King Over Captain: Why Elvis Andrus Is the Best Shortstop in the 2010 ALCS

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King Over Captain: Why Elvis Andrus Is the Best Shortstop in the 2010 ALCS
Al Bello/Getty Images

Derek Jeter is a surefire Hall of Fame shortstop, the man who will be forever emblematic of the fifth Yankee dynasty and a career .314/.385/.452 hitter. Dubbed "the Captain" and "Mr. November," he has come through in series after World Series for the New York Yankees.

He has 651 career plate appearances in postseason play, by far the most ever and enough to prove a long-held theory: If you put a guy into a given situation often enough, he ends up performing about as well in that situation as he does in all others. Jeter is a career .312/.381/.475 hitter in October (and, yes, November), eerily close to his career benchmarks.

He also has a certain invincibility in the hearts and minds of baseball people. No one ever questions that Jeter will deliver. He is as steady as the rain, as dependable and as persistent as the Postal Service, or so say the masses. If the nickname weren't off the table before he arrived in the big leagues, they might have called him "the Mailman."

With a rate hike on postage threatening to further cripple the massively indebted U.S. Postal Service at the dawn of 2011, though, the mail may not come the same way it used to for very long. Just so, Derek Jeter may not be long for his term as baseball's prime superstar.


Wile and Wit and Quick with a Stick

Jeter was once among the game's best offensive shortstops: From 1998 to 2003, he batted .324/.397/.478, an overall offensive performance 28 percent better than league average. During that era, though, he cost the Yankees 83 cumulative runs with his steady but limited play in the field. To remain effective, Jeter would need to balance out his game.

As he turned 30 and his plate prowess began to feel the first ravages of age (he would hit .310/.379/.442 over the next seven years, nothing to laugh at, but not as dominant as had been in the past), Jeter focused on improving his work with the glove. From 2004 to 2010, Jeter cost his team "only" 32 runs on defense, shortcomings his lessened offensive output still easily offset.

 

A Summer Song

In this last year of his latest Yankee contract, however, the Ageless One has looked aged. He did not slump through the harsh summer months; he did not seethe through a tough, cold spring before turning on the burners in the warmth of June. Jeter struggled uniformly, from the first to the final game of the 2010 season.

He has never been worse at the plate, unless you count a rough-hewn 15-game showcase in 1995. Jeter hit .270/.340/.370. He had the lowest line drive rate of his career and the highest ground ball rate in the Majors. He looked, well, ordinary, and that may be too kind. One year after a season in which he seemed to have found the fountain of youth, he reverted to the pattern of decline that had seemingly begun in 2008. One year after the best season he ever had as a defensive shortstop, he reverted to something very like the old, bad Jeter with the leather.

Still, as the ALCS draws nigh, Jeter stands on the precipice of history: His next run scored will be the hundredth of his playoff career—obviously, that's another record. Two more doubles would tie him with his old teammate Bernie Williams for the postseason record in that category. He has half a dozen other records, and they're all probably safe. There will not be many more guys who get to play an entire season's worth of October baseball in their careers.

What does it all mean, though? It may mean that we should take a long look at Jeter and decide just how long he deserves to be the man in New York. It may mean that, just 76 hits shy of 3,000, Mr. November's December is coming. It may mean that an old breed of shortstop now stands poised to reclaim the limelight, and (if Jeter is indeed the king of playoff baseball) dethrone His Majesty, the Captain.

 

All Shook Up

Jeter fundamentally changed the way baseball analysts, fans and executives viewed the shortstop position. He was neither the first nor the last of his kind, but without doubt, he was the most visible and sustained exemplar. He formed the mold into which all potential shortstops were formed for years.

Now, another mold has been cast. The men of this new generation are raw, unpolished. They are athletic and rangy but in need of more tutoring than Jeter (or his contemporaries Nomar Garciaparra or Alex Rodriguez) ever did. They have flashy games and flashy names—names like Starlin, Hanley and Elvis.

Ah, yes. Elvis. Here he is. If anyone is to unseat the Captain and claim primacy in the new shortstop order, who better to do it than a man who bears the name of a king?

Elvis Andrus is 22 years old, and he has a long road before him. The Texas Rangers shortstop is the anti-Jeter: His youth and his temperament make no allowance for Jeter's tenacious consistency. Andrus is mercurial, exuberant and energetic, but he fizzled as the season wound to a close: The sometime stud who boasted of a .311/.398/.350 line on May 31 would stumble at length and fall hard, hitting just .245/.317/.279 for the remainder of the season.

With the changing of the leaves, however, comes a chance to change one's skin, and for the young, the playoffs can be an opportunity to shed the shell of a serpentine season. Andrus tallied eight hits in 24 plate appearances in the Rangers' ALDS win over the Tampa Bay Rays. He stole three bases, notched a double and an RBI. It was not until the decisive fifth game, however, that Andrus subtly announced his designs on Jeter's throne.

 

Desert Snake

Cobras are methodical killers. They are hunters of method that stalk their prey, identifying vulnerabilities and coaxing their subject into a trap. When they strike, though, they are able to kill only because nature has crafted them to do it, giving them all the skills and physical advantages they need to do the deed.

In the first inning of Game 5, Andrus began hunting. He stalked David Price, the opposing starting pitcher. Price was vulnerable; Price was his target.

Step one was easy: Wait for his pitch (a 2-1 fastball; Price threw far too many fastballs in his Game 1 loss, and he threw four straight to Andrus to open Game 5), hit it. Line drive, right field. Base hit.

That was when Andrus began his assault. He struck first by stealing second base. He stole it easily. He only needed to wait for a curve ball, and Price obliged him. Now he was in scoring position. The defense was tense, taut, out of sorts. Andrus had created chaos for his adversary. He went in for the kill.

As Price delivered again to Josh Hamilton, Andrus took off for third base. Hamilton hit a ground ball deep to the hole at first base—perfect. Andrus slowed only long enough to watch first baseman Carlos Pena field the ball and ensure he'd flip to Price for the out at first base. He took off again.

Third base coach Dave Anderson put up the stop sign. Andrus ran through it. Pena flipped to Price, who knew Andrus was heading home. Everyone knew Andrus was heading home. It made no difference. Price whirled as he stepped on the bag to retire Hamilton, then just held onto the ball. There would have been no play. The Rays were dead on the field. Andrus, with speed as his weapon, had struck, cobra-like.

 

Execution by Emulation

Jeter had such a heads-up play. It remains perhaps his most indelible performance. In Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, he sprinted across the field to collect a relay throw, flipped to the catcher and got an improbable out on a sensational play at home plate. Like Andrus's Rangers, Jeter's Yankees on that night had no momentum and were in danger of elimination. Like Jeter's Yankees, Andrus's Rangers won convincingly after the tides turned. 

Nor are the cerebral nature and graceful elan of the two men's greatest playoff moments the only logical point of comparison. Jeter, let no one forget, hit more balls on the ground this season than any other hitter in baseball. Andrus finished second. Andrus, like the young Jeter of the mid-1990s, has an infectious personality that makes him very much a part of a team fraught with veterans who might normally disdain such a brash and confident youngster.

Are Andrus' stats on a par with Jeter's, even in the elder man's rookie year? Not at all, or at least not offensively. Then again, Jeter didn't attain a real big-league job until he was almost 22—or roughly the time Andrus hit the wall in his sophomore season. Used to be, heirs apparent had to work as lowly royal apprentices a bit longer. Andrus, like the other princes of his day (Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Starlin Castro jump to mind), caught the fast track to his throne.

 

What Kind of Day Has it Been?

Ultimately, Andrus' season is far from over. He has at least four more games left in which to salvage a dreadful offensive campaign, and to boot (or not to boot), he is already a better defender of that most crucial defensive slot than Jeter ever was.

He has not cut his hair since March in deference to the team's great performance all year—given the season he had, the inversion of Samson's tale could hardly be more complete. Andrus is just 22; his future won't hinge on this series. If the Rangers win, Jeter's might.

The common parsing is to call Jeter the best shortstop of this generation. The premise of excellence is accurate; the parameters of time may not be any longer. Andrus is of this generation. Jeter is of another.

Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.

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