that may have changed the timetable.
If Jeter did suffer ligament damage bad enough to require surgery, then he may not even be able to start running for three months. Such is the general protocol for those types of injuries, anyway.
Even if this is the case, though, the bright side is that Jeter would still be in line to play on Opening Day barring any setbacks. The three-month mark would come before the end of January, leaving Jeter plenty of time to get into baseball shape once he can start running.
The not-so-bright side is that a more severe injury tends to carry with it more potential setbacks. Plus, the fact that Jeter is a little on the old side won't make it especially easy for him to avoid any potential setbacks.
But let's say everything goes hunky dory for Jeter and that he's ready to play ball on Opening Day in 2013. Is there anything we can learn from the past about how well players can perform upon returning from a serious ankle injury?
Of course there is.
How Hard Is It For Players to Come Back from Ankle Injuries?
Knowing what I know about ankle injuries, they're basically the worst thing ever. Even a bout with ankle tendinitis made me never want to walk again, let alone run or pursue baseball activities.
I can only imagine how guys like Buster Posey and Stephen Drew must have felt.
Posey suffered torn ligaments in his left ankle and a broken bone in his lower left leg when he was involved in a brutal collision with Scott Cousins at home plate last may. He had to undergo surgery and was lost for the rest of the season.
Posey was able to make it back for spring training, but he wasn't symptom-free during the spring or even after the season got underway. At one point in May, Posey told Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com that his left ankle was feeling "just a little cranky."
So what did Posey do?
And Posey did all of this as a catcher. His ankle held up just fine despite the fact he spent the majority of his time playing the most physically demanding position in the sport.
If Posey can play so well as a catcher after coming back from a serious ankle injury, then surely Jeter can play well as a shortstop once he's able to return.
Beyond Posey, Jeter can always look to Stephen Drew as a more fitting example of what to expect when he comes back. Drew missed nearly a full year after badly fracturing his ankle in a play at home plate, but he eventually went on to play like his old self upon his return in 2012.
Drew didn't do much with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to be sure, but he was a productive player after he was acquired by the Oakland A's in an August trade. In 39 games for the A's, he posted a .707 OPS. Because he posted a .713 OPS in 2011, his production in Oakland was roughly equivalent to what it was in 2011 before his injury.
Where Drew wasn't so good was in the field. Per FanGraphs, Drew posted a -5.2 UZR and a -7 DRS a year after posting a 4.5 UZR and a +3 DRS. He regressed defensively this season, and one is safe in assuming his ankle had something to do with it.
This is somewhat of a concern as it pertains to Jeter's situation, but only to a degree. The difference between Jeter and Drew is that Jeter can't regress much more on defense than he already has. He was the worst defensive shortstop in baseball in 2012, and he wasn't going to get any better at his age even if he hadn't gotten hurt.
What the Yankees really care about is just getting the offensive production out of Jeter that they usually get. If they have to play him at DH half the time in order to get it, that's what they'll do.
The point either way is that it's very much possible for players to come back and be productive after suffering serious ankle injuries. Posey and Drew were able to do it, and their ankle injuries were considerably more severe than Jeter's.
And yes, even old guys like Jeter can come back and be productive after suffering ankle injuries. Andy Pettitte suffered a fractured ankle of his own in June that kept him out until September, but he proceeded to pick up where he left off when he was able to get back on the bump.
If these guys can come back strong, so can Jeter. As long as he can handle whatever aftereffects may come, he'll be fine.
And rest assured, Jeter will be able to handle the aftereffects, if there are any.
Can Jeter Play Through It?
One look at Jeter's career track record without any sort of context would reveal that the Yankee captain must be one of the healthiest players in baseball history. He's played in fewer than 148 games only twice in his career.
But Jeter's durability has nothing to do with him never being hurt. It has everything to do with him not caring when he is hurt. An injury has to be really serious to keep him out of the lineup for an extended amount of time.
Jeter has dealt with a ton of nagging injuries throughout his career. Even before his ankle finally broke, he was dealing with a bone bruise in his ankle that may have made it a lot easier for his ankle to finally snap.
The only really serious injury Jeter has suffered in his career came way back on Opening Day in 2003, when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder in a collision at third base.
The injury kept Jeter out of action for over a month. He didn't return to the Yankees lineup until May 13.
When Jeter did return, it was like he was never gone. In 17 games that May, he hit .307 with an .835 OPS. He finished the year with a .324 average that nearly won him his first batting title.
Two years ago, Jeter admitted to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News that his shoulder was bothering after his return in 2003, but he didn't let it get to him.
"When I came back it felt weird at times," he said. "But you can't be afraid. If it's going to come out, it's going to come out. But it was never anything that affected my performance."
What's equally impressive is that Jeter's shoulder was never an issue again. That's a rarity when it comes to dislocated shoulders, as a physical therapist told McCarron that people who dislocate their shoulders are probably going to do so again at some point down the line.
Compared to the shoulder woes Jeter had to deal with back in 2003, his ankle woes suddenly don't seem all that bad. He may have had to have surgery, and the expected recovery time may be a lot longer, but at least he doesn't have to worry about his ankle becoming re-injured at a moment's notice without any warning.
He presumably will have to deal with some soreness and the like, much like Posey did, but it's hard to imagine any amount of soreness taking a toll on Jeter. He was, after all, already playing on a sore ankle even before it finally broke on him in Game 1 of the ALCS. It didn't stop him from hitting .333 in six postseason games.
I typically don't think of Jeter as being superhuman the way many others do, but even I realize that his pain threshold is a lot better than that of your average ballplayer.
There are more than enough reasons to worry about Jeter's health in the long-term. He'll be coming back from the most serious injury of his career, and there are plenty of things that could go wrong during his recovery.
However, there are also reasons to be optimistic. Jeter won't miss any time in 2013 if his recovery goes well, and his track record suggests that he'll be just fine as long as he's standing on two feet. The track records of others suggest that ankle injuries aren't necessarily career-killers.
So if the question is whether Jeter's injury will hinder him in some way when he returns to action, I'm inclined to say that it won't. Knowing him, there will be no way of knowing that his ankle is hindering him even if he's dealing with agonizing pain on a daily basis.
Don't be shocked when Jeter hits over .300 again in 2013. It's what he does no matter how much pain he's in.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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