As Jeter nears 3,000, Yankees forgetting the lesson of 1996

At first I sort of rolled my eyes at this post, but the more I thought about it, the more I think Steve is right. Don;t get me wrong, he’s still drastically overrating a lot of the Yankees’ minor leaguers, particularly the pitchers currently in Triple-A, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what Dellin Betances, who’s currently walking about 5 batters per 9 innings in Double-A, has to do with anything, but his point about the Yankees generally being timid about bringing their youngsters up is pretty solid.

The basic argument against this is always something along the lines of “he won’t help much now,” or “someone else is doing well enough in that position now.” And that’s pretty much always true.It’s true right now, in fact, as the Yankees look like one of the three best teams in baseball, will probably make the playoffs, and have Russell Martin doing a decent job behind the plate. It was also true in 1995, when the Yankees won the wild card with Tony Fernandez as their starting shortstop, and a young Derek Jeter committed 29 errors as a Triple-A shortstop.

In fact, had the blogosphere been around in 1995 like it is now, I’m pretty sure we’d be having the same arguments about Derek Jeter we’ve been having more or less all season about Montero. Jeter and Montero were pretty similar in terms of production, with Jeter getting on base a lot more but Montero flashing more power, and both of them had issues with their defense at premium defensive positions. It’s not really a stretch for me to imagine some people intoning that Jeter should just go back to Columbus and spend time honing his glove in the spring of 1996, after all, the Yankees would probably be just fine without him for awhile.

And indeed they might have been. But they did wind up bringing Jeter up, and Jeter was pretty bad defensively, costing the team 14 runs according to Fangraphs. He also hit .314/.370/.430, was worth 2.6 fWAR, won the Rookie of the Year, and helped the Yankees to a World Series championship. And thus a legend was born. In 1998 Jeter was actually above average with the glove, although only slightly, and hit .324/.384/.481 as the Yankees won 114 regular season games as their second World Series in three years. In 1999 Jeter would cost the team 11 runs in the field, but still post a 7.5 fWAR thanks to a .349/.438/.522 slash line, and probably should have been the American League M.V.P. Again, the Yankees won the World Series. In 2000 Jeter cost the team a downright astounding 23 runs in the field, but was still worth just shy of 4 wins (3.8 fWAR), thanks to his bat. And yep, another World Series title.

Of course, I’m not predicting a similar Hall of Fame career for Montero at this point, heck, I’m not even saying he’ll definitely be a successful big leaguer. But there are still two important lessons the Yankees should have learned from this. First, hitting is more important than defense, even at (or especially at) premium positions. You’d think Jorge Posada alone would have taught them this, even absent the debate over the quality of Jeter’s glove over the years. Secondly, there’s no such thing as  being ready for the majors if by “ready” you mean “will put up big offensive numbers right away.” Even Jeter’s very good numbers were only good for a wRC+ of 106 and 110 in his first two seasons, thanks to the increased run environment around baseball as a whole. Those are good numbers, of course, but nowhere near elite. In the next for seasons he hit to a wRC+ of 133, 157, 136, and 134 respectively, and his career mark is 124. Even first ballot Hall of Famers have to adjust to major league pitching at first, and putting that period off doesn’t make the youngster any more ready, it just delays his development in most cases. You just can’t learn to hit big league pitching at Triple-A.

Do the Yankees need Jesus Montero? No, not really. There’s not a whole lot of room for this team to improve at the margins, because they are one of the best teams in baseball, and they’ll probably make the playoffs. On the other hand, the Yankees have the kind of financial resources that make it possible to get the sort of veteran stopgaps that can make it such that that’s always the case. Even with Russell Martin hitting an atrocious .182/.295/.284 since May 1st, the Angels need Mike Trout more than the Yankees need Jesus Montero. The Braves had a similar need for Jason Heyward last year, and the Nationals need to get Bryce Harper to the majors ASAP. The Yankees are simply never going to have that sort of need, except in so much as they play in a very competitive division.

But then, they probably didn’t need Derek Jeter in 1996 either. They probably could have found a 1-2 fWAR veteran to fill the shortstop position for a year or two while Jeter attempted (probably futilely) to improve his defense. As the organization prepares to celebrate Jeter’s 3,000th career hit (hopefully) sometime this weekend, they’d do well to do an honest retrospective on the decision to promote him to the big leagues in the first place, and apply the obvious lessons to Montero. It’s not at all hard to imagine an alternate history in which the Yankees treated Jeter the way they’ve treated Montero this season, and Yankee fans everywhere should be thankful they didn’t.

Now get Montero up here already.


About Brien Jackson

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

17 thoughts on “As Jeter nears 3,000, Yankees forgetting the lesson of 1996

  1. I agree. I think it's time to dump Cervelli and bring Montero up. If they are still going to platoon Gardy against some LHP then let Jones play the outfield, keep Martin behind the plate and DH Montero. Give him a at least an at-bat a night on the days he doesn't play by pinch hitting for Posada if a LH reliever comes in (or otherwise.) Of course on the days Martin has a day off, he gets a start behind the plate as well. It's not that difficult.

    • I'd just let Montero be the starting catcher at this point, with Martin catching Burnett and, probably, Garcia. But Sabathia, Hughes, and Colon are fastball heavy relatively easy to catch guys. Montero should be able to handle that.

  2. I wonder if the Yankees also worry about other parts of Montero's defense that are a little more ignored and less obvious. Things like his ability to call a game and manage pitchers.
    That being said its probably time to do something else at catcher. Martin was nice for a month but has been a black hole in the lineup since mid-May. His batting average in June was .180 and he is a player with a history of struggling as the season progresses (though most catchers have the same kind of history).

  3. My take is that that's all probably overrated. They dealt with Posada handling pitchers for how many years with plenty of success, and there's no obvious reason you can't call a game from the bench. And again, this seems like the sort of thing you can't learn to do in the minors.

  4. But here is the million dollar question, will Montero have the same "sense of the moment" that a young Derek Jeter had?

    We all know that even a prime jeter rated below average defensively, but we also know few middle infielders in baseball were more capable of making the spectacular play to help you win

    In 2000 I'll always remember Timo Perez heading to the plate, only to be gunned down by his own laziness and an incredible relay from Jeter. I don't bring this up to glorify Derek, I bring this up to point out that there are different kinds of "below par" defenders…

    If Montero blossoms into a great hitter for his position who plays below average defense but with a great "winners" sense we got a potential hall of famer, imo this is Monteros ceiling

    His floor??? Pretty good hitter who can't field at all

    • So the difference between Montero and Jeter is that Jeter was the baseball-defense equivalent of Robert Horry?

  5. One other thought…. I'm not saying I agree or disagree with this, but I've gotten a sense that the Yankees are very weary of replacing Posada with another long term catcher who is a hitter but doesn't catch well

    I think they want Romine or somebody else who projects to a solid fielding catcher to hit, vs. someone who is a solid hitting catcher to learn to field, if that makes sense

    I still think they see Montero more as a long term "bat" and they'll figure out the rest later

    • "I've gotten a sense that the Yankees are very weary of replacing Posada with another long term catcher who is a hitter but doesn't catch well"

      Then they're morons.

    • Of course, if he just absolutely can't even be passable behind the plate, but Posada has obviously been vastly more valuable than an equivalent converse on the hitting/catching spectrum.

      • Hate to bring this up since I'm a long time Posada backer but you do realize his career postseason impact is negligible correct???

        He's had some moments, sure, and he's an all time Yankee as far as I'm concerned, but in the postseason he didn't hit like he did in the regular season and his defensive issues were magnified…

        While we may not have been nearly as good a team overall without Posada all these years, we probably win just as many championships

        • Catchers generally decline towards the end of the season as their knees become rusty. It is no surprise that Posada's production will go down by October. Look at Mauer and Varitek. (Mauer's 2009 postseason stat is misleading b/c he missed out April and May)

  6. Why can't the Yankees just learn that a below average hitter (w/ average defense) often hurts the team more than a below average defender (w/ average hitting)? And Montero's hitting is certainly above average, even if Cervelli's defense was considered average.

  7. I dont get all this debate about Montero at all. If we all agree and nearly everyone does that this man will be an impact bat then who cares if he can catch? Im not saying its not important, im big on defense and pitching i think those are the most important aspects to a team. But why not have him on the Victor Martinez plan? Next year when we let Posada walk and dont sign a DH then Montero is the full time DH with Martin catching bc we have him for another year as an arb eligible player. He works on his catching while we use his bat everyday. When Martin (or Romine who i think the real long term solution at catcher is) needs a day off then insert Montero and "rest" a player in the DH spot. Also make Montero the primary backup at first bc unless im mistaken, if Montero comes up next year he will be a free agent the same year that we let Tex go. And he still serves as backup catcher and primary 1st baseman. Its his bat that is important not his glove.
    Now theres ppl who will say if hes the backup catcher and already the DH what happens if Martin gets hurt in a game? Well we switch and lose the DH spot. With a lineup this good is a really a bad thing to give everyone another couple at bats?

  8. As far as this year is concerned id like to see the guy get consistant at bats which he could as a platoon DH and "backup" catcher. By backup catcher i mean he should be catching 3 days a week.

  9. I wouldn't even consider Cervelli's defense average. To reiterate a post about Montero few weeks back, if his defense is really that much worse than Cervelli's, then he doesn't belong at catcher.

  10. Personally, it would be beneficial if the Yanks actually have Montero up, since his power means will complement all the lessons he'll be getting from Joe and Jorge. Besides, Jorge has proven himself with rings, correct?

    Also, the fact Girardi himself was a catcher will be more than eager to give Montero pointers.

    It's what I thought of, as of this writing.