Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why the 'Jeter Flip' is Amazing

Writing a thoughtful, long piece about this series when everyone and their mother has done that didn't seem interesting to me. Then I got to perusing some ESPN.com articles, just to see what they were saying about the playoffs, and there were quite a few Derek Jeter articles or blurbs. I read them all. While the opinions of the writer were different in each case, one thing was common in each; the mention of Jeter's baseball smarts, his desire to win, and his heart.

As we get more advanced statistics, and as they begin to get more and more accepted among all baseball fans, intangibles become more and more obsolete. There simply isn't an interest in something that we can't prove is there.* However, as someone who admittedly loves the advanced statistics more than most, I do believe in the intangibles as well. I played the sport at a decently competitive level; nothing close to the big leagues, but definitely more competitive than most people would believe. Baseball IQ may be the most undervalued thing in the entire sport; and again I believe that's because it can't be measured from a computer screen.

*Of course, I could be describing atheists in this sentence too. I'm not a super religious person, I rarely go to Church, but I still do consider myself a Christian. The lack of faith some people have saddens me, not because I think my beliefs are superior, but because it more often than not shows this person went through a great deal of pain at one point in their life and from that point forward deemed that the only possible answer was to be certain there was no God. In this way, these people are oddly protecting the very being they claim is not real; they choose to believe there is no God because they can't fathom a God that would put someone through what they went through.*

I believe a manager values baseball IQ more than fans or front-office executives, and it's very easy to understand why. The manager is dealing with this player on a daily basis; he sees things that the average fan certainly can't see from the couch, and even the GM can't see while sitting in his suite. It's my opinion that baseball IQ can quite literally turn a .500 team into a World Series team. Now, of course, that's assuming the talent level is the same from year to year, but their are several opportunities in almost every game in which a smart player will take advantage.

An example: I hate to use another Jeter example, but earlier this year when that pitch hit the bottom of his bat but he acted like it hit his hand and he was awarded first base. Some people felt it was dishonest (obviously it was) and most believed it was wrong (it wasn't). Until baseball is going to institute a full replay system, fooling the ump will always be a part of the equation. Hell, even in the NFL and college, in which replay IS in full effect, players still try to fool the refs as often as possible. One writer wrote it was sad. Again, I disagree. Jeter helped his team when they were in the middle of a very tight divisional race. Bad calls happen all the time, it's part of the game; Jeter made sure the next bad call went in his team's favor. Can't fault a guy for that. And yes, with his struggles this year, he probably wouldn't have gotten on base any other way, so it was necessary.

If you haven't seen the Jeter Flip Play, here it is:



I remember when I watched the Jeter flip live (on TV) years ago. It was this month nine years ago, so I was just twelve years old. I understood the game pretty well then for a 12-year-old, but I hadn't played on a major-league size field, so the double cut off thing was a bit of a mystery to me.** The fact that Jeter was even there on the play is what makes it so remarkable. Yes, in that particular odd situation thanks to the stadium dimensions, Jeter was supposed to be where he was. Kind of. What makes it so amazing, then? He did what he had been taught; following directions is nice when you have a 3-year-old, but a major league player making the money Jeter made absolutely better be where he's supposed to be. Why is that amazing?

**If you're confused about this, in the play above, the runner on first is trying to score, obviously. On a ball hit to right field, there are usually two possible plays. Most common, the second baseman will run to take the first cut off from the right fielder, and the first basemen will drop back between where the second baseman positions himself and home plate. The second baseman is taught to throw the ball 'through the first baseman's head' because then if there's no play at the plate the first baseman can cut the ball off and keep the hitter from moving up to second base. If there is a play, the first baseman simply ducks or gets out of the way and the ball is at home plate usually on one hop. However, since Yankee Stadium is only 314 feet down the right field line, the Yankees rarely used the second baseman. The right fielder would usually make a throw near the first base bag; where the first baseman would cut it off no problem and make an easy throw home if needed. They had ultimately eliminated the middle man. This shouldn't matter, though, because the game was in Oakland.**

I think it's more amazing to those of us who actually played the game; at any level. We all remember being taught what to do in almost every situation; like when someone is trying to steal third, and the catcher springs up to try to throw him out, the left fielder should instantly be moving to back up third as quick as possible, in case the ball gets to the outfield. The shortstop also needs to be moving that way, but unless he's cheating a lot in the hole there's no way with how quickly major league catchers throw the ball that the shortstop would have enough time to get into position. Of course, this is really a meaningless thing to teach, because if you watch a game, no left fielders are instantly moving to back up a play. Oftentimes they only move after the ball has rolled past the third baseman and the run scores. That's because that left fielder has seen hundreds of overthrown balls in his lifetime, probably thousands, and almost every single time the runner on third scores anyways. Why do all the work if the end result is going to be exactly the same? It's frustrating if your coaching an 11-year-old team and trying to teach kids fundamentals, but as a major league manager, you understand the thought process and realize it's not worth getting upset over because it's not going to make a difference in the play.

That's how I think of the Jeter flip. Yes, he was the 'second cut' in the play, because the Yankees realized with their second baseman no longer occupying right field as a cut-man, he could cover second base and the third baseman would obviously be covering third base. That left Jeter ultimately playing a free-safety like position, reading where the throw was going (either to second, third or home) and judge if he needed to back up a poor throw. Now, I said he was 'kind of' where he was supposed to be. I say this because since the game was in Oakland, the Yankees second baseman undoubtedly should have been further down the line in right, and their first baseman should have been basically where the throw first hit the ground. However, Jeter noticed that both the second baseman and first baseman were too close. The right fielder clearly overthrows the first baseman, and Jeter could undoubtedly tell from the get-go that the throw was going to be well high of the first baseman. He takes off to try to cut the ball off, grabs it in full-stride, shovels it sideways about 45 feet still on the move to Jorge Posada at the plate and Posada makes a blind sweep tag that hits Jeremy Giambi's ankle just before he hits the plate, and the Yankees end the inning still clinging to a 1-0 lead. They never trailed in that series again.

Over the years I've heard that play be called overrated far too many times. While I still don't understand why people think running from shortstop to where he did, and making the shovel in the place he put it to Posada is 'easy' but regardless, the shovel itself, just standing still with nobody watching, is something maybe 15% of our population could do better than 1/4 of the time. It's fun to hate the Yankees, and trust me I do, but this flip play by Derek Jeter is simply among the best plays in baseball history and it deserves the credit it sometimes unfairly hasn't always received. No October funny business this year though, Jeter, please.