The rest of Derek Jeter's career begins next week. Coming off the worst of his 15 seasons and an ugly contract negotiation with the Yankees, Jeter will step into the batting cage with New York hitting coach Kevin Long to begin his spring training three weeks before the team's first full workout.
In a best-case scenario for Jeter, it is the start of a bounceback year, the kind of season that has happened once in a hundred years for a shortstop in a season in which he turns 37. In a worst-case scenario, the year confirms that Jeter's .270 average in 2010 marked the beginning of a typical decline for a late-30s infielder.
Long is betting on the bounceback, especially because he knows one element to Jeter's issues last season is gone: Jeter doesn't have a contract situation to concern him.
"I feel like Derek always has been the type of player who cares about winning instead of the numbers," Long said. "I think the contract probably caused him to think more about numbers than he otherwise would want to. It probably did affect his performance.
"Listen, he's human, just like anybody else. A lot of guys try real hard, and when they don't get results they try even harder. And sometimes the harder you try the more you fail."
Long, recognized as one of the best hitting coaches in baseball, spoke at a youth clinic he held at Central Jersey Sports in Hillsborough, N.J., a stop on his busy schedule between working with the Yankees' Nick Swisher and Colin Curtis last week, Mark Teixeira this week and Jeter next week.
Jeter played last season for the first time in his career in a "walk year" -- the first time in which he was not under contractual control of the Yankees for at least another season. That situation meant Jeter knew he would be negotiating off whatever numbers he posted in 2010.
Jeter entered the season with a .317 lifetime average, but was hitting as low as .260 as late as Sept. 10. His on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.370) also were career-worsts. The Yankees, who didn't want to talk to Jeter about an extension after he posted a big 2009 season, used those numbers and a public diminishing of Jeter's worth to cut his pay. He signed a three-year, $51 million deal, though the Yankees' hardline, made-for-tabloid approach -- they once openly challenged him to shop elsewhere -- grated him more than the money.
"People talk about on-base percentage and other things that dropped," Long said, "but if he raised his average 30 points he's right where he should be because then everything else is where it should be. He's in that 10 to 12 range in home runs, and his RBIs (67) are right there. He's a .317 hitter, so that's 47 points he lost. That's a lot. Add 30 to 50 points to his average and he's where he should be across the board."
Asked if he expected Jeter to be a .317 hitter again, Long said, "I don't see why not. He's very capable of that."
Only one shortstop as old as Jeter has hit .317 with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title: Hall of Famer Honus Wagner in 1911 and 1912.
To bounce back, Jeter will work with Long on mechanical changes he began to institute last September. Jeter always has employed a "diving" style of hitting in which he takes a long stride in the direction slightly to the right side of second base. That is, he picks up his front foot and puts it down closer to the inside line of the batter's box than where it began.
Last September, Long worked with Jeter on changes in the length and direction of his stride -- making it shorter and straighter. They tried a modified version of how Albert Pujols picks his front foot barely off the ground and quickly puts it back down. Said Long, "We were in Texas one day and I said, 'Are you ready to take this into a game now?' And he said, 'Okay. I'll give it a shot.'"
The results were encouraging. In his last 28 games, including the postseason, Jeter hit .311 with a .393 on-base percentage. The stride changes allow Jeter to get into a good hitting position quicker. Long will continue to work with Jeter next week on changes to his stride, building on the work they began last year. "What happens to everybody as they get older is their quick-twitch muscles might not fire as fast as when they were younger," Long said.
Much of hitting is about the purchase of time. The longer a hitter waits, the more information he can process about pitch type and location. The quicker the bat, the more a hitter can wait -- the more time he purchases. As age saps fractions of time from the swing, the hitter cannot wait as long. The adjustment required is to buy time somewhere else in the mechanics of the set up and swing, such as the stride. Paul Molitor is a classic example of someone who bought himself more time as he aged. Molitor took virtually no stride whatsoever and removed almost all hand movement from his load. He became the very template of how to purchase time late in a career. From ages 37-41 he batted .309.
Long has become an exemplar himself when it comes to hitting instruction. He has a strong track record of delivering results. The Yankees have ranked first in runs and first in OBP three times in four seasons under Long. Moreover, Long has made successful major overhauls with Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, about whom he said, "Last year in the last month and a half he was swinging the bat as good as anybody in baseball."
Cano has been such a tremendous student that Long was proud to hear that this winter Cano has become a hitting coach of sorts himself, tutoring Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nuñez in workouts. "The student becomes the teacher," Long said. "Robbie is the face of the franchise going into the future. He's the one guy everybody wants to talk about."
There was a very long time when this was Jeter's team. In many ways, it still is, based on his captaincy, the respect he commands in the clubhouse and around the game, his long resume of big moments and his will to win. None of that has changed. But now Jeter must pull himself up, not just his teammates. His impact on the club, whether through tangible or intangible contributions, is greater as a .317 hitter than as a .270 hitter.
A few years ago Jeter made adjustments to his training regimen to improve his legs and agility with the specific purpose of upgrading his range and quickness on defense. Now, as he began last September, he must turn his attention to his bat. It would be a mistake, even knowing the historical context, to count out Jeter, especially given this combination of a proud, smart future Hall of Famer and wizard of a hitting mentor. Getting an early start to spring training at age 36 is a good place for Jeter to start.