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Opposing pitchers know why Yankees icon Derek Jeter will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer

Derek Jeter flies out to right field in

Derek Jeter flies out to right field in the 5th inning. N.Y. Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium.(Photo by David Pokress) Credit: David Pokress/David Pokress

Derek Jeter’s numbers speak for themselves and will get him elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot.

But that part is easy for all to see: 3,465 hits, eight 200-hit seasons, .310 batting average, 1,923 runs scored, five World Series rings, etc. What about the men whose job it was to limit some of those statistics?

In advance of Tuesday’s announcement of the Hall’s Class of 2020 at 6 p.m. on MLB Network, Newsday asked three MLB Network analysts, each of whom — like Jeter — spent more than a decade-and-a-half in the majors, what it was like to pitch to him.

“Derek for me, obviously the numbers reflect it, he was a nuisance,” said Al Leiter, against whom Jeter was 17-for-41, a .415 average. “He was difficult because his approach to hitting wasn’t good for me with respect to how he went the other way. There were a lot of inside-out swings. He took advantage of Yankee Stadium.

“Not that he was a home run guy, but his approach was right-center. My strength was a cut fastball that generally stays on plane, and it jams righthanded hitters. Most guys, they smother it, break their bat, hit a ground ball to short or a little pop-up. His swing, that pitch, unless it was in, he could carve it to right pretty nicely.

“The pitch that got Derek was more of a depth, vertical-break slider from a lefty, something going down and in. That’s the pitch he would smother.

“Derek [fit well] through what he was with respect to the lineup he was in. I mean, for much of his career, he batted first or second, and those are table-setters. Those are guys who are trying to get on base, create havoc on the bases, steal a bag here or there, not try and hit the ball out of the park, tough at-bats, grinds it out, sees a lot of pitches.

“That complement for all those years with all the great teams that they had really fit nicely with respect to trying to get the lineup out as a whole but specifically was what made Derek so much more difficult to pitch to.

“Because he was different from some of the other guys, in particular the middle lineup on some of those teams that the Yankees brought out. Whether it was Tino [Martinez] or Bernie [Williams] or [Paul] O’Neill or some of their other guys back earlier, [Darryl] Strawberry and others. He was not an easy out, and clearly the numbers reflect it.”

Hall of Famer John Smoltz, against whom Jeter was 2-for-18, said, “I pitched long enough to watch him break in and then be able to hit his stride as an obvious, no-brainer Hall of Famer. He was so good at being able to do what I would call take advantage of what pitchers were trying to do to him.

“He was so good at going to rightfield, but a lot of times going to rightfield, he did that off of inside pitches where he’d fight them off and get those hits, and if you made a mistake, he’d be able to pull it and hit with power. So I had tremendous respect for him in that regard.

“But I was a guy who lived on the outside part of the plate. So maybe part of my success is it wasn’t the pitch he wanted to hit the other way, that pitch on the outside part. He would fight them off. We’re not talking about a ton of at-bats, but I just know when you step on the mound and Derek is in the box, you have to be really good, because he wasn’t going to go up there and take an at-bat off or kind of take it for granted.

“He was grinding to put the ball in play and obviously get a hit. I didn’t deviate off my strength and fortunately, I guess I made enough pitches away to get him out more times than he was able to get hits off me.”

Smoltz said the Yankees of the late 1990s — who in 1996 and 1999 beat his Braves in the World Series — were a “perfect blend” as a batting order.

“They weren’t like a bash team where they beat you to death with homers,” he said. “They worked the lineup, and that was a byproduct of how they constructed their team, so every guy made the next guy better.

“Derek’s presence in the top of that lineup was pretty important, because he worked pitches, he got on base and he got hits and he could run.

“So your attention to detail went straight up when you were trying to limit traffic for the guys who were coming up behind him. I just will never forget ’96, because ’96, that was a team where I don’t think they had anybody in the top five or 10 in homers. They just battled and made pitchers work for everything they were trying to get.”

Ryan Dempster faced Jeter 10 times and allowed four hits.

“It was about executing,” he said. “Some guys when you face them, if you didn’t execute a pitch, you get away with it because that wasn’t necessarily like their loading zone or whatever. But with Derek, especially with two strikes, if you didn’t execute that fastball down and away and it ran back over the plate just a little bit, it’s a base hit the other way.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s trying to go the other way,’ and you try and throw a sinker down and in, and if that ball doesn’t get in on his hands, it’s a line drive back up the middle.

“I know he wasn’t a power hitter, but everybody plays the game differently and he was as good as anybody in playing the game the way he did. Just made you pay for mistakes, especially with two strikes, and pay for them in a way where you weren’t going to get him out.

“He’d foul off tough pitches. He made you make that mistake. He waited. You think of a guy playing Ping-Pong and you’re just sitting there hitting the ball back and forth and back and forth, and then the minute he tries to smash it, it’s off the table. That’s his line drive the other way with two strikes.”

Of course, the Jeter mystique goes well beyond his attributes as a batter. Leiter said it would have been there even if old No. 2 had spent his entire career in, say, Denver.

“He is the essence of a quote-unquote baseball player,” Leiter said, “complete on both sides of the ball, has a high level of care and obviously the fact of being captain, center of the field, shortstop, premium position.

“It sounds kind of basic, but if you talk about the poster of a baseball player with respect to high baseball IQ, understanding what his role is and he’s bringing it to every game and to complement the other players around him, oh, absolutely.

“Now you know and I know, whether it’s New York, Chicago, L.A., cities with greater media attention, of course, forget about Derek, that just makes everybody bigger. Broadway, Madison Avenue, big lights, shiny lights.

“However, I would also say that you’ve seen and I’ve seen how many stars quote-unquote come to New York and can’t handle it, don’t handle it. There’s a comfort level to some players that would stay away from the huge media attention, bright lights, the distractions, etc.

“So, without hesitation, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, whether it was Seattle, Denver, Kansas City.”

Said Smoltz, “I don’t know if there’s any way you can tell that from a lot of guys that end up becoming that way. He just had the DNA that you could then over time realize, wow, this guy is in the right spot all the time, knows how to win, plays the game the right way and is truly one of those guys who you can see winning multiple championships based on playing every day at shortstop for the New York Yankees.

“His blood pressure, or his ability to come through in the clutch, is something that was innate. It’s something that he probably always wanted and dreamed of being. So credit that to him and his willingness to always be in the moment on the highest stage in the city of New York.

“I just think people who assume that every player has what it takes to be in the moment and to deliver and not crumble, I don’t think every player has that ability to do that. There are certain players that rise to the occasion and have the ability to be clutch, because they’re not afraid to fail.

“I don’t think it would have mattered where Derek was. Yeah, he may not have won championships in other cities, but I think he would have built the people around him to be better and he would have done the same kind of things given the opportunities to be successful and have game-winning hits. That wouldn’t have changed.”

Smoltz said it is not that important whether Jeter joins former teammate Mariano Rivera among the ranks of unanimous first-ballot selections.

“I guess there’s always going to be somebody that feels differently about whether somebody is unanimous or somebody is a Hall of Famer, and that’s up to them to decide,” he said. “I think it’s a little overblown.

“But he’s not going to have any problem getting in, let’s put it that way. It will be a landslide, and New York’s going to be well-represented.”

Said Dempster, “I think he had the utmost respect from guys and I never really heard anybody ever say anything bad about him, a guy on my team that came from somewhere else. It was always just a ton of respect. He played the game the right way.

“He never embarrassed his family, never embarrassed his employer, never embarrassed the game of baseball. He did everything the way you’re supposed to do it, and to do it all with one team, I think guys envied that.

“To be in one place, so many people want to be with one team and play in one place and have that not just as a legacy, which he created, but as security. There’s something about that, especially when you’re in a great city like New York.”

Dempster said Jeter is his favorite all-time position player. He said he has only two jerseys hanging in his home, and Jeter’s is one of them.

“You can sense it from across the field,” he said. “They always tell you, never take the game for granted, because the minute you stop playing, they just play a game the next day. They don’t go, like, ‘Oh, we better stop, Ryan quit baseball!’

“Derek always seemed like a guy from the outside looking in and in the other dugout, being around him on the field, that he truly understood that. He knew the game of baseball didn’t owe him anything, and he gave everything he had every day.”

As for the prospect of Jeter being elected unanimously, Dempster said, “There’s no reason why everybody shouldn’t just say yes, every single person voting, because he is a Hall of Famer. If that guy’s not a Hall of Famer, let’s just not even have the Hall of Fame.”

Facing Jeter

AB H HR RBI BB SO AVG. OBP SLG. OPS

Al Leiter, LH 41 17 2 3 3 8 .425 .467 .585 1.052

John Smoltz, RH 18 2 0 0 1 4 .111 .158 .167 .325

Ryan Dempster, RH 10 4 0 2 2 2 .400 .500 .600 1.100

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