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HITTING BOTTOM
Tom Verducci
June 07, 2004
Even great hitters aren't immune to horrific slumps. How does a player like Derek Jeter suddenly lose his way at the plate—and how does he find his way back?
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June 07, 2004

Hitting Bottom

Even great hitters aren't immune to horrific slumps. How does a player like Derek Jeter suddenly lose his way at the plate—and how does he find his way back?

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GRAND FUNKS 2004

Through Sunday these players had the greatest drop-offs from their career batting averages (among 2004 batting-title qualifiers; minimum 1,500 career at bats entering this season).

PLAYER, TEAM

2004 AVG.

CAREER AVG.

DIFFERENCE

Derek Jeter, Yankees

.220

.313

-.093

Jos� Vidro, Expos

.227

.302

-.075

Brad Fullmer, Rangers

.215

.280

-.065

Bernie Williams, Yankees

.238

.303

-.065

Edgar Martinez, Mariners

.257

.313

-.056

Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays

.227

.281

-.054

Ken Griffey Jr., Reds

.239

.292

-.053

Shawn Green, Dodgers

.229

.282

-.053

Juan Encarnacion, Dodgers

.216

.267

-.051

Neifi Perez, Giants

.218

.269

-.051

Mike Cameron, Mets

.197

.248

-.051

Luis Gonzalez, Diamondbacks

.237

.286

-.049

Rich Aurilia, Mariners

.229

.276

-.047

Mike Lieberthal, Phillies

.229

.274

-.045

Randy Winn, Mariners

.237

.280

-.043

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

A Batting Slump is baseball's version of the common cold. Sooner or later every hitter gets one, it can keep him up at night, and there is no known cure, though that does not prevent everyone and his doorman from passing on homemade remedies and get-well wishes. Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees came down with a whopper of a case in April—he was 0 for 32 at its head-throbbing worst—that was so bad that he couldn't leave his Manhattan apartment without being reminded of it. � "The doorman would tell me, 'Tonight's the night! I've got a feeling this is it!' " Jeter says. "You're trying not to think about it, yet everywhere you go, you're constantly reminded of it. It wasn't so much people giving me advice as it was people saying, 'We're pulling for you.' It's everywhere you turn—people on the street, the questions from the media every day."

This season has produced even more proof that no one is immune. Career .300 hitters Jeter, Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves and Jos� Vidro of the Montreal Expos—who ranked seventh, 12th and 18th, respectively, in career batting average among active players entering this season—all were hitting worse than .250 at week's end. Fellow perennial All-Stars Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays (.227), Bret Boone of the Seattle Mariners (.231) and Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers (.229) were similarly stricken. Welcome to the cold-and-flew-out-weakly-to-leftfield season.

"These guys are all proven hitters, and they're not old, either," Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin says. "I think [at the end of the season] the numbers will be there. But some are digging such a big hole that they won't be able to put up the big numbers they have in the past."

Jones, for instance, had only two doubles and 13 RBIs at week's end, jeopardizing his streaks of five years with 30 doubles and eight years with 100 RBIs. Delgado, who suffered a sprained rib cage muscle while swinging against the Texas Rangers last Saturday, had eight homers and 32 RBIs, and was facing an uphill climb to continue his streak of six consecutive seasons with at least 33 homers and 102 RBIs.

For young hitters, a slump can infect an entire year, which is what happened last season to the Philadelphia Phillies' Pat Burrell (.209), the Cincinnati Reds' Adam Dunn (.215) and the Chicago White Sox' Paul Konerko (.234). Jeter, however, showed last week how stars with long track records of success can get well soon. Entering the Yankees' May 26 game against the Baltimore Orioles, Jeter, who hit .324 in 2003, was batting .189 after 190 at bats. Suddenly, facing the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he pounded out 11 hits in his next 24 at bats, raising his average 31 points in five days, to .220. To hit .300 for the season—assuming he maintained his rate of at bats—Jeter would need to hit .335 the rest of the way, not an unreasonable task for a career .317 hitter entering the season.

"I didn't see how people could be writing my obituary after one month," Jeter said last Saturday before hitting safely in his sixth straight game. "I knew all along there was a lot of the season left to play, so I wasn't concerned. It's frustrating when you're not getting your hits. I'm not going to lie to you about that. But you don't spend time thinking about what's already happened. You can't change it. You just look forward to the next game, especially when you know there are about 120 left."

Not coincidentally, the Yankees also began to look more like themselves last week, putting together their highest-scoring (61 runs) six-game winning streak in 46 years. After an 8-11 start during which they batted .217, the Yankees had the best record (30-19) and the most runs (275) in baseball—and their average was up to .265. "We feed off his energy, without a doubt," Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez says of shortstop Jeter. "He's a hitting machine. A lot of good things happen when he gets going. He's the heartbeat of this team."

The slump—or at least its derivation in the English language—traces from the appropriately cold climes of Scandinavia and the Norwegian verb slumpa ("to fall"). In America a slumpa can take on many forms, though none as vivid as the one that falls at the beginning or end of a season and strikes a star player. Combine those elements, and you get historic droughts at the plate, such as the 0 for 21 suffered in the 1952 World Series by the Dodgers' Gil Hodges, whose slump the following season prompted Brooklyn priests to entreat their parishioners to pray for him; the 5-for-25 performance by the Boston Red Sox' Ted Williams in the 1946 World Series, which turned out to be his only postseason appearance; and Jeter's 0-for-32 run, which drew much more attention than the virtually simultaneous 0-for-37 skid by the Devil Rays' Jos� Cruz Jr., a lifetime .251 hitter.

Bob Uecker, the former backup catcher, once said, "I had slumps that lasted into the winter." But with players such as Uecker, a career .200 hitter, it's hard to tell when a slump begins and ends. Likewise, pitcher Bob Buhl owns the worst 0-fer in major league history—0 for 88 over two seasons—but he was a career .089 hitter.

Dodgers infielder Robin Ventura went 0 for 41 as a rookie with the White Sox in 1990. Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio once endured an 0-for-44 slump. For position players, however, the sultan of slump is Bill Bergen, a Brooklyn catcher who went 0 for 46 in 1909 on his way to becoming the worst hitter of all time (minimum 1,000 at bats), with a .170 batting average over 11 seasons. That an accomplished hitter such as Jeter could look like Bergen is testament to the humbling nature of baseball.

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