Thursday, February 13, 2014
And Then There Were None
Bernie Williams was the first Yankee that I really watched develop from minor league prospect to Hall of Fame caliber MLB player, even if he didn’t quite reach the bar. When Bernie came up in 1991 he was joining a team that had finished last in the AL East in the previous season and was on its way to going 71-91 that year. He didn’t have a great rookie year, but he showed flashes of what would eventually come and by 1993 he had established himself as the starting CF on a team that was steadily improving. The Yankees probably would have made the postseason in 1994 if not for the lockout, and then they got the wild card in 1995 and lost a heart-breaking series in the ALDS to Seattle.
For a lot of Yankee fans, Derek Jeter is actually the player that Bernie was for me.
I’d love to say I remember Jeter’s debut in 1995, but I really don’t. He got called up towards the end of May and spent a couple of weeks in the majors and didn’t really do anything of note, hitting .234/.280/340 in 50 PA before being sent down until September. I do remember him getting called up and making a couple of appearances in September. While Andy Pettitte established himself in 1995 and Mariano Rivera pitched a fair amount, Jeter and Jorge Posada were really footnotes that year, although the fact that Posada made a pinch-running appearance that year in the ALDS tickles me to no end.
I had no idea what was coming next. I don’t think any of us did. The fact is, the majority of prospects never pan out. While Jeter and Posada and Pettitte and Rivera were all considered decent to great prospects, the odds were against them becoming what they eventually did become. But 1996 saw Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte become key contributors. It took Posada a few more years to join the mix. Jeter won the Rookie of the Year in 1996 and the Yankees won the World Series, something they hadn’t done in 18 years.
And we still didn’t know what was to come. After a disappointing end to the 1997 season, the Yankees demolished MLB in 1998 and Jeter was probably the most valuable player on the team that year, finishing third in the AL in the MVP balloting. He followed that up with a sublime 1999 that had him as probably the most valuable position player in the league. Although he never replicated that season again, he continued to provide the Yankees with offense that few teams were getting out of the shortstop position.
As I became more aware of statistical analysis in baseball, I began to resent the deification of Jeter by the mass media. I’m a bit of a contrarian and the fact that Jeter was so fawned over started to turn me against him. Despite what some people would like to believe, I never actually ‘hated’ Jeter, but I probably underrated him because of that. I would focus on the fact that his defensive metrics didn’t match his reputation and that he wasn’t as good as the talking heads made him out to be. He didn’t occupy the same place in my fandom that Rivera or Bernie did.
The faces changed around the core over the next decade, but Jeter kept on keeping on. There are way too many memories to list, but I often think about his 2004. On May 19 Jeter had 183 PA and was hitting .187/.250/.265 in a season that was heading to disaster. Over his next 538 PA he hit .329/.387/.543 and salvaged a season that looked lost. And of course, he had his famous sprint/dive into the stands in the July 1 game that year, saving a game that felt like a postseason game that the Yankees would eventually win in 12 innings.
When Jeter hit .270/.340/.370 at age 36 in 2010 (an OPS+ of 90) I thought he was done. But he proceeded to hit .308/.359/.411 (OPS+ of 107) over the next two years.
I had a hard time getting into last year’s team. I never thought of myself as a fair-weather fan. I mean hell, I’m a Buffalo Bills fan and I don’t even remember the last time they had a winning record. But last year’s Yankee team wasn’t very good and didn’t hold my interest much. Is it a coincidence that they also didn’t have Jeter for almost the entire year? Their problems were larger than that, but I can’t help but think that not having him around made the team feel different.
I don’t think the 2014 Yankees are a particularly good team. They can contend if a lot of stuff goes right, which could happen. One of those things would be Jeter defying his age, staying healthy and hitting well enough to compensate for his defensive limitations.
Bernie’s 2003 knee injury ended up turning him from a great player to a replacement level player and as much as I was a fan of his, it was tough to watch him at the end. Posada’s concussions cost him his job at catcher and his offense out of DH wasn’t good enough although he did end his career with a strong ALDS in a losing cause.
We were fortunate enough to see Rivera and Pettitte exit baseball while still being valuable players.
I hope we’ll get to see the same from Jeter.
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