Over the past year, seeing Mark Teixeira on a baseball field has become a lot like the total lunar eclipse blood moon phenomenon that was visible across the US early Tuesday morning - it doesn't happen very often. And also like the blood moon for most of the east coast thanks to thick cloud cover, Teixeira's comeback attempts over the past year or so have amounted to pretty much nothing. It's a situation that's left Yankee fans frustrated, to say the least, wondering whether their team will get any return whatsoever on the $67.5 million they still owe their first baseman through 2016.
2014 wasn't supposed to begin like this for Teixeira. He was supposed to be back, fully recovered from the torn ECU sheath that cost him virtually all of 2013, ready to bring his much-missed power bat to the center of the Yankee lineup. But then spring training happened. The month of March saw Teixeira go 3 for 35 in exhibition games with no home runs and just one extra-base hit. Teixeira drew heat for complaining - honestly, but repeatedly, about the lack of strength he felt in his surgically repaired wrist, which he said was stopping him from fully letting loose on his swing. And then the season began. In four games, Tex was a sort-of better 3 for 13 (all singles) before reaching for a ball in foul territory, pulling a hamstring, and landing on the DL once again.
This year's early returns are just more piled on to a massive landfill of disappointment that's buried Teixeira for the past year and to a degree, over his Yankee career as a whole. From the offensive drop-off that began in 2010, a few years before anyone expected, to the strained calf that kept him out for most of September in 2012, to the above-mentioned wrist injury suffered while training for the World Baseball Classic with Team USA last March, to the epic fail of a return attempt in May that ceded first base to retreads for virtually all of 2013, it's been a rough go, and fan opinion has gotten less and less forgiving.
Injuries usually aren't a player's fault, and most people know that, but knowing and accepting aren't always the same, especially when said player earns upwards of $22 million per season. Teixeira's also managed to rub some fans the wrong way with some of the comments he's made to the media. His public self-doubt regarding his wrist hasn't done him any favors, and his steadfast defiance when anyone dares mention the possibility of hitting away from the shift that opposing managers deploy against his left-handed self isn't so popular either. There's a lot of fervent and often irrational fan angst floating aimlessly around the Yankee Universe - with Alex Rodriguez off polishing his mariachi skills somewhere - and it seems to have found a new target of choice in Teixeira. But is all that ire even remotely fair?
Let's tackle the least credible criticisms of Teixiera first. When he went down with the hamstring pull in the first week of the season we heard a lot of talk that it was a sign he "didn't care anymore" or "wasn't in shape." We've also heard the idea put out there that Teixeira's interests outside of baseball, like his infamous gross-looking juice business, were "distracting" him somehow. None of that's true. Throughout his career, Teixeira's never been described as anything but a ridiculously hard worker and there's hasn't been anything leaked to suggest that he skimped on his rehab during his time off last year. If Teixeira can't make it fully back, it won't be because he doesn't want it badly enough.
On to the more serious stuff. There are two pretty commonly held misnomers about Teixeira and the struggles that began for him in 2010, his second year as a Yankee. The first is that the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium has turned him into a one-dimensional pull hitter from the left side, who only swings for the fences. It's the opposite, really - a huge part of the reason the Yankees decided to commit eight years and $180 million to Teixeira was that his left-handed swing was already a near-perfect fit for their ballpark. Teixeira's always been a pull hitter as a lefty, especially when it comes to balls hit on the ground. In 2008, when Teixeira played for the Braves and Angels in arguably the best offensive season of his career - a year that saw him hit .311/.405/.588 with a wRC+ of 157 from the left side, his spray chart was almost identical to what it was in 2012, when he hit just .239/.341/.448 left-handed. Teixeira's lefty struggles as a Yankee are due to a natural loss of bat speed that's turned fly balls and line drives into grounders and pop-ups when pitchers jam him inside, not a desperate need to hit home runs in Yankee Stadium.
The second major misconception is that Teixeira's problems since 2010 can be blamed entirely or at least in large part on defensive shifts. This is where Tex has gotten himself in trouble with fans prickly about the fact that he won't start bunting or slapping the ball to defeat an infield stacked with three or four guys on the right side. The thing about the shift, though, is that the only hits it takes away are singles. Sure it's funny when a lefty power guy hits a tapper toward third and it's an easy hit, with someone needing to run clear across the infield to grab it. I'm not suggesting that a well-timed bunt down two runs with no one on base wouldn't be a good idea. But for the most part, that's not who Teixeira is or what he's here to do. Scorched liners and deep flies don't get scooped up by repositioned infielders. The Yankees need the kind of hitter Tex used to be - even if it's a severely watered down edition- a lot more than they need a slow version of Ichiro Suzuki.
Besides, beating the shift by going the other way isn't as easy as some would like to think. To match their fielders' positioning, pitchers generally work from the middle of the plate in on left-handed Teixeira. A power hitter for his entire life, he doesn't have a Derek Jeter inside-out special in his repertoire to combat that approach, and trying to develop one would result in a lot of flimsy at bats that don't produce that much even when they're successful.
Teixeira played three innings in an extended spring training game yesterday with the goal of rejoining the Yankees as early as Sunday. It's time to accept that his eight-year deal isn't going to go down as one of the great successes in Yankee history. It's also time to separate Mark Teixeira the contract from Mark Teixeira the player. The first baseman the Yankees are getting back, when healthy, has never actually had a bad season. In 2012, at his worst, he was an above average hitter (.251/.332/.475 116 wRC+) with still excellent power (.224 ISO) playing stellar defense (12.9 UZR/150). He also mashed from the right side to the tune of a .263 ISO, a .364 wOBA and a wRC+ of 129, which would be a welcome addition to a fairly lefty-heavy lineup. That kind of production doesn't win MVP's or Silver Sluggers, but it's a kind the Yankees could seriously benefit from somewhere in the middle of their order.