Fellow Yankee fans, before you accuse me of high treason or blaspheming our dear captain, please heed my plea for understanding.
As a lifelong fan of the team, I have long loved Derek Jeter and cherish his numerous contributions to the latest run of success in the Bronx. I am fully aware that the Yankees just won a World Series last year and the team is currently claiming ownership of the best record in Major League Baseball.
Any team that finds themselves on top also finds themselves the target of relentless challenges from those below them in the standings. It is often stated that staying on top is the more difficult task after a team has reached the pinnacle of their sport. Staying on top also requires constant evaluation, always aware of ways to potentially improve your team's chances to fend off the challengers.
Derek Jeter has long been a major contributor to the success of the Yankees and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Most Yankee fans regard the captain as the fearless leader and author of a great number of the team's greatest moments and accomplishments. Regardless of our feelings toward Derek Jeter's place in Yankee history, I feel that the question needs to be asked:
How much longer can The Captain remain as the team's leadoff hitter?
This question is not simply asked as a reactionary response to his un-Derek Jeterlike .283 batting average and .336 on base percentage. The defense that it is only June 21 is absolutely legitimate and it is true that Derek could go on a tear, scorching the baseball throughout the summer, and render any talk of his demise as meaningless.
I never have been the type of fan to view every peak and valley throughout a player's season as anything definitive. We all know that baseball is a game of streaks and you have to hope that the hot streaks outnumber the cold streaks over the course of a season.
It is true that The Captain had a tremendous start to the 2010 season, notching hit after hit, batting .330 with an April power stroke and knack for driving in runs from the leadoff spot that were slightly uncharacteristic for him. His 4 HR was a solid total for him and he had only knocked in as many as 18 runs in a month a handful of times over the last five seasons.
He followed April with a pedestrian May in which his monthly batting average dipped to .281, he slugged only .359, and for a leadoff man, earned a poor on base percentage of only .343. There is little to be alarmed about in a monthly batting average of .281, but it is worrisome when your leadoff hitter earns only 12 walks through the first two full months of the season.
June has witness an even further regression, as he is only batting .225 for the month with an abysmal .304 OBP leading things off for the Yankees.
Overall, his season on base percentage stands at an unacceptable .336 from the man tasked with setting the table for one of the most lethal offenses in the league. His paltry bases on balls total of only 20 places him eighth among Yankee regulars, 22 behind team leader Mark Teixeira, and nine behind Brett Gardner.
The total of 20 places him barely ahead of part time catcher Francisco Cervelli (17 BB) and the longtime injured Curtis Granderson (18 BB) both of whom have significantly fewer plate appearances than Jeter.
Perhaps the most alarming fact is that he sits one base on balls behind the notoriously free swinging Robinson Cano, one of the tougher men to walk in baseball. As great a hitter as Cano is, this is not company you want your leadoff man to keep when considering walk rates. Derek Jeter's walk rate of 6.3 percent is also the worst mark of his career, down from a career average of 8.9 percent.
My concerns are not for Derek Jeter's numbers specifically, but for how his approach affects the entire lineup. As a leadoff hitter, your primary objective is to get on base by any means necessary, setting up run production opportunities for the heart of the lineup.
Another function of the table setter of the lineup is to work difficult at bats, seeing a lot of pitches, fouling off tough ones, and giving the following hitters the opportunity to see as much of the opposing pitcher's arsenal as one is able to.
Derek Jeter also has the advantageous position of batting immediately behind one of the most dynamic basestealing threats in the game, Brett Gardner. The mere presence of Brett the Jet is a distraction for any pitcher, knowing that he is capable of swiping a base at any time, supported by his career rate of 61 steals in 71 attempts.
That gaudy 86 percent success rate is enough to steal attention from even the most staunch defender of the running game.
A basestealer needs time to ply his trade, though. When everyone in the park knows that the man on first or second is looking to steal his way onward, the thief must bide his time, waiting for the opportune moment to strike. He needs a favorable count, a precise read of the pitcher's intentions, and the right pitch to steal on.
This becomes a more difficult task when your teammate following in the order refuses to play his supporting role, looking at every pitch as a opportunity to swing, rather than working the long, determined plate appearances that are required of a leadoff hitter.
To this point in the 2010 MLB season, Derek Jeter is only seeing an average of 3.48 pitches/plate appearance, the worst mark of his entire career in which he has averaged 3.74 pitches/PA. Last season, when he was possibly the premier leadoff hitter in the game, as he saw 3.84 per PA, one of the higher marks of his career, en route to a stellar season in which he helped lead the Yankees to a World Series victory.
By comparison, fellow Yankees players are averaging 3.93 pitches/plate appearance, employing a patient approach throughout the lineup with every single Yankee regular seeing more pitches per time at plate than the leadoff hitter Jeter.
In effect, by swinging more often and with less efficient results, Derek is not only preventing his following hitters from seeing more pitches, but he is basically neutralizing a very dangerous weapon the Yankees possess in the blistering speed of Brett Gardner.
A player can still be productive by swinging, even if he doesn't get a hit, as long as he accomplishes the task of moving the runner ahead with a productive out. Unfortunately, the Captain is also posting a career worst in that category also, only succeeding 26 percent of the time in such situations, down from a career average of 34 percent and a career high of 45 percent in 2009.
Is it possible that his march toward the seemingly inevitable benchmark of 3,000 hits and definite inclusion amongst baseball's elites has somehow gotten into his head? Has this nearly forgone conclusion seeped into Jeter's approach at the plate, inspiring him to swing at more pitches in hopes of reaching the milestone faster?
These questions about the merits of Derek Jeter as leadoff hitter of the Yankees are exacerbated by the current presence of a potential immediate replacement in the form of Brett Gardner. Not only is Gardner hitting well, but he is doing so patiently as a seemingly prototypical leadoff hitter.
Brett is consistently working tough at bats, taking close pitches, fouling off tough pitchers' pitches, to the tune of a 4.57 pitches/plate appearance ratio and a .394 on base percentage.
Being completely aware that one at bat illustrates nothing over the course of 162 game season, the contrast in hitting styles was put display in Friday's 4-0 loss to the Mets. Up by four with one out and two men on base in the ninth inning, Frankie Rodriguez entered the game to shut things down for the Mets.
The first batter he faced was the persistent Brett Gardner. Not yet a name that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, Brett Gardner etched his name into K-Rod's memory bank by battling the clearly frustrated reliever for a 12-pitch walk. Fouling off pitch after pitch, Brett still possessed the presence of mind to watch a pitch off the plate for a bases loading walk on the 12th delivery of the crucial plate appearance.
Obviously flustered by the approach of the tenacious Gardner and the humidity of the early summer Bronx evening, Rodriguez was now in the unenviable position of facing the captain Derek Jeter with the bases loaded, only up by four in a stadium renowned for disrupting leads late in ballgames.
Seemingly oblivious to the well fought battle that Gardner had just fought in order to set up a potentially heroic moment for his captain, Jeter comes up hacking. After witnessing an epic 12-pitch walk to load the bases, Derek swings at all three pitches he sees, two of which were out of the strike zone, taking most of the wind out of the potential rally with a quick and easy three-pitch strikeout.
In truth, it was only one at bat over the course of a long season, but it was a perfect illustration of a small issue that could grow in significance for the Yankees if the season progresses as the early months have.
Of course, I completely understand the perspective that it may seem ridiculous to complain about a modern day legend and future hall of fame player whose team just moved into sole possession of first place in the AL East. While surpassing the Tampa Bay Rays in the race for the division lead, the Yankees also took hold of the best record in baseball at 43-26.
We must also confront the very distinct possibility that this is simply a matter of sample size and that over the course of the full season, Derek Jeter's overall numbers will improve to fit alongside his well established career averages.
As Yankee fans, we must hope this occurs as we have seen how effective the team can be with Derek Jeter leading the way from the leadoff spot in the lineup. If not though, those quickening steps you hear behind you just might be poised to launch a coup and take their spot atop the batting order of the New York Yankees.