All hail the Yankees' new hit king; so what will Jeter do for an encore?
Despite the good times now, Derek Jeter has a lot left to accomplish
Jeter may not be playing shortstop by 2012, but will be in the lineup
Hitting as well as he always has, he may be able to break Pete Rose's record
Three knocks in one night, and the crowned king of Yankeeland is tied with Lou Gehrig for career hits by a Yankee and that much closer to passing Harold Baines, Al Oliver and Vada Pinson among the all-time hits leaders. These are good times for Derek Jeter.
His team is on pace to win 105 games. His defense, long mocked by more or less everyone save Yankees fans and Gold Glove voters, is as good as it's ever been, maybe better. And perhaps most impressively, he's hitting as well as he always has.
As of Thursday, Jeter is hitting .330/.397/.470. Thirty-five-year-old shortstops aren't supposed to do this. Other than the peerless Honus Wagner, the only shortstop who has ever even hit .300/.350/.450 at this age or older was Pee Wee Reese, who did it in 1954. You almost wish that Jeter had been playing quietly all these years in Detroit or Kansas City, because people would just now be discovering him, and the praise would carry some weight. As is, the superlatives that his play deserves are totally void of meaning.
This being so, let's stipulate that Jeter is great, as winning a winner as ever won, and get to the three big interrelated questions raised by his historic season. In no special order: Does he have a shot at Pete Rose's hits record? How long is he going to play shortstop? And what are the Yankees going to do about his contract, which runs out next fall?
If the first question is the easiest to answer ("NO"), it's worth bearing in mind that easy answers are often wrong. Jeter doesn't have much of a chance, to be sure, as he would have to rack up more than half again as many hits as he already has to get the record, but he does have a shot. Rose didn't have much of a chance at 4,256 hits, either. (He ended his age-35 season with 2,762; right now Jeter's 41 behind at 2,721.) The unlikely is not the impossible.
To put a number on it, think 2-4 percent odds. Dan O'Brien of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the famous oddsmaking company, would set a line at -4,500/+2,500. "A big swing, perhaps," he said, "but that would be the nature of the beast with a bet like this. Those against would have to lay $45,000 to win $1,000; those rooting for Jeter and the 'yes' would bet $1,000 to win the $25,000. That way, the former are betting into/against approximately a 2 percent chance, while you're paying the underdog price as if there were a 4 percent chance." What would a successful run look like?
Including this year, when he's on pace for 215 hits, Jeter's established level is 200 hits a year. Most likely, as shown in this quite plausible projection of the rest of his career, that number will decrease rapidly as he ages over the next few years. It's not impossible, though, that he could keep it up for a few more years. Randy Velarde, of all people, hit safely 200 times at age 36; four men have surpassed 195 hits at age 37, and three at age 38. Assume -- and of course it's a big assumption -- that Jeter has something like 3,350 hits going into his age-39 season. Is it conceivable that he could then make a real run at Rose?
Actually, it is. Say he ran up 170 hits at 39 (nine men have done it, including Omar Vizquel three years ago), 155 at 40 (six have done it), 135 at 41 and 120 at 42 (seven have done each of these things). This would leave him just over 300 hits away, close enough to the mark that if he was sufficiently shameless he could doubtless wrangle the playing time needed to give it a go. And if athletes like Brett Favre, Ronaldo and Michael Jordan have taught us anything, it's that great players are nearly always more shameless than you can imagine about playing on years after they're toast.
As improbable as it is that Jeter would enjoy seven straight seasons of near-historic significance, it can at least be imagined, because he's the ideal player in the ideal situation. Other than a freak mishap on the bases in 2003, he has never been seriously injured. Not counting that season, he has garnered fewer than 188 hits in a season just twice in his career. He hits at the top of the lineup for a team that will have a great offense for the foreseeable future. And most important, the Yankees can run him out on the field no matter what.
This last point, which also relates to our second question, is probably the biggest thing that Jeter has going for him aside from his own talent. There have been lots of 40-year-olds in baseball history who could have run up 155 hits in a season; that's about a .260 batting average over 150 games. The problem is that teams won't play them full time, because they're usually lousy on defense and because the time and money are better spent on a kid with a future.
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