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Baseball 2000
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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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In Defense Of Jeter There’s nothing quite like a good argument in baseball. A recent internet ranking of major league shortstops (based strictly on defensive ability) placed Derek Jeter last among all major league starters, a claim that has rankled more than a few Yankee partisans—and even some non-Yankee fans. In contrast, Baseball America recently released its own survey showing Jeter among the top three defensive shortstops in the American League. So where exactly does the truth lie? Although Jeter’s defensive play has slipped a bit this season, it seems like a sensationalist effort to call him the worst defensive shortstop in either league, as that recent internet poll did. Yes, Jeter does have some flaws in his game. He is not very good at ranging to his left, often allowing ground balls near second base to dart past him into center field. His footwork is sloppy at times, perhaps a product of a long, lanky build that goes against the grain of the traditional shortstop’s frame. Yet, Jeter does some things very well, like going into the hole to his right, backhanding the ball, and making strong off-balance throws to first base. Jeter has a very potent arm (one of the best among major league shortstops) and is also terrific at ranging into the outfield on pop-ups. Given all of that, Jeter deserves to be considered an above-average defensive shortstop—not in the top three in the American League, mind you, but certainly not one of the five worst shortstops in the game. Many of Jeter’s detractors point to his poor showing in two defensive statistics that have become all the rage: range factor and zone rating. Range factor has some merits in judging a fielder’s ability to get to more grounders and fly balls than his counterparts, but zone rating is so flawed at this point that I’m hesitant to give it much credence. Unfortunately, those who criticize Jeter for his statistical shortcomings either haven’t seen him play very much (in contrast to this writer, who has seen the majority of Jeter’s games since he entered the major leagues in 1996) or have failed to put those statistical measures in the proper context. Jeter’s defensive statistics—specifically his range factor—are never going to be very good as long as the Yankees’ roster remains the way it is presently composed. At third base, the Yankees feature a superb fielder in Scott Brosius, who has fantastic range going to his left, allowing him to get to grounders that Jeter might otherwise have a chance of reaching. Furthermore—and this is an even more significant point—the Yankee pitching staff does not issue a high volume of ground balls. It is much more of a fly ball staff, a trend that only grew with the recent addition of Denny Neagle, who surprisingly gets most of his outs in the air. Of the starting pitchers, only Andy Pettitte and Ramiro Mendoza (when healthy) yield a high number of ground balls. In the bullpen, only Jason Grimsley, with his hard sinking fastball, produces a lot of grounders. Some Sabermetricians obviously don’t like Jeter’s defensive play, but what do the people whom Jeter’s fielding most directly affects—the Yankee pitchers—think of their starting shortstop? I've never heard or read a single complaint from a member of the Yankee pitching staff, even anonymously, about Jeter’s defensive abilities. In a media-crazed environment like New York City—where reporters seek controversy and criticism on a daily basis—it seems to me that some writer would have reported an anonymous Yankee pitcher’s knocks against Jeter. The fact that no one has leads me to believe that the pitchers don’t have a problem with Jeter’s play in the middle of the diamond. Finally, if Jeter was truly as bad as those internet rankings indicate, then how do we explain the Yankees’ ability to win as much as they have since his fulltime arrival in 1996? Putting Jeter and the Yankees’ three World Series titles aside for the moment, how many other world championship teams of the last 30 years have featured lousy defensive shortstops? Only a very few: Bill Russell (1981 Dodgers), Rafael Santana (1986 Mets), and Alfredo Griffin (1988 Dodgers). That’s three out of 30. Yet, according to some, the Yankees have somehow overcome the supposedly horrible play of their starting shortstop—the most important defender on the infield—to win three of the last four championships and to continue to lead the American League in the year 2000. Sorry, but I’m not buying into that theory at all.

Boos In Buc Land How is it possible that the Pirates, considered a borderline contender for a wild card spot this past spring, can have the worst record in the game? After all, this is a team with two of the better players in the National League in Jason Kendall and Brian Giles, a team that appeared to have the depth and quality of pitching to keep them at least on the fringes of the pennant race. Unfortunately, the laundry list of reasons for Pirate ineptitude is a long one. Kris Benson not only hasn’t been the Cy Young contender that Joe Torre (and yours truly) thought he would be, but has also had a dead arm for much of August. Two other crucial starting pitchers, Francisco Cordova and Jason Schmidt, underachieved for most of the season before going down with year-ending arm injuries. Other young players, like Chad Hermansen, Warren Morris, and Aramis Ramirez, either haven’t improved from last year (such as Morris) or have failed to take advantage of playing time that was given to them early in the season (such as Hermansen or Ramirez). As a result of all of the above failures, the Pirates’ front office has been forced to promote things like in-game pirogi races, which have become as popular as the sausage races at Brewer games. Some of the Pirate players have complained about the amount of attention the front office has given to the pirogi races, but their cries should fall on deaf ears considering their poor play this summer. When the team plays badly, it’s hard to promote the team.

Thinking Out Loud Sometimes pre-season scouting reports aren’t worth a damn. Prior to this season, scouts considered Jay Payton’s throwing arm a major liability based on all of the shoulder problems—and surgeries—that he’s had throughout his developmental years as a Mets’ prospect. Well, Payton’s throwing arm has now become one of the best among major league center fielders. It’s amazing what superior athletes like Payton can do when they’re healthy… If the Yankees can clinch the American League East before the last week of the regular season, don’t be surprised if Joe Torre lets Clay Bellinger play all nine positions in a nine-inning game. Only two major leaguers have ever turned the trick: Bert "Campy" Campaneris in 1965 and Cesar "Pepi" Tovar in 1967. Unlike Campaneris and Tovar, Bellinger is a legitimate eight-position player, with the ability to catch and play all of the infield and outfield positions. The one position that has eluded him is pitcher, but as Brent Mayne showed earlier this year, anyone can handle that responsibility.

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