This isn’t news. Derek Jeter‘s defense has long been a flashpoint. There is no right answer to the “is Derek Jeter a good defender” question but there is a wrong answer: “it won’t matter to the Yankees.”
It will matter to the Yankees. It already matters to the 2014 Yankees.
It is wholly unfair to grab one play out of context and hold it up as an example of a player’s defensive shortcomings. Fall down range doesn’t have to be a death sentence for an infielder.
But the Yankees don’t have much in the way of support for Derek Jeter, or Brian Roberts at second, or Solarte at third, or Kelly Johnson at first, or…you get the point. Not only is the Yankees defense poor, but now we’re talking about 44% of the Yankees lineup that hopes to be healthy enough to put up league-average offense.
Offense is something the Yankees won’t struggle to generate, but their defense is already proving problematic for the Yankees.
The above play came at a bad time for Yankees starter Ivan Nova, who was tossing up BP during today’s start against the Baltimore Orioles. But as demonstrated Friday night, Masahiro Tanaka is a ground ball machine who needs as much support as his infield can provide. Michael Pineda‘s slider heavy approach is sure to generate plenty of ground balls. CC Sabathia‘s ground ball ways tax the infield defense as well.
Every team could stand to improve its defense on the infield, but those who figure to struggle often offset this weakness with strength in another way. The Yankees pitching staff, to its credit, features three pitchers with exemplary control, so extra base runners won’t come at their expense.
Do the previous two paragraphs appear as though I’m talking my way into the current Yankees defensive alignment as a non-nuclear option? It should. Maybe it won’t undo their entire season but it is something that is a problem now and further injuries could turn into an epidemic.
As Jeff Sullivan pointed out this winter, Derek Jeter’s defensive reputation belies his actual standing on the defensive spectrum. He might be a lower-middle class shortstop but that isn’t to suggest he’s a useless with a glove in his hand. There were stories in 2009 about a sheepish Yankees staffer who approached the Captain about his defense before the season, to which Jeter expressed surprise that his glove work was less than heralded. So Jeter put in extra work and voila, he produced the only positive season according to advanced defensive stats on record.
This convenient story ignores the realities of defensive stats, which could perhaps be viewed as “useless” on their own, especially in single season slices. But the facts remain: one 40-year old shortstop since 1947 qualified for the batting title and that was Omar Vizquel in 2007. Vizquel’s defense fell from a much higher perch than the back half of Jeter’s career.
Can one shortstop undo an entire team’s season? The quick answer is “no” but the real answer is “it depends.” The Yankees pitching staff looks like it could handle a pretty hefty load on its own (Ivan Nova excepted) but even the best pitchers can’t weather too many four-out innings.
Derek Jeter is 40. Derek Jeter isn’t much of a shortstop anymore. None of this is news. But what can the Yankees do? There was talk of moving Jeter to center field when Bernie Williams was set to retire, how about moving Jeter off shortstop now that another homegrown Yankee moved on – would they consider slotting Jeter in at second base when Brendan Ryan returns?
The Yankees spent a whole lot of money this winter, so much that standing on ceremony might become an unpalatable option as the season wears on, provided New York lurks around a playoff position. Defensive caddy, late-inning replacement…how much is too much abuse for the legacy of one of the greatest players in franchise history?
If the Yankees don’t do step in, the pride of the Yankees could goeth before the fall. (Ship all literary awards to 500 King Street West, Toronto ON.)