Why Derek Jeter returned to the Yankees ahead of schedule (tip your waitress)
Ninety-one games into the season, Derek Jeter has arrived ahead of schedule. The Yankees captain, who has missed more than three months of action recovering from a pair of fractures in his ankle, the first of which he suffered during the American League Championship Series last October and which required surgery, has been summoned to the Bronx after just four games on a rehab assignment. He'll be in the lineup on Thursday afternoon as the Yankees face the Royals, eight days before he was expected to return.
On the face of it, this appears to be the rare deviation from the kind of slow-and-steady approach the Yankees have taken with regards to all of their rehabbing players, not just their 39-year-old shortstop, who has yet to play a full game in the field at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In his four games, Jeter has gone 1-for-9 with four walks and made one error among his nine chances afield.
So allow me to offer a few theories as to why this is happening now, instead of next Friday, when the Yankees begin the second half of their season against the Red Sox. I can't stress enough that I'm just spitballin' here.
• After three months of trying to spin the dishwater of Jayson Nix, Luis Cruz and their unproductive brethren into wine — incidentally, while riding on a similarly motorized scooter to the one which Jeter used to roam around his 30,000 foot mansion in the wake of his surgery — Cashman has conceded defeat. When told that Yankee shortstops have hit just .211/.269/.283 this year, worse than any AL team besides Seattle, and are seven runs below average afield, he muttered "Shut the ---- up!" and then continued, "I can probably find a one-legged man pushing 40 to do that."
• During the course of his recovery from the second crack in his ankle that scuttled plans for him to return in early May, Jeter discovered a new talent. "You know that putting your pants on one leg at a time thing people are always talking about? I've had a real breakthrough," he probably told general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi.
• After 19 years in Yankees pinstripes, Jeter was probably confused and annoyed to be wearing the uniform of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
• With slumping DH Travis Hafner leaving Wednesday night's game due to a bruised foot suffered during batting practice and Brett Gardner departing after being hit by a pitch in his right leg, Thursday's lineup is even more decimated. "Without Haffy and Gardy, not to mention Texy and Youkie and Grandy and Frankie and Jorgie and Paulie and everyone else, we're a little thin," Girardi probably conceded, forgetting that some of the players he mentioned have long since retired.
In all seriousness, the Yankees are almost certainly a better team with even a less-than-100-percent Jeter than without, particularly given that they're scoring just 3.93 runs per game, 12th in the league and the team's lowest mark since 1990, two years before they drafted Jeter. Even if he's merely serving as DH during the four games before the All-Star break, New York has gotten an abysmal .213/.301/.373 showing from the hitters in that spot. Hafner, who has served as DH for the past 11 games, is just 7-for-38 in that span, and is hitting .182/.263/.314 in 152 PA since missing five games in mid-May due to right shoulder tendonitis, a bad sign given his lengthy injury history.
Looking over the stats from Jeter's 18 major league seasons, he's had just two second halves where he's been merely an ordinary, shortstop-like hitter instead of a player blazing a trail to the Hall of Fame. In 2002, he batted just .278/.358/.380 after the All-Star break, while in 2010, he batted only .265/.340/.342. Either of those lines look like the second coming of Cal Ripken Jr. next to what New York has been getting from its shortstops.
At 49-42, the Yankees are seven games above .500, but that's only good enough for fourth place in the AL East, six game behind the Red Sox and 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card race. They owe much of that winning record to their 8-2 mark against the Royals (43-45) and Twins (37-51). New York's overall record appears to be an overachievement, given that the team has outscored its opponents by just one run (358-357) and projects to be right at .500. Going forward, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds forecast gives the Yankees a 32.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, but just a 6.2 percent chance of winning the division, which most likely means a trip to the wild-card game. Measured against the rest of the AL field via this method — which incorporates a Monte Carlo simulation, Pythagorean records, PECOTA projections, the remaining schedule, and a side of cole slaw — their estimated 1.8 percent chance of winning the World Series is the sixth-highest in the league behind the Tigers (20.9 percent), Red Sox (9.7 percent), Rangers (7.5 percent), A's (6.8 percent) and Rays (5.9 percent), and just ahead of the Indians (1.1 percent). For a franchise that has taken to expecting to have a shot at a world championship every year, those are long odds, but they're almost certainly better with Jeter than without.