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To the Mats: Why Jeter's Slump Matters

The other end of the telescope: 20-year-old Derek Jeter visits Yankee Stadium in September, 1994. (AP)

As we're roughly halfway through what appears to be another Yankees loss (no doubt we will have more on that later) I thought I would take a moment to respond to a comment from my earlier entry on Derek Jeter's hot streak. This will be short and sweet:

If Jeter can keep up his hitting through the end of the season and postseason, who cares about the other 150 games?! -- Paul P

I do, and you should too. You're absolutely correct that if Jeter finishes strong and then has a hot postseason, he will go a long way towards making up for his subpar year. After all, they will have made it to October in spite of him, so no harm done there except for, perhaps, the loss of the division title and home-field advantage. If that comes to pass, the surrender to the Rays will also have had other authors, so maybe I shouldn't even throw that in there. If he then (in this hypothetical scenario) stays hot, his regular season work becomes moot as far as its impact on the championship. You could say, "Well, he didn't stop them from getting where they had to go, and then he was a big part of what they did ultimately do once they got to the big dance."

To that argument I would respond, "Fair enough--for NOW." Yes, Jeter would have put a nice ending on 2010. But 100 at-bats spread between September and the postseason doesn't necessarily tell us a damned thing about Jeter's status for next year, or how many years the Yankees should offer him. He was a highly ineffective player for most of the season, hitting .241/.327/.331 in 117 games from May 1 to Kevin Long's Texas intervention. He couldn't drive the ball, hitting grounder after grounder, punishing the Yankees with 18 double plays. Of all batters who have faced 75 or more double-play situations this season, Jeter is the fifth-worst in the American League with an 18 percent double-play rate, ninth-worst in the majors. Since Jeter doesn't add a whole lot in the way of defensive value, for most of the season he was actively pushing the Yankees away from the postseason.

If Jeter continues to hit .350 over the few games remaining to him and keeps going against the best pitchers in baseball, Cliff Lee and Francisco Liriano and Roy Oswalt and whoever else the Yankees might get to face if they keep winning, that will be a good sign that Jeter isn't done at 36, but as much as you or I might want it to be, it can't be the only evidence we or the Yankees consider as we think about what it will take to keep the team winning next year. I know I'm weird, but I care more about the winning of games and championships than I do about a player getting 3,000 hits. I still honor that player for his great career, but I begrudge any player any personal goal that stands in the way of the team doing what it's supposed to do.

So, yes: if Jeter stays hot he will have "come through when it counted," and as far as 2010 is concerned, it will be true. But as soon as the Yankees go home, whether with a World Series trophy or without one, 2010 is over, gone forever, part of the history books, and we will still have a 36-year-old, defensively challenged shortstop whose greatest skill this season was hitting into 6-4-3 double plays. There is every reason to care about that, no matter how feel-good the ending we might get now.