The regular season has come to a close and any postseason that does not include the Boston Red Flops is a positive. The Yankees enter the playoffs with the best record in the American League (97-65) and with home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series. It is time for the final season report cards on the players that brought them to this point.
SHORTSTOP – DEREK JETER (6 HRs, 61 RBIs, .297 BA, 84 Rs, 16 SBs)
To most people, Derek Jeter was a washed up shortstop at the midpoint of 2011. He was coming off a 2010 season in which he hit a career-low .270 and he was hitting .260 after 81 games in 2011. On top of that, he was on the 15-day disabled list with a calf injury. At age 37, Jeter seemed to be declining right before our eyes. But what a difference a great second half makes. Jeter raised his season average to .297 and he hit four home runs and drove in 41 runs. He failed to score 100 runs for only the third time in his career. But he did contribute 16 stolen bases, which is not bad for a player his age. The turnaround was largely connected to his rehab in Tampa, FL, where he reworked his swing back to his old mechanics rather than the so-called “no-stride” makeover batting coach Kevin Long suggested. It was quickly apparent with Jeter’s 5-for-5 day in which he collected his 3,000th hit was the re-emergence of the Jeter that Yankee fans were used to seeing. It is true that Jeter likely won’t approach the 24 home runs, 102 RBIs and .349 average he recorded in 1998 when he was 24. But Yankee fans can certainly accept a .297 season from a 37-year-old shortstop who bats leadoff for the best offense in the American League. Jeter likely will not win his sixth Gold Glove because of all the abuse sabermetricians heaped upon last season when he earned his fifth. Jeter committed 12 eroors in the 121 games he started. That was up from the career-low six he was charged with in 2010. Most of the errors came on careless throws to first base. But Jeter remains one of the most sure-handed shortstops in baseball despite his diminished range at the position.
When Jeter was on the disabled list, Eduardo Nunez, 24, played in his place and he hit .347 during Jeter’s absence. Scouts who saw Nunez in the minors believed his bat was major-league caliber. Nunez also provided the second-best stolen base threat on the team behind Brett Gardner. Nunez stole 22 bases in 28 attempts despite the fact he started only 85 games. In only 309 at-bats, Nunez hit five home runs, drove in 30 runs and, only due to a last-season slide, he hit a mere .265. Most baseball experts believe if he played full-time, Nunez could hit about .285 with 12-15 home runs and 60 RBIs and steal 40 bases. That is good enough to start for most major-league teams. Not the Yankees with Jeter. Nunez’s downside is his glove, especially in just the 39 starts he made at shortstop. Nunez was charged with 17 errors in just over two-thirds fewer chances than Jeter. There is no doubt Nunez has superior range to Jeter. But Nunez is an error machine in cleats. If he wants to be a starting major-league shortstop he is going to have to work harder on his fielding.
Ramiro Pena also made two starts at short and he uncharacteristically made two errors. Pena is considered an exceptional infielder, particularly at short. But his bat is a big zero. He hit only .100 in 40 at-bats, which is why he lost his backup infield spot to Nunez in spring training. Pena is not on the postseason roster.
SECOND HALF GRADES
Jeter received a C+ for his first half so you have to reward him with an A for his turnaround in the second half. At .297, Jeter missed hitting .300 or better for only the fifth tim in his career. In four of those five seasons, Jeter has hit .291 or better. He is still a career .313 hitter and he is the only Yankee player to have reached the 3,000-hit plateau. So are there still those who believe Jeter should just retire now? Funny how those folks stopped talking about Jeter in July. Jeter is still the driver of the Yankee offense from the leadoff spot and he is key player as the playoffs begin. Jeter is a career .309 hitter in the postseason. In the Yankees’ 2009 championship season he hit .344 in the postseason. You will not see Nunez at shortstop in the postseason unless Jeter is injured. That is a good thing because Nunez scares Yankee fans with his erratic glove. He is more valuable coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner.
There those who follow the Yankees that believed Nunez should have replaced Jeter after he hit so well during Jeter’s absence. If you ask those folks now they will either say nothing or admit they were wrong. Jeter has earned his position as the team’s captain, shortstop and leadoff hitter with a lot of hard work. So at 37 he is not what he was at age 24. Who is? But he is still a solid hitter and a sure-handed fielder witha flair for the dramatic in the postseason. Nunez’s time will come someday but it will not come this October. That time is reserved for The Captain.