NEW YORK (AP) — For a decade and a half, he has been a constant for the New York Yankees, sparking the offense and getting big hits at key moments.
This, however, has been a most un-Jeter-like season for Derek Jeter, the captain with five World Series rings.
For a stretch lasting from June 30 through Sept. 10, Jeter scuffled to a .229 average with two homers and 21 RBIs — the lowest average for that long a period in his career, according to STATS LLC.
He didn’t drive the ball with his typical authority to right-center. He tinkered with his swing and fought off pitches he usually handled. Just past his 36th birthday, he had gone into a prolonged slump.
Now, with his usual October stage approaching, he’s starting to hit again — and beginning to resemble the Jeter of old.
“Don’t count Derek Jeter out in the month of September and the postseason. This is a guy that knows how to play this game,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “The law of averages said this guy’s going to hit. He’s got 2,900 hits. And he’s not 45, you know? There’s still good baseball in him.”
A career .314 hitter, Jeter is batting 46 points below his lifetime average and headed to his lowest season average since a brief callup in 1995. That’s even with a hot streak that has lifted his average to .268.
“It’s not always how you start. It’s how you finish — especially when you’re going to the playoffs,” he said. “So regardless of whether you have a great regular season or poor regular season, you know, you get in these games, you can contribute, and you forget about what’s happened up until this point.”
Remarkably consistent, he’s a .313 hitter in the postseason, where he holds career records of 138 games, 559 at-bats, 99 runs, 175 hits, 268 total bases — and 107 strikeouts. In the World Series, his batting average rises to .321.
Given how out of whack his whacks were, hitting coach Kevin Long spent long hours trying to analyze Jeter’s swing. They started to make tweaks earlier this month.
“Sometimes you don’t like to do try to do it in the middle of a season, but you do it and you hope things work out,” said Jeter, who needs just 78 regular-season hits to reach 3,000. “You may not look good at the beginning, but you’ve got to continue with it. You try all sorts of things. It’s not always the first thing you try that works.”
A key to the recent turnaround was a hitting session in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 11. Long concluded Jeter was stepping too much toward first base with his front foot.
“We were working on his stride direction. He was crossing over,” Long said analytically before a recent game. “In Jete’s case, he took 200, 300 swings in one session just trying to get it kind of ironed out and get it to where he was feeling good. And then (he) went the next day and did it again. And then he went out and took BP.”
He’s on a 23-for-69 (.333) hot streak since then, with four doubles, six RBIs and 11 of his 62 walks.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre speculated Jeter may have been playing hurt.
“Sometimes it looks like he’s doing something in protection of something, even though he’s not conscious of doing it,” the former Yankees manager said.
While fans fret, teammates know how easy it is for a swing to slip into a rut. There are maybe a dozen components from the feet up to the shoulders, and they all have to be in perfect balance as a batter rotates to square with the ball. And even if the mechanics are in synch, the timing of the swing can’t be off.
“You have a ball coming at you. It’s not like a golf swing, that you don’t have to worry about the ball moving,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “Late, early, under, over. Those centimeters really mean a lot in baseball.”
Long has performed swing deconstruction and reconstruction with several Yankees this season. When Lance Berkman was acquired from Houston in July trade, he moved him closer to the plate to eliminate a hole in his swing. He spent eight sessions with Curtis Granderson to fight an early season slump before Granderson would try a rebuilt swing in a game.
“It’s difficult when you try to make those adjustments in the middle of the season,” Jeter said, “but we’re making strides in the right direction. So you just hope it can continue.”
Long uses a multistep approach. First, he examines video of when a player hit well and compares it to recent at-bats.
“I start with the basics. I look at when they’re getting ready, I look at if they’re on time, if they’re square, and I look at how they’re actually going to the baseball,” he said. “And then we’ll start making adjustments there.”
Players will try new techniques in the batting cage, some on a tee, some hitting into a net, some hitting with a pitcher. If it works, they’ll test them in batting practice and, if successful, finally incorporate them into game at-bats.
“It’s the most difficult thing to do in all sports,” Long said. “You could throw a baseball down the middle, and a hitter can miss it, and he can pop it up, he can foul it off. It’s just a difficult thing to do, and the best in the business fail 70 percent of the time.”
Jeter has been around long enough to know his season has not yet been defined, not with the Yankees headed to the postseason for the 15th time in 16 years.
One or two big hits in October are far more important than anything he does from April to September.
“Whether you’re hitting .450 or .150, it makes no difference. You know, when you get into the playoffs, and you get to the end of the year, then it starts over,” Jeter said. “I don’t think people really care too much about what you did in the regular season.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.