NEW YORK — Derek Jeter is tired of all the scrutiny of his swing.
“I’m happy when I’m not talking about it,” the Yankees captain said before getting two hits Wednesday night in a win over Baltimore.
Stride. No stride. Toe tap. Heel lift. Jeter’s famous stroke has been one the most analyzed aspects of the young season, and he’s not even off to the worst start in baseball.
Albert Pujols, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Vernon Wells and Adrian Beltre are just a few of the stars around the big league’s trying to find their rhythm at the plate.
And get this, five regulars in New York’s lineup have averages lower than Jeter’s .237 after 10 games.
Yet little is made of their troubles.
None of those players, though, is a five-time World Series champion nearing his 3,000th hit and two months shy of his 37th birthday, when many players’ skills are in decline.
“I don’t think Derek wants to talk about it anymore just because A: Derek doesn’t like talking about himself. He’d prefer to talk about the team,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, “and B: He’d prefer to go to work. He wants to work.”
And work he has.
Jeter began adjusting his swing during a session in mid-September in Texas, when he was in a prolonged slump. He has been working with hitting coach Kevin Long ever since to find a comfort zone at the plate.
The pair have tried to simplify Jeter’s stride as his hand quickness diminishes with age so he’ll be moving toward the mound and not falling famously toward the plate. During his summer swoon, the 11-time All-Star was too often getting jammed on inside pitches rather than sending signature line drives to right-center.
It seemed to pay dividends. Jeter hit over .300 the final few weeks to finish the year batting .270. That was well below his .314 career average and his lowest average over a full season since he became a starter in 1996.
The hitting clinic continued into the offseason and through spring training with Jeter trying to adopt a full no-stride swing then backing off some in March. Right now he looks somewhere between his old style and new.
The early results have not been promising. More worrisome than the average — in 2004 he slumped to .168 at the end of April before finishing at .292 — Jeter is not driving the ball to right field. He has one extra-base hit, a sacrifice fly and a lined single to right Wednesday night to account for his best hit balls in his first 38 at-bats. Most of his outs have been weak grounders, a su re sign he is not comfortable at the plate.
Girardi is not worried. At least not yet.
“I think some times people want to evaluate quickly just because of who he is and what he went through a little bit last year and you look at his age,” Girardi said. “We don’t do that because we know it’s a long season and there’s a lot of guys that get off to a slow start and have very good years.”
A fixture at the top of the lineup since he was Rookie of the Year in 1996, critics have been questioning whether the Yankees would be better off with Jeter lower in the order.
Girardi said he wouldn’t make any judgments until he has a better sample of at-bats, somewhere between 100 and 150. So any change might not come until mid-May.
By then, the coverage of Jeter’s drive to becoming the first player in a Yankees uniform to reach 3,000 hits should be in full swing. Dropping him could affect what should be a feel-good month. Remember the hoopla over Alex Rodriguez being dumped to the 8-hole for a playoff game in 2006?
More important, it is unknown how Jeter would handle yet another blow to his pristine image. This offseason general manager Brian Cashman publicly challenged Jeter to find a better deal elsewhere during contract negotiations that ended in a three-year, $51 million deal. And while unnamed, Jeter was clearly a target of Hank Steinbrenner’s when the team’s co-chairman said some players were busier building mansions than trying to win.
Taking outside pressures on the field is not uncommon.
Wells was given the day off by the Angels after a 4-for-44 start with his new team. Pujols, whom Girardi called on Wednesday one of the best hitters ever, may be pressing, too. The three-time NL MVP entered the season in the last year of his contract with the Cardinals after calling off negotiations during spring training. Pujols went 5 for 8 over his last two games to raise his average to .229 with one homer. Werth and Crawford are off to slow starts, perhaps because they’re trying a little too hard to immediately justify monster free-agent deals.
Girardi thinks Jeter is beyond psychological troubles, though.
“Derek has been through so much in his career I don’t think you have to worry about something getting into his head,” Girardi said. “This is a guy who’s always been some kind of player for a long time. He’s had to go through some ups and downs in his career and has had to battle on certain things. Derek’s mind is very strong. He knows how to shut things out and I think he’s capable of doing that.”