Derek Jeter is off to a scorching start this season, hitting .382/.411/.618 through his first 74 plate appearances. His .432 wOBA currently ranks among the league’s best, and is almost 40 points higher than the next best shortstop in baseball.
For Jeter, this is simply a continuation of his torrid second half to the 2011 season. Over his last 388 plate appearances, dating back to July 2011, Jeter has a .379 wOBA. The sample is small enough that we can’t conclude he is currently that great of a hitter, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he continues to rake this year.
His wOBA since the second half of last season is made even more impressive by his age, as Jeter produced those numbers after turning 37 years old. And even if he finishes in the .340-.345 range he’ll still find himself in limited company, historically, relative to his age and position.
At a time when most shortstops have moved onto easier positions or have been relegated to part-time duty, Jeter is not only still chugging along, but producing quite effectively. In addition to hitting well, Jeter has also settled into the -5 fielding runs range recently, which, while below average, is far from poor.
But perhaps what is most interesting about Jeter is his eventual place in history given his tremendous career and the opportunities the Yankees have afforded him. Most 38 year olds don’t continue to start 140+ games at the infield’s toughest position, but what started as a courtesy to a homegrown legend has become a justifiable decision given Jeter’s 2.5-3.5 WAR level productivity.
Only 22 shortstops have tallied 600 or more plate appearances after turning 37 years old, indicative of the inherent selection bias at work: by that age, most former shortstops are replaced by younger, more agile defenders, or better hitters capable of playing similar defense.
With a .343 wOBA since the start of the 2011 season, Jeter ranks third among those 22 shortstops, behind Hall of Famers Luke Appling (.375) and Honus Wagner (.368). After Jeter there is a steep drop in production to Barry Larkin (.317) and Ozzie Smith (.314). Everyone in the top five is either in the Hall of Fame, or in Jeter’s case, will be enshrined five years after his career ends.
When exactly will his career end?
If he sustains some semblance of his July 2011-April 2012 production over the remainder of the season, he will not only play shortstop in 2013, but he may be able to turn down his 2014 option and obtain another multi-year deal to remain in the infield.
While that’s far into the future, it’s impossible to discuss the hypothetical without also considering what those extra years will do to his career hits total. By virtue of that, his rank among the all-time greats would also improve, which speaks volumes for a guy who looked finished just two years ago.
ZiPS projects another 139 hits this season, which would give Jeter 165 for the season and 3,253 for his career.
That total would move him up from 18th to 13th on the all-time hits list. He would finish the season two hits behind Eddie Murray for 12th, 30 hits behind Willie Mays for 11th, 62 hits behind Eddie Collins for 10th, and 66 hits behind Paul Molitor for 9th.
Barring injuries, he will pass all of those players next year. If he puts together a fantastic 2013 season, then Honus Wagner is also in reach at 162 hits away. Jeter would also fall 165 hits behind Cap Anson for 7th and 166 hits behind Carl Yastrzemski for 6th. Assuming he plays through 2014, at the very least, meets his 2012 projection of 165 hits and then averages 145 hits over 2013-14, he would end that campaign with 3,543 hits. That total would push him ahead of Tris Speaker for fifth place. Not to get carried away, but even a mediocre 2015 season would push him ahead of Stan Musial for 4th.
Jeter has already won five World Series titles and achieved practically all the success a major leaguer can ever hope to achieve. But in his case, the valid question must be asked — given this rarified air, is it worth it to continue playing to rise up one of the more prestigious charts? Would Jeter be so prideful to retire a shortstop and finish 6th or 7th on the all-time hits list than to move to LF or DH for a few years to move up to fourth or even third all-time?
Then again, if he continues to produce the way he has lately, in the 2.5-3.5 WAR range, he might not have to move off of shortstop and would remain a productive member of the lineup instead of a novelty act. Two years ago, the Yankees entered negotiations with Jeter with the understanding that this would probably be his final deal as a shortstop with the team. While the 2012 sample is still small, his seeming resurgence and defiance against natural aging curves suggest he has something left in the tank and may yet get another lucrative deal to captain an infield.
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