Like Mattingly, the Greatest Test of Jeter’s Leadership Could Come When It’s Time to Step Aside

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

Don Mattingly was a fixture in the three-hole for over a decade.

For most of his career, Derek Jeter has been a mainstay atop the Yankees lineup. Since the start of the 1998 season, the Captain has started only one game lower than third in the batting order, and that time he was called upon to hit cleanup. That’s why the idea of shifting Jeter back toward the end of the order has become such a controversial topic.

Even before the ink dried on his new four-year extension, there were rumblings about how long Jeter would last as prominent figure in the batting order. Joe Girardi has always been quick to deflect that speculation, but with his shortstop hitting .242/.308/.263, the questions are likely to begin once again.

During Saturday afternoon’s telecast on YES, Michael Kay broached the topic of batting order position with Paul O’Neill by asking him about the time he permanently replaced Don Mattingly in the coveted three-hole. Although the conversation was inspired by Nick Swisher’s constant movement throughout the lineup, it was impossible to not think of Jeter, which made O’Neill’s further elaboration all the more interesting.

Manager Buck Showalter, who earlier this season reacted harshly when asked about switching Mattingly and O’Neill, began contemplating the new-look lineup last month and then discussed it with both players”. – Jack Curry, New York Times, July 21, 1994

Although Mattingly had frequently batted second and fourth during his prime, the third slot was his primary home since he first emerged as a superstar in 1984. As the 1994 season progressed, however, an impending lineup change seemed unavoidable. Nonetheless, even with O’Neill batting over .400 well into June, Showalter continued to resist the change by deflecting the mounting questions. Soon, however, the Yankees’ manager could no longer put off the inevitable.

The changing of the guard finally took place on July 20, 1994 in Oakland. Although O’Neill incorrectly recalled that the occasion occurred in Texas, his memory was dead on in one regard: Mattingly was exceedingly gracious when it came time to make the change. Always the consummate teammate, Mattingly deflected any notion of resentment and fully embraced the decision. In other words, he did what Captains do.

If I was the manager, I would have done it a long time ago with the way Paul is seeing the ball. I talked to Paul about it. You want to try to get him the most at-bats.” – Don Mattingly, quoted in the New York Times, July 21, 1994

As the discussion progressed, O’Neill also talked about the importance of where a player hits in the lineup, stating that it not only conveys status, but also signifies the manager’s expectations. The former Yankees right fielder took things a step further by saying, “when you get past sixth you start wondering if you still belong to be out there.”

Paul O’Neill ascended to the third slot in the lineup on July 20, 1994.

If a very good player like O’Neill was so sensitive to his position in the batting order, one can only imagine how a future first ballot Hall of Famer like Jeter might feel about a demotion. On the surface, it sounds like a simple decision to move the struggling Jeter from the top of the order back down to the bottom, but there are many implications that need to be considered.

When Mattingly was removed from the three-hole, he mostly occupied the fifth and sixth slots, which were still within the comfort zone described by O’Neill. If Jeter is moved down, however, the likely landing spot would be seventh. Even for a player as mentally strong as Jeter, such a free fall would have to instill doubt. As O’Neill explained, it might even make him wonder if still belongs out there.

At some point, Derek Jeter will have to relent to the passing of time. Whether that moment is now, however, remains to be seen. Like Mattingly before him, Jeter’s past performance should afford him some extra rope to prove that he is still capable of occupying a prime position in the lineup. But, when that time runs out, it will be incumbent upon Jeter to fully endorse the change. That is, after all, what Captains do.

Yankees’ Lineup and Box Score, July 20, 1994
 [table id=31 /]
Source: Baseball-reference.com

10 thoughts on “Like Mattingly, the Greatest Test of Jeter’s Leadership Could Come When It’s Time to Step Aside

  1. oldpep

    I would think that the only thing mitigating Jeter’s situation is that there’s no replacement for him that would be an improvement in the line-up. As far as his position in it, batting him at the top seems kind of silly considering his last 900 PA’s or so.
    On the other hand, Jorge has no such luxury-there’s a guy at AAA who very likely would be a huge improvement, and who could catch a couple times a week to boot.

    • The Yanks don’t have someone like O’Neill demanding to take over the #1 or #2 slot, but at some point, anyone else will look better compared to a .550 OPS. There’s no chance of Jeter being benched, but I think a lineup change is becoming increasingly likely. I am fine with giving him as much as the entire 1st half, but regardless of when the time comes, I just hope he is as gracious as Mattingly was.

      • T.O. Chris

        I just don’t know who you leadoff wit right now…. Gardner hasn’t shown near enough to take Granderson out of the 2 hole against lefties, and Granderson shouldn’t leadoff because it would cut his power down. The only player who has the OBP potential right now is Swisher, but talk about a square peg ina round hole. He could probably do it, but in no way is he a prototype leadoff man.

        Swisher
        Granderson
        Teixeira
        Rodriguez
        Cano
        Martin
        Jeter
        Posada
        Gardner

        It would certainly lower some of the more consistent 0-4’s but I would worry some about Martin hitting 6th and Swish leading off.

    • bornwithpinstripes

      old pep..nunez is not that tough an option..his range and arm are far better..if he hits .280..big upgrade..

      • T.O. Chris

        He likely won’t close to hitting .280… Most rookie with no real extended time with big league ABs don’t. I would think he would settle in the .240-.260 range.

  2. RL

    I certainly hope Jeter lives up to the standard set by the previous Yankee captain and understands it is for the good of the team that he bats further down in the order. As a big Jeter fan, my first hope is that he “figures things out” and gets back into a groove. Having seen him in person Saturday for the first time since I moved away from NY in 2002, it was shocking to see how much he has declined, so I don’t really expect it. His sac fly and the other fly ball he hit were weak, at best.

    Should he be dropped to the 7th spot in the order, perhaps he’ll realize his time is up. I would then hope he’d meet with the organization and prepare for his retirement before his contract is up, giving the team the opportunity to find a suitable replacement (I don’t think it’s Nunez). While this is somewhat unprecedented, it’s what a Captain should do.

    • bornwithpinstripes

      it is a very hard thing for us jeter fans..but a lot of lovable yanks got out with class..o’niel ..donnie..mussina..pettitte..joe d.. he should revaluate at years end..but to leave 10s of millions on the table is asking to much..

  3. nyyankeefanforever

    The Phil Hughes situation — in which tests were only ordered as a last resort means to eliminate a remote possibility rather than confirm a reasonable suspicion — got me thinking about how another captain named Gehrig declined fast and ugly. He refused to even consider — until he was practically useless on the field — the possibility he was done. And not until then did he take himself out of the lineup and seek medical testing. He never suggested a lower place in the lineup for himself and nobody else did either.

    Perhaps Joe G and Brian C should order a battery of tests on Derek the next regularly scheduled day off they give him — just to eliminate the remote possibility of some heretofore unconsidered problem — and, in doing so, use it as a graceful way to have “the conversation” everyone appears to believe can’t happen. …Nobody has to know. They flew Martin in and out for three days of thorough medical testing and physical exams before signing him without a soul in the media or public finding out. They know how to do it. That’s what I’d do.

    • A few things are historically inaccurate about your comment, so I’ll list them in bullet form:

      1) The first real signs of illness emerged during the offseason, at which time Gehrig DID see a doctor. He didn’t, as you suggest, wait until after his play declined. At that time, the original diagnosis was a gallbladder infection.
      2) In spring training, Gehrig showed signs of rapid deterioration and for the first time, others really began to notice. Gehrig blamed himself for not working out harder in the offseason, which says all you need to know about his character. Toward the end of the spring he told the press, “I am doing the best I can. If it isn’t good enough, McCarthy will get me out of there”.
      3) As the club began its barnstorm up north, McCarthy stated clearly that Gehrig would not play unless he improved. He did just that over the final two weeks of the exhibition season. It didn’t alleviate all concerns, but did buy Gehrig more time.
      4) After only 8 games into the 1939 season, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, and even refused a chance to extend his streak late in the game with the score lopsided.
      5) Although he expected to only take a couple of days off, Gehrig’s health continued to decline up until the eventual diagnosis that now bears his name.

      I’d imagine it wasn’t your intention to do so, but you really can’t make light of Gehrig’s bravery in the face of such a tragic disease. As much as Jeter is declining before our eyes, suggesting that the Yankees send him for a battery of tests seems to do just that.

      Also, I’ll leave everyone with one last quote from Gehrig, which is worth keeping in mind the next time you feel the urge to run Jeter out of town:

      “When you’re down on yourself it means everything to have the fans and the fellows on your team slap you on the back and say you’re going to be ok.”

      • nyyankeefanforever

        Please get a grip on yourself, William. I most certainly was not suggesting Jeter should be “run out of town” nor was I “making light” of anything whatsoever regarding Gehrig’s situation. And I’ll address your inaccuracies concerning my post here in bullet form:

        1) Gehrig’s symptoms were manifesting themselves the season prior to his last, and as his stats dipped he said so and was quoted widely in newspapers (I can link to the relevant clips and books if you like) referencing numbness and tingling in his extremities that he wrote off as possibly due to his to his age and playing hard for many years.

        2) You’re correct in that it became incredibly pronounced in his final spring and, in saying the manager would be the one to yank him, was also saying he wasn’t prepared to do it himself at that point in time, and McCarthy, as you said, did nothing until Gehrig himself couldn’t swing a bat and was embarrassing himself at the plate opening the season.

        3) Nothing in your reply counters my statement that Jeter’s decline has been fast and significant since the end of 2009.

        4) You’re either being mean-spirited or simply missed the entire point of my post if you think I was implying Jeter was finished and so should be tested for a disease. Quite the contrary, the post was part of a thread in which participants were discussing if the team or Jeter were somehow afraid to even have a discussion about dropping him in the order due to his decling batsmanship. All I was suggesting was a graceful way to have that conversation.

        I was impuning neither Gehrig’s pride and courage nor Jeter’s ability to recapture the skills that made him a fantastic leadoff hitter. In fact, if you search my comments online, I’m the one who always defends him and points out he was the only shortstop in MLB last season to score 100 runs and that his Gold Glove was valid per his fewest errors at the position and that his uncanny ability to anticipate where to play each batter more than compensates for his more limited range in recent years. So please lighten up on me a little. As I said before, I was only suggesting a graceful constructive way to have the conversation about his place in the batting order witrhout offending him.

        I also don’t see any harm at all in ordering a battery of tests on any high-priced talent who display a protracted decline in performance. In fact. I’m quite surprised to learn it isn’t SOP. The Red Sox season imploded last season due to misdiagnoses by trainers and medical personnel there who followed conventional wisdom and displayed a staggering lack of curiosity regarding treatment alternatives until some of the injuries recurred or became more serious.

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