Yankee Captain Looks Like Jeter of Old

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Mark Twain's oft- and mis-quoted statement regarding the premature reports of his own demise is aptly ascribed to Derek Jeter. Just two years ago, in the midst of his horrendous 2010 campaign, Jeter suffered the indignity of the slings and arrows from so many columnists who wanted to usher the supposedly aging 36-year-old Yankees superstar - indeed, the greatest Yankees position player since Mickey Mantle - out the door. It was truly a “yeah, but what have you done for me lately” scenario.

Many analysts seemed to relish Jeter's declining offensive output as it dovetailed with their graphics - and stats-obsessed viewpoint that Jeter was a terrible fielder and had been so for years. We all heard about his pathetic range and how he was not just a below average fielder but an actual liability to the Yankees defense. All this discussion despite the fact that Jeter has won five Gold Gloves, including in 2010 (admittedly many dispute the awarding of the Gold Gloves but still, they are selected by his peers), and possesses a preternatural, instinctual ability in the field that is palpable but not evident on a stat sheet. And of course there's always been the knock on Jeter that he's basically just a singles hitter.

Yet what was lost in all this was that Jeter's 2010 numbers were an absolute anomaly. There wasn't some gradual decline in production that reached an embarrassing nadir in 2010 and validated the over-early obituaries of No. 2; consider that in 2009, when he hit .334, he was third in MVP voting. The fact that Jeter's one bad year was so immediately seized upon by so many can be viewed as anecdotal proof that there was an irrational urge to declare him suddenly irrelevant. It was also evidence that even with the over-abundance of commentators, perspective is a quality that so many sportswriters, as well as fans, are devoid of.

But how things have changed in Jeter’s universe since then.

Here we are, at the very early stages of the 2012 season, and Jeter is once again hitting the ball the way he's done throughout most of his career. Granted, the season is only 10 percent complete but the numbers don't lie; Jeter has a modest 13-game hitting streak - hitting safely in 15 of the Yankees 16 games thus far, with six multi-hit games in that stretch – and has a batting average of .411, including .627 against lefties, and an OBP of .436. Additionally the Yankee captain has already hit four homeruns on the young season (which means it's likely he'll hit 20 homers for the first time since 2004 - though home runs for Jeter are more of a bonus than a legitimate measure of how successful he is).

The season is young and it’d be foolhardy to extrapolate six months forward, but if the early going is any indication of what lies ahead, Jeter is on pace to have his best year since … 2009 or 2006 or 2003 or 1999. The level of consistency that Jeter has produced throughout his Hall of Fame career is nearly matchless over the last 20 years.  

What is perhaps most encouraging to the Yankees about Jeter’s production thus far in 2012 is the fact that he has returned to what made him such a solid hitter in the first place. Jeter has always had an inside-out swing, his power always being greatest to right center field. During 2010 Jeter was jumping at the ball far too often, reaching with his swings. Starting last year and especially during the first few weeks of this season, Jeter is once again waiting on the ball and keeping his head prone down – though it’s one of the basic rules of hitting, it’s nonetheless hard to maintain.

Jeter said as much after Monday night’s 7-4 victory over the two-time defending American League champions Texas Rangers in which the shortstop-turned-occasional-DH recorded a four-hit effort. "When I stay back, I feel like good things can happen," said the soon-to-be-38 Jeter. "I went through a long stretch where I didn't stay back. Now I'm staying back, and if you're able to do that, good things happen. But it's not like this is the first time I've done it in my career."

Well said. What makes Jeter such an outstanding and universally admired athlete – even if despised by many of those outside New York – is that he manages to never let a lingering, negative mindset take hold. Take a glance back at his comments from last year or early 2010 when his continued offensive impotence produced a deafening chorus of naysayers. Nearly every time he was asked a question about his struggles at the plate, Jeter would utter something similar, that he knows what to do, he’s done it all his career and he’ll likely do it again. It was an object lesson in arresting the insidious march of self-doubt.

Sometime, and it’ll likely be within a few years, Jeter will face the issue of a steep decline in production and the dreaded word “retire.” But it’s clear, at least in the early stages of this season, that he’s got a lot left. And with Joe Girardi selectively using Jeter as a DH and resting his weary bones I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeter is once again in the top 10 in MVP voting by season’s end, once again leading the Yankees in the postseason, and once again adding to his stellar career totals that will further his standing as a legend in the game.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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