The hits keep coming for Derek Jeter, but for how much longer?
The Yankees shortstop, who turns 36 on June 26, has 2,800 career hits
That leaves him more than 1,400 shy of Pete Rose's all-time record of 4,256
Middle-infielders have not aged well in the long history of professional baseball
I was having an argument with my friend Ian O'Connor a few weeks ago about Derek Jeter. Ian was wondering what I thought the odds were of Jeter breaking Pete Rose's all-time hits record. And I think I placed them at something like 20,000-to-1. That was just for effect, of course -- odds are never that high. I think the real Vegas odds on the Royals winning the World Series this year, even now with them buried in last place, are only something like 1,000-to-1.
But the point was this: I don't think there is any real chance that Jeter, who turns 36 on June 26, will break Rose's record. Assuming that anything is "possible" -- the earth being invaded by aliens, doctors discovering that chocolate chip cookies will help you lose weight, there ever again being a funny light beer commercial -- then I think it is "possible" that Jeter will challenge the record. But, for me, his chances at 4,257 hits (he has 2,800 entering Tuesday night's game against the Twins) register just barely above "possible."
Ian thinks there's a reasonably good chance that Jeter COULD catch Rose. Ian thinks Jeter is healthy and he wants to play until his early 40s -- say another six seasons. If he could average 180 hits a year for those six seasons (including this one) that would put his hit total just past 3,800. If he could average 200 hits a year, he would be up at 4,000. And at that point he might just want to stick around and try to catch Rose.
Thing is: I don't see Jeter playing at high level until 40. I don't see him playing beyond that into his early 40s. This is not for lack of motivation. I just don't think he will be able to maintain his level of play for anywhere near that long.
Sure, there already have been enough "Is Derek Jeter regressing" stories written this year, all because he is off to a slow start. Let me make this clear: This is not one of those stories. When I watch Jeter, he looks more or less the same to me... yes, he's a bit frustrated and swinging at more bad pitches than before, I think, and as a result he's getting jammed more and hitting fewer line drives. But a hot month, and Jeter's numbers could look Jeter-like again. If he's still hitting .276/.320/.396 in August, yes, then I think the "Is he regressing" becomes a viable question.
No, I still figure Jeter has some great stuff left in him. What I'm saying is that... he doesn't have THAT MUCH great stuff left in him. Look: Middle-infielders have not aged well, not in the long history of professional baseball.
Cal Ripken had his last great offensive year at 30, and his last good offensive year as a part-time player at 38.
Robin Yount moved from shortstop to center field, the move many people believe Jeter will eventually make. Even so, he was barely a league average hitter after 34, and he retired at 37.
Craig Biggio played until he was 41 -- but he posted a 95 OPS+ his last eight seasons.
Rogers Hornsby was a part-time player after age 33.
Frankie Frisch was a part-time player after age 35.
Charlie Gehringer played until he was 39, but he hit .225 over his last two seasons.
Robbie Alomar was done as a great player at 34.
There are a some old-time middle-infielders -- Eddie Collins, Luke Appling, Honus Wagner -- who played until their young 40s. Wagner played in a very different time, Collins was a shell of himself, and Appling was a very different hitter from Jeter (no power, hardly ever struck out, etc.).
Truth is, when you look at Derek Jeter's comps none of them aged especially well, except maybe Johnny Damon, who is aging as we speak. Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Ryne Sandberg, Lou Whitaker -- none of these guys were effective players into their late 30s.
Most Hits for Middle Infielders After Age 35
1. Honus Wagner, 1,120
2. Craig Biggio, 911
3. Luke Appling, 881
4. Rabbit Maranville, 798
5. Omar Vizquel, 788
What about Rose himself? Well, he was a good player up to 38, and then he managed to stick around for another 884 hits by greedily chasing Cobb. But Rose did not play much middle infield after his first four seasons at second base -- I suspect that it's a different toll on the body when you're playing a corner position, especially first base like Rose in his last few years. And, anyway, Rose was single-mindedly self-centered -- for better or worse. He was willing to become a manager and put himself in the lineup so he could break a record. Jeter, I think his biggest fans and biggest critics would agree, does not seem the type.
The argument that he will keep going and going, then, is built around the premise that Jeter is singular. The argument is that with modern training methods and Jeter's remarkable commitment level, that he can, in Cher's words, turn back time and keep playing at a very high level longer than the natural lifespan of a big league middle infielder.
Maybe he can. I'm not at all against it... I would love to see a hit-record chase, and who better than Derek Jeter? But if I had to bet, I would bet low. I'd bet that Jeter won't even get to 3,500 hits. That's not a knock on Jeter, who is a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he retired after tonight's game. It's a nod to Father Time, who last I checked is undefeated and untied. You don't know when he will get you. You only know that, at some point, he will.