Sports Perspectives by Mark Elder

Friday, 6 February 2009

DJ to CF for NYY in 2009?

Derek Jeter is one of my (sports) heroes.  No, he’s not as historically significant as Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey.  He’s not a revolutionary and he probably never will be, but he makes and has made my life better and he brings a good many of us pride.  The New York Yankees have made my summers enjoyable for the past 19 or 20 years, since I really understood what the hell you’re supposed to do with a baseball, and Derek has been a big a part of that as any, so I’m going to address an old story that’s simultaneously a non-story and a potential future story:

Is Derek Jeter better suited to play center fielder than shortstop?

ESPN Insider online has a nice piece about the possibility of a move from SS to CF for DJ.  The answer is yes.  But the real answer is no.  The analysis is a familiar one:  as Jeter’s defensive range continues to erode, his remaining defensive attributes are more relevant to those of an outfielder than a shortstop, and the Yankees have no center fielder of whom to speak, so why not employ the slick fielding underpaid youngster at short, where there are more chances than center, and move the captain back a few meters?  He can continue to produce offensively and the Yankees will have a chance at being a great defensive team instead of a mediocre one.  With Molina calling games, Posada at DH and Derek in center field, the Yankees could be the top defensive team in the league behind Chien-Ming Wang, one of the top three ground-ball inducing starting pitchers in the world.  Sounds brilliant, right?  Well it is.  But it’s too brilliant.  Jeter tracks pop-ups and bloopers better than any shortstop I’ve ever seen, including Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and any Johnny-Come-Lateleys you can name.  His range is average to his right (maybe a little below average this season, as he is turning 35) and it’s straight up not good enough going to his left.  I’ve seen balls that were clearly on the shortstop side of the bag go to Cano because Cano has excellent range and, when he’s mentally focused and prepared to play, he gets an incredible jump on the ball off the bat.  He still accounts for more runs than he costs the team because he gets on base well and is sure-handed when he needs to be, but not 21 millions dollars worth of runs, to be sure.


Jeter snares a foul pop-up, twisting his body as the ball heads for the crowd


Let’s analyze this rationally, and then realistically:

-Jeter tracks balls in the air better than balls on the ground; and everyone knows this.
-Jeter has a strong arm and excellent body control.  He is a good athlete in addition to being a good baseball player.
-Anecdote is not data, but I have never seen Derek Jeter misplay a ball in the air into an error, and I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of Yankees’ games.
-Jeter can still make a nice play in the hole and give you an amazing jump-throw from the outfield grass all the way to first – no hops, but that’s about it.  More and more often as the years go on, his dives in the hole come up empty, and the numbers support that.  10 years ago, he’d snare it.  Just 2 years ago, he’d knock it down.  Now, the ball trickles through to Damon, who is the MLB version of your neighbor’s kid who your kid doesn’t want to play with because he throws like a girl.
-Going to his left, Jeter is slower than other good shortstops.  If he’s going to get there, his is the glove you want the ball in, but if there is a good chance for another SS to glove the grounder, and a poor/slim chance for DJ to glove the grounder, you’re giving the other team extra outs.
Rationally speaking, given these points, and the fact that center fielder for the New York Yankees is STILL one of the most important, high-profile positions in all of sport, the Yankees should move Derek Jeter to the outfield immediately.

Now let’s be realistic.  Derek Jeter is not just one of my sports heroes, he is that for about 30 million people across the nation.  He is SOLELY responsible for making shortstop of the New York Yankees the glamour position it is today.  Prior to Derek Jeter, it was center fielder of the New York Yankees that commanded your respect, admiration and awe.  Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth – all Yankees, all outfielders.  Shortstop?  Who was the Yankees shortstop in 1995 before Jeter was called up.  I know this, but only because I have a problem.  If you’re only moderately obsessed with the Yanks — you know, you’re obsessed, but you have it under control — then you might not know that it was Tony Fernandez playing the 6 position for 103 games in 1995.

Derek is an icon, a legend, a champion, a hero.  He’s the embodiment of the Yankees.  He’s a Yankee for life.  Is there a diner in the Bronx that would be so bold as to hand this man a tab after he eats?  I don’t think so.  (Whether Mr. Jeter has been to a diner in the BX borough in the last decade is an unrelated question)  The man has given us four championships, six pennants, 11 division titles and two wild cards.  How dare I even address the topic of asking him to play a different position?  I should never have even broached the subject.  I apologize.

Until Derek Jeter ASKS to switch positions, until we have a stud shortstop waiting in the wings, until it becomes clear than no amount of spending on other positions can compensate for Derek’s poor range as a 6, we have no right to move him to 8.  Why?  Because as long as you can win with this guy at his position of choice, you find a way to do it.  The Yankees may have found that way.  They have home run hitters at the corner infield positions, both of whom have strong arms and good defensive instincts, both of whom have won Gold Glove awards.  They have a second baseman with incredible range and a great arm.  They have TWO plus defenders who can play center field (neither of whom can get on base for shit) and a few others who are solid in the outfield tracking fly balls.  Molina behind the plate has had his right arm surgically replaced with an AR-15 and the Yankees have three ace pitchers who miss bats like nobody’s business.  Cap it all off with the greatest relief pitcher of all time, and you have the talent around Jeter to compensate for his degrading defensive abilities, without depriving us of the occasional flashes of brilliance.  Don’t you want to see Jason Varitek’s BA drop below .200 when DJ snares his slow grounder in the hole and jump-throws him out from left field somewhere, as newly-acquired Mark Teixeira streeeeetches toward short?  I know I still do.  Don’t rob us of that, Yankees.  Don’t tell us that our hero is ALREADY so mortal that he must vacate the position he made relevant before his $189,000,000 toll has even been paid.  Let Jeter be larger than life for a few more years, and then let him receive gobs and gobs of praise for coming out “of his own volition/accord” and telling Girardi that he will play outfield if it means more World Series championships for his beloved franchise.  That day will come and we irrationally heap the love all over him again, but until that day, just pay guys like Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett so that Derek doesn’t have to carry the burden of winning alone, and is weaknesses will not be glaringly obvious to the casual observer.  If we can win with Jeter at short, we’ll be reliving the glory days, and honestly, what Yankees fan doesn’t want to do that?  In the first year of the new Stadium, let the icon play the position he made iconic until it becomes painfully clear – to HIM – that he is costing the team a chance at victory.  At the moment, he is still good enough, still wiley enough and experienced enough and sure-handed enough to play shortstop for the best team in baseball.

However, when I step back and take off my pintriped glasses, if I must, though only for a moment, I can see that the Yankees organization sees the day coming when he, and perhaps Alex Rodriguez, move back to center field and right field, respectively.  They have not signed a long-term center fielder or right fielder in years, and I don’t think they will.  Admittedly the day is coming, but there is glory between now and then, I’m certain of that.  Think about how much easier it will be for either or both to make that move AFTER winning a title.  How much easier is it to step back and say “this is for the team, for the future” than to imply “this is for the team, but it’s long overdue, I’ve been playing the wrong position for years and you may therefore infer that I’ve cost you, the fan, multiple championships in doing so, if only for my own ego.”  After the 2010 season, Jeter will move, and do so gladly as the reigning MVP of the World Series.  ESPN talking heads:  get your praise ready now, you’ll be showering him with it then.


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