Jeter patient in march toward 3,000 hits
BOSTON -- Yankees captain Derek Jeter is 67 hits away from 3,000. And the way the season has begun offensively for the 36-year-old shortstop, getting there might be a long, slow slog.
Utilizing a new stance and approach at the plate, Jeter has shown some signs this weekend at Fenway Park of coming out of his offensive funk. He's singled twice -- once in each of the first two games, both grounders up the middle. That currently places him at 2,933, two hits behind Barry Bonds for 33rd on all-time list.
"It's early in the season. If he goes 3-for-3, nobody is going to question what's going on. That's the bottom line," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before Jeter went 1-for-4 on Saturday with an eight-pitch walk during New York's 9-4 win over the Red Sox. "We've had some hitters that have done that this year. It's happened. The weather conditions that the hitters are playing in aren't the best, either. I think he's going to be fine."
None of this talk would be happening if it wasn't for the backdrop of contentious free-agent contract talks this past offseason and a 64-point drop in Jeter's batting average from .334 in 2009 to .270 last season. Jeter is going to be 37 on June 24, which is an advanced age for a player at such a demanding position.
Cal Ripken Jr., for example, was moved from shortstop to third base at that age. On the Yankees, with Alex Rodriguez at third, that clearly is not an option.
But defense really isn't the issue, as his heads-up play to end Saturday's second inning attested. With runners on first and second and two outs, Jeter ranged to his right to field a grounder hit by Carl Crawford in the hole. Without hesitation, Jeter threw to Rodriguez, forcing J.D. Drew.
"Well, I wasn't going to get Crawford at first," Jeter explained. "The only play was to third. You have to take those things into consideration before they happen."
Though some have noted that Jeter's range is limited, he still won his fifth Gold Glove Award last season. What he has lost in range, he makes up in field sense. He has uncanny peripheral vision, much like Magic Johnson had on a basketball court.
It's his offense that has people worried, concerning the Yankees enough that they negotiated hard with Jeter, ultimately giving him a deal worth a base of $51 million over the course of three years. At one point, the Yankees told Jeter to go out into the open market and see what he was worth. Jeter, dedicated to continuing his career in New York, declined.
But there is some truth to those doubts. Scouts say that Jeter has lost a couple of steps running down the line and that his bat speed is slow. To compensate for the latter, the righty-swinging Jeter widened his stance and is not taking a stride when he swings. Instead, he slightly lifts his left foot.
Jeter, who is 2-for-9 in the series that concludes at the Fens on Sunday night and is hitting .233 overall, said he's tired of talking about the adjustments he's made.
"You guys keep asking me, but I'm striding the same, how about that?" Jeter said. "I don't know what to tell you about it.
"I'm not doing anything different, really. I've talked about it enough. I'm not thinking about it. I'm just trying to go out there and do it."
With the season only eight games old, Jeter did add that he's beginning to feel more comfortable at the plate.
"I've felt pretty good the last few days," he said. "I just want to carry it and just want it to continue. I've been happy with my at bats."
Like the Red Sox, who have opened the season 1-7, Jeter's 7-for-30 showing has been exacerbated because it's only mid-April, he said.
"I think you guys pay too much attention to what goes on the first week of the season," Jeter said. "If it was the middle of August, nobody would notice. Right now, there's a focus because there's just no foundation yet to build on."
To be sure, Jeter has suffered through slow starts. When Rodriguez was traded by Texas to the Yankees in 2004, Jeter couldn't hit a lick for that season's first two months. On May 25, Jeter was batting .189 through 43 games. He eventually got going and finished the season at .292. Of course, Jeter was only 29 at the time and those two months were certainly an aberration. His .270 last year may not be. It was the lowest batting average for a full season in his 16-year career.
Add the cumulative factor of playing 147 playoff games at the most pressurized time of the year and baseball experts are wondering if this time they've spotted a trend. Not so, said Girardi.
"When you make adjustments as a player you'd love to have 300, 400 at-bats under your belt before the season starts," he explained. "[Jeter] didn't get nearly that many and it could take a little bit of time. But I see things. He drove in a run [on Friday]. It was a big run on a breaking ball down and over the plate. He'll get going."
There is no shame in all of this, of course. Time and age are the enemies of all superlative athletes. At 36, Roberto Alomar couldn't play nearly at his old All-Star level and the second baseman retired after 17 seasons with 2,724 hits. This coming July 24, he'll be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with pitcher Bert Blyleven and general manager Pat Gillick.
No matter what Jeter does from here, a plaque in the Hall is all but assured. He has proven his mettle with five World Series titles and eventually he'll become the first player in history to cross the 3,000-hit plateau with all those knocks coming while dressed in Yankees pinstripes.
He just might get there a little bit later than anticipated.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.