Going to college in New York City doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be Yankees fans. With the Big Apple being the most diverse place on the planet, I have friends that are fans of all sorts of teams. The Red Sox, Mets, Orioles, Mariners, Braves, Phillies, you name the team and I bet you that I know someone who rocks that team’s fitted hat every day to class. But all those different fans had one thing in common last year. They all took pride in telling me that Derek Jeter was done. Finished. He can’t play anymore. He has no range at shortstop. He got hurt, which means his body is breaking down. He should be hitting 9th, not leadoff. He should just retire, and on and on. The dead horse was beaten into oblivion.
You know what; they all have something in common this year too. All of those armchair critics of The Captain have all conveniently fallen silent. It may have only been the first month of the season, but as of right now, Derek Jeter is not only back, he’s as good as ever.
I know fellow columnist Brian Mazo wrote about Derek Jeter’s hot start a little over a week ago, but I want to put what Number Two has been doing at the plate in a little historical context in terms of his previous outstanding seasons. Currently sitting on a .420/.442/.642 slash line with four home runs and a major league leading 34 hits, Jeter is easily in the running for American League Player of the Month. So let’s begin with how Mr. November’s start measures up with his memorable 1998, 1999, 2006, and 2009 seasons, arguably his best four years of his storied career.
To show you just how well Derek Jeter performed in 1998, just his third full season in pinstripes, Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 home runs, drove in 146 runs, stole 20 bases, and won the Gold Glove in centerfield for the Mariners and finished fourth in MVP voting. Jeter finished third, just behind that-other-shortstop-who-played-for-the-Red Sox and eventual winner Juan Gonzalez. That season, Jeter ended the year leading the majors in runs scored with 127 to go along with eight triples, 203 hits, 19 homers, 87 RBI’s, a very solid .324 batting average, and his first season with 30 or more stolen bases. An incredible season that teams would kill for their shortstops to have. But how did he do in April? Nothing more than decent, actually. In 23 games, he posted a .277 batting average and drove in 9 runs. His mere 6 walks led to a paltry .315 on base percentage as well. This isn’t a horrible month by any stretch, but it’s definitely not Jeterian.
So what about 1999? It was arguably Derek Jeter’s best year as he posted career highs in runs (134), hits (219), triples (9), home runs (24), RBI’s (102), average (.349), on base percentage (.438), slugging percentage (.552), and OPS (.989). Just an unreal season all around. Today, those numbers guarantee you an MVP award. Back then, it got you sixth place behind proven steroid users Rafael Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez. Of the 46 players that received MVP votes in both leagues combined, only Pedro Martinez had a higher WAR (8.3) than Derek Jeter (8.0). And unlike Jeter’s relatively poor start in 1998, 1999 got off to a fiery start. Jeter hit .378 with 5 home runs and 15 RBI’s in April of 1999. In 21 games that month, he tripled four times. That’s more triples in one month than he’s had in 11 of his full seasons! Although he didn’t steal a base, he walked 15 times, giving him an absurd .485 on base percentage. At first glance, the first month of Jeter’s best season looks a lot like Jeter’s April of 2012, a great sign, especially when you consider the Yankees went 8-0 in World Series games in 1998 and 1999 combined.
Let’s now fast forward to the season I like to call the Great MVP Robbery of 2006, in which Justin Morneau flat out stole the MVP award from Derek Jeter. Politics aside, the then 32 year old Derek Jeter played like he was 25 again as he recorded 214 hits, 39 doubles, and stole 34 bases to compliment his blistering .343 average and 97 RBI’s, the only time he’s ever approached his 1998 RBI total. That season, The Captain won his third straight Gold Glove at shortstop and really cemented himself as one of the greatest players in the history of his position. Like wine, he seemed to get better with age, and the April he had in 2006 went a long way to proving it. In 88 at bats over 23 games, Jeter drove in an incredible 20 runs and scored 19 of his own. He tore the cover off the ball, as seen with his .398 average and his incredible .505 on base percentage. 14 of his 35 hits that month went for extra bases as well. An MVP season, hands down, and his hot start propelled him the rest of the way.
More recently, a 35 year old Derek Jeter was coming off of a so-so 2008 season in which he only (yea, only) hit .300 and didn’t garner a single MVP vote. This is when the whispers of his decline became audible to the ears of Jeter lovers and haters alike. But he proved everyone wrong in 2009, a season he very well could have and maybe should have won the MVP award. He seemingly turned back the clock as he racked up 212 hits, hit .334, had an on base percentage of .406 (only the second time he surpassed the .400 mark since 2000), stole 30 bases after failing to reach 20 the previous two years, and hit 18 home runs. He won yet another Gold Glove and, most importantly, led the Yankees to their first world championship in nine years. That April, Jeter didn’t have the best month ever, but it also wasn’t terrible. In 94 at bats, he hit a respectable .287 with a .350 on base percentage and knocked in 12 runs while scoring 14 of his own. His 27 hits were the lowest he would record in any month during the 2009 season, however.
So what does the opening month of each of Jeter’s best four seasons say about April of 2012? If you’re into foreshadowing, trends, and patterns, then Jeter could very well be on his way to having one of the best seasons in his long and storied career. In those four seasons, Jeter had two hot opening months and two decent ones. In those scorching months of April 1999 and April 2006, Jeter was able to carry his early momentum all the way until the very end of the season, resulting in two years he probably should have won the AL MVP. With Derek Jeter turning 38 years young on June 26th, it’s difficult to say whether he’ll be able to have a similar season as 25 year old Jeter had, but the ingredients are there. Don’t quote me on this, but Derek Jeter is on to something special here in 2012. This could be a season none of us, or even Jeter himself, will ever forget.