No one may have been more relieved by Derek Jeter getting two hits on Monday night than Joe Girardi.
That’s not to say the Yankees manager was completely relieved afterwards. The Yankees lost to the Angels, 4-1, and Girardi was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in a clownish display by umpire Laz Diaz. Following the game, Girardi told reporters that he felt Diaz deliberately provoked the Yankees. In particular, Girardi didn’t appreciate Diaz wagging his finger, like Dikembe Mutumbo after blocking a shot.
While resentment toward Diaz might linger for the next two games with the Angels, Girardi has a potentially far bigger concern to address. The Yankees are expected to activate shortstop Brendan Ryan from the disabled list on Tuesday, and that has some people — such as New York Post columnist Joel Sherman — wondering whether or not he should take some playing time away from Jeter.
At face value, the idea seems ludicrous. Bench Derek Jeter — the Captain, the truest of true Yankees, the future Hall of Famer — for Brendan Ryan, who’s played all of 17 games in pinstripes? Yet that’s how ineffective Jeter has been so far this season. While he ended April batting .272 with a .352 on-base percentage, Jeter’s .660 OPS showed that he wasn’t making much of an impact.
Since then, Jeter’s actually been worse. Going into Monday’s game, he had two hits in his last 24 at-bats (an .083 average). That dropped his batting average to .240 an OPS to .582. As Sherman points out in his column, that’s the sort of offensive production we’ve come to expect from Ryan, a .237 career hitter hasn’t had an OPS over .565 in his past four seasons.
But from 2010 through the 2012 season, Ryan was the best defensive shortstop in MLB, according to FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating. He saved his team more than 37 runs during those three seasons, nearly 10 more than his closest competitor. Ryan was also credited with 67 Defensive Runs Saved, 41 more than the shortstop ranking behind him, the White Sox’s Alexei Ramirez.
By comparison, Jeter cost the Yankees nearly 10 runs during the same span. He was also charged with -42 Defensive Runs Saved, the worst among shortstops who played enough innings to qualify for consideration. It’s become vogue to bash Jeter’s defense as advanced metrics have exposed his shortcomings in the field. But the numbers make the point vividly.
So here is the Yankees’ dilemma: If the team can’t get any offensive production from shortstop, at least it can make sure someone plays quality defense at the position. But there’s benching a player, and then there’s Benching Derek Jeter.
Yet even if Girardi is considering such a move, there are reasons other than Jeter’s legacy that complicate the situation. Ryan is really the only alternative at shortstop for the Yankees. And as we’ve explained, he’s not really an upgrade. If the Yankees had a phenom such as Xander Bogaerts or Javier Baez ready to take over, this could be an easier decision. Jeter might even be willing to cede to the future if he could see that stepping aside would make the team better.
Another issue is that Jeter isn’t the only Yankees hitter struggling right now. Brian McCann is batting .217 with a .611 OPS. Carlos Beltran is batting .245 with a .752 OPS. Alfonso Soriano has a .248 average to go with a .719 OPS. If Girardi benches Jeter, what is his next move? Will he have set a precedent under which he’d have to sit one or more of those other hitters down? Would it just be easier to justify taking Jeter out of the lineup because he’s going to be 40 years old in June?
If age provides the rationalization, what should the Yankees do about Hiroki Kuroda? He’s 39 years old, has a 5.14 ERA and allowed 41 hits in 35 innings this season. His strikeout rate is slightly down, while his hits allowed per nine innings has increased significantly. Oh, and Kuroda’s velocity is down too. Should Girardi take Kuroda out of the rotation? Even if he wanted to, can he afford to with no viable replacement to take his place — especially with Michael Pineda set to go on the DL with a back injury?
The idea of benching Jeter is a provocative one, which is surely one reason it’s being raised among New York media. But should Girardi react to what amounts to a small sample size from one month of play? Even if the projections look bad for Jeter and he figures to get worse, there’s still a considerable amount of time to determine if there’s another move to make. (For example, Stephen Drew is still available and could be a longer-term solution.)
Realistically, the better decision for Girardi is to keep Jeter in the starting lineup and hope that he can improve, especially in hitting for extra bases. Ryan could be used as a defensive replacement in later innings. Even if that was perceived as an indignity for Jeter, it would be far less embarrassing than being benched entirely. Plus, everyone could justify the move by saying it could help the Yankees protect leads and win games.
Moving Jeter down in the batting order is another possibility, though one that general manager Brian Cashman didn’t want to touch when asked about it by Sherman. But Jeter still has one of the best on-base percentages among Yankees regulars, which allows Girardi to wave off that decision. Eventually, the Yankees manager may feel that a batter with more pop is a better No. 2 hitter. But for now, the Yankees need those guys in the middle of the lineup.
This is the circumstance everyone involved with the Yankees — and many, many baseball fans — hoped to avoid. In his final season, the storybook ending would’ve been for Jeter to have a good season, to finish his career on such a high note that some would say he should perhaps come back for yet one more year. After playing 25 games, however, it doesn’t appear that Jeter will go out on top like Mariano Rivera did. He looks like a player coming off a serious injury and approaching 40 years old.
Eventually, the Yankees will have to decide whether or not they can contend in the AL East and wild-card races with Jeter at shortstop. But it’s still too early to make that call. If that’s the only problem this team has to deal with by July or August, the Yankees will probably be all right.