"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Ain't No Sunshine When Yer Old

In November 2008, not long after Mike Mussina announced his retirement, I wrote a column about the concept of “dying at the right time.” In short, dying at the right time involves deciding to leave the game, or, “die” on your own terms. I commended Mussina for having the courage and self-awareness to know that after a 20-win season, ending his career was a better option than returning for another shot at a title, at age 40, with diminished stuff.

That column was written in the context of a well-thought, fully formulated decision that likely took weeks, maybe even months, to plan. Andy Pettitte weighed it several times and took a similar path after last season.

Longtime Banterer The Hawk had some great comments on the Mussina piece, including this one:

I appreciate tenacity, competitiveness and a never-say-die spirit in athletes far more than a sense of decorum or the good taste to retire without “embarrassing” themselves. I can’t say I believe this across the board but in general I love the guys who can’t let go, who’s desire to compete wins out over pride or legacy-building.

Do you love Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada now? Sure, their desire to compete — save for Saturday’s Posada drama — is unwavering, but do you want to continue watching them turn into Benjamin Button? We want to see the youthfulness and greatness demonstrated in the first 10-12 years of their careers, but the reality is that this season they are aging rapidly. We know it. They know it. They’re holding on. Barely.

Jeter gave us a glimmer of hope with his two-home-run effort in Texas. But watching him since then, even though he’s gotten hits and his march to 3,000 is going strong, he’s still hitting less than .260. His at-bats used to be filled with expectations of line drives to right field. Now the expectations are anemic groundballs to second base. Every out he makes is riddled with Tweets and jeers of “THREE MORE YEARS OF THIS!” We know. But who’s a better option? Eduardo Nuñez? We won’t touch the defensive range issue with Jeter.

Posada should have had the easiest route. He moved away from being the everyday catcher to designated hitter, but his pride, hubris, whatever, is preventing him from accepting the current role and producing. It’s not like Posada has forgotten how to hit; he still has a good eye and can draw a walk. He isn’t adjusting to seeing more sliders, and isn’t adjusting to channeling his entire focus into four or five individual at-bats.

Sometimes, the game lets you know when it’s your time. It did for Ken Griffey, Jr., last year. Jeter and Posada are on the brink.

Would you rather see them continue to try to recapture the magic of 3 or 5 years ago, at the risk of their efforts being a detriment to the team and their own legacies? Or would you rather see them accept their fates, recognize the end of their respective careers and act accordingly?


1 Ben   ~  May 19, 2011 10:19 am

I'm not sure players think this reflectively about their performance. Are they really thinking, I can be as good as 4 years ago? Or do they just say, This is a slump, I've worked through them before - I can do it again. Seems like most players retire when they don't want to try so hard anymore, and it has less to do with their actual production.

2 Shaun P.   ~  May 19, 2011 10:30 am

I continue to think Posada will end up doing OK this year. His batting average might not cross .230, but he brings plenty of value outside of batting average. Plus, he's in the last year of his contract. I think we're seeing the "Farewell Posada" tour, and I am fine with that.

Jeter, now . . . there's a different, far more troubling story. I'm not convinced Jeter is cooked as a hitter. I know that's almost crazy talk, given his 69.2% groundball rate and how bad he's looked. Hear me out.

Jeter's BABIP is .278 - that's ~80 points lower than his career number. Its ~30 points lower than what he managed last year. That number is going to get better. When it does, his overall line will look fine, and he'll contribute enough to be of some value.

I am convinced that Jeter is cooked as a guy who plays 150+ games every year. He needs to rest, no matter how much he hates not playing. The Yanks have played 41 games this year. Jeter has played in 40 of them, with 39 starts (37 at SS, 2 at DH). For a guy his age, with that many miles at SS on his body, its too much.

We've been thinking of Jeter as 37, but he's probably older in baseball years. He's played an entire extra season's worth of games (147) from all the postseason appearances.

The Yanks have him for another 2 years after this one. They have got to pace him, and they need to get him used to this now. I'm sure the quest for 3000 hits is part of the reason why he's played so much, but the madness needs to end.

I'd be far more impressed with Jeter if he accepted a reduced role with grace rather than retiring. Retiring would make him look foolish after the contract shenanigans of the offseason. Let's see him take the harder path.

3 rbj   ~  May 19, 2011 10:42 am

I remember David Cone remarking that he wanted to play until they tore the uniform off him. Musicians can play until they're real old (was Sinatra a great singer at the end? Yet still people came to hear him), and most average workers work 40 some years. Yet athletes invest so much to get to that top level, and if you're lucky, you've got 20 years there. Suddenly you hit 40 and it's over. Has to be very difficult, to invest so much time and effort and sacrifice, and then suddenly one day it's gone.

4 Diane Firstman   ~  May 19, 2011 10:45 am


It almost justifies (intellectually, for me) an athlete using PEDs to try and recover quicker/stay in the game longer.

5 Start Spreading the News   ~  May 19, 2011 10:53 am

[2] Jeter's BABIP is .278 - that's ~80 points lower than his career number. Its ~30 points lower than what he managed last year. That number is going to get better.

Why? If you get older and you do start to suck, you would expect that BABIP will drop. You will hit balls with less authority and power and more of your hits will be outs. So BABIP will drop.

Save for 2009, Jeter's BABIP has been dropping now for 4 out of 5 years.

Other indicators of a diminished bat speed? Jeter has hit a career low in line drive %, career high in infield fly ball %, career low in HR/FB. He is also doesn't seem to see the ball as well. He is swinging the most he has ever in his career at balls outside the strike zone while conversely swinging the least at balls in the strike zone. Consequently, fewer pitchers are throwing inside the strike zone to him. He is seeing the least pitches in the strike zone in his career.

6 RIYank   ~  May 19, 2011 11:00 am

[5] Well, it's an empirical question, as they say. I just looked at a few good hitters who have finished their careers within the past ten years, and there is no obvious trend to lower BABIP. For instance, here is David Justice.
There's lots and lots of noisy random variation in BABIP from year to year, so it's difficult to discern trends. It may be true that players tend to decline in BABIP after their prime, but it's certainly not obvious, and it's definitely not predictable.

7 Shaun P.   ~  May 19, 2011 11:18 am

[5] I agree with everything you typed, but I'm not sure its all diminished bat speed. I think its at least 50-50 diminished bat speed and pressing. Its a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Jeter is doing poorly, so he presses more, which leads to him doing worse, which leads to more pressing.

At some point, he will stop pressing, he will stop swinging at everything, his walk rate will go up a little, and he'll start getting more pitches in the zone. When that happens, I expect his BABIP to get back to .300 or so. I don't expect it to go any higher, but I think its reasonable to see it go back up some.

8 MSM35   ~  May 19, 2011 12:02 pm

Great athleticism (Dave Winfield, Willie Mays) or great mechanics (Ted Williams, Stan Musial) allow for a success in later years. Most major league hitters rely on superior eyes and super reactions. When they slip just a little physically and don't have superior mechanics they drop fast. Jim Ray Hart and Jim Wynn come to mind.
Jeter is an athletic hitter. His mechanics were never great and he has lost reaction time. There is no cure.
A golf analogy would be the athlete Arnold Palmer vs the mechanically sound Jack Nicklaus. Jack was still winning in his forties. Arnold flamed out early.
The choice is to accept diminished skills and try to swallow your pride and continue to play for the team or the money or walk away. It now becomes a test of character.

9 William J.   ~  May 19, 2011 12:24 pm

[2] BABIP can be misleading because Jeter's contact rates suggest the decline is warranted. Having said that, I agree that he can still be a very useful player once we AND he get past the idea that he is still an All Star. Ironically, Jeter has been playing solid defense, so if that continues, it wont take much offense to make him an asset. Furthermore, if the Yanks start sitting him more against power righties, it could benefit his overall numbers.

As you mentioned, the key to Jeter's future is letting go of the past. I can't blame him for his stubbornness, which is basically having confidence in yourself when no one else does, but eventually he’ll have to accept reality. When that occurs could go a long way toward defining how he performs in these last few years.

10 Shaun P.   ~  May 19, 2011 1:18 pm

[9] "When that occurs could go a long way toward defining how he performs in these last few years."

Which, of course, will go a long way toward determining what the Yanks do with Jeter. If he finishes the year with a 69% GB rate and a .255/.308/.309 line, and the Yanks don't win the Serious, it will be a very long offseason.

11 a.O   ~  May 19, 2011 1:18 pm

Yes, Jeter and Posada are in decline. Unfortunately, this does not address the, IMHO, more important question of why Teixeira, Gardner, Swisher, et al suck now.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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