Derek Jeter is having his best season of baseball since 2009 when he finished 3rd in AL MVP voting behind Joe Mauer and Mark Teixeira. The 38-year-old shortstop comes into today hitting .324/.365/.446 (118 OPS+) with 12 homers and 27 doubles, which puts him on pace for his best season since that 2009 World Series campaign. He’s accrued more hits than any other MLB player this season, racking up 168 total, which puts the Yankee captain on pace for the 8th 200 hit season of his career. In yesterday’s game against the White Sox, Jeter hit a lead-off homerun, which moved him into 12th on the all-time hits list, just 59 hits outside of the top-10 in baseball history. Jeter has blown past 8 hitters on the all-time hit list this season, passing legends like Craig Biggio, Cal Ripken Jr., George Brett, and Paul Warner. Barring a massive hitting binge out of the Yankee captain, we’re talking a month-and-a-half of .450+ hitting, Jeter probably won’t make it to the top 10 this season, but with 2 more years left on his contract, he’s a mortal lock to make it by next year. All of this prompts the question, how high up the list will Jeter climb?
While I don’t think that Jeter has a realistic shot of catching Pete Rose at the top of the list, I have a very strong feeling that the rest of the top-10 should be on notice. Jeter is on pace to play in around 155 games this season, and he has averaged 150-151 games per season throughout his 17 year career. He has averaged 1.27 hits per game throughout his career. If we take the current length of time remaining on his contract (the rest of this year plus 2 more), Jeter has a good chance of playing in another 330 games. If he averages 1.2 hits over the next 330 games played the Captain will have somewhere around 3650 hits. That would be enough to move Jeter passed most of the top-10 and would rank 4th all-time, just ahead of Stan Musial.
It’s probably a given however that Jeter won’t continue to hit the ball at such an excellent rate. Over the past 2 and a half seasons Jeter has been a .295/.352/.398 (101 OPS+) hitter, which is still solid but nowhere near his current level of play. Jeter has still put up the hits in that timeframe however, falling a tiny bit off of his career pace, 1.24 hits per game, which is still an elite rate, despite the fact that Jeter’s two worst seasons of his career have come in 2010 and 2011.
Even if Jeter sees a sharp decline in his skills over the next few seasons and has a repeat of his 2010 season when he hit just .270/.340/.370, he’s still a good bet to climb into the top 5. He averaged more than a hit per game even in 2010, and barring injury Jeter appears to be a good bet to reach 3500 hits, a plateau climbed by just 5 players all-time, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, and Pete Rose.
If we take the most optimistic approach possible, which assumes that Jeter stays healthy, continues to play at a high level, and extends his contract 2 more seasons until he’s 42, the Captain could reach even higher. If he plays this season, plus the next 4 and averages an aggressive 140 games per season while getting his career average of 1.27 hits per game, Jeter would be looking at another 700-710 more hits, which would give him about 3950 hits in his career, good for 3rd all-time. Jeter would still need another 300 hits to catch Pete Rose, which would be at least 2 seasons minimum, meaning that the odds for the greatest shortstop of this generation to catch baseball’s hit king are phenomenally long. But I like his chances to finish in the top 5 all-time and I wouldn’t put it past Derek Jeter to finish somewhere around 4,000 hits for his career, which would be more than Hank Aaron, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, and any number of legends who have come before.
Not to get to far ahead of ourselves, because Jeter is also having a completely unique season for a shortstop of his advanced age. There have only been 10 seasons in baseball history where a shortstop (minimum 100 games played with at least 50 games at short) who was at least 36-years-0ld has posted a batting average over .300 with an on-base percentage of over .360. If you narrow the criteria a little more, by looking for any seasons with an OPS of better than .800, which is typically the standard for an excellent season at shortstop, only 3 shortstops over age 36 have ever put up a season with an .800 OPS. Those three are Barry Larkin (2000), Honus Wagner (1910, 1911, and 1912) and Luke Appling (1943 and 1949, when he was 42!).
Wagner is widely, and rightly, considered to be the greatest shortstop in baseball history, having led his league in OPS 6 different times in his career. Luke Appling is another all-time great who interrupted his career in 1944 to serve in World War II. He was named to the Hall of Fame in 1964 and is a career .310/.399/.398 hitter. Larkin’s situation is similar to Jeter’s in the fact that he was on the obvious downslope of his career before having one last sparkling season in Cincinnati. Jeter is on pace to join that exclusive group and he’s hitting with more power than any of the players on the list, hitting 12 homers, 2 more than the next closest.
Looking strictly at this season, Jeter is also on-pace to become the oldest batter ever to win the Major League hits title. In 1996 Paul Moliter led the American League in hits, racking up 225 for the Minnesota Twins, but was bested by just 2 measly hits by Lance Johnson of the New York Mets. Jeter currently has a 9 hit lead on the suspended Melky Cabrera, who had been pacing all of baseball until being caught for using testosterone. Andrew McCutchen is just behind the Melk Man with 158 total hits, giving Jeter a large 10 hit advantage with just under 40 games to go.
What the Captain is doing in his age-38 season is remarkable and has been crucial to the Yankees success this season. His consistant presence in the lineup and on the field has been a steadying force for a New York team that has dealt with quite a few injuries in 2012. With each hit going forward in his illustrious career, Derek Jeter not only steers the Yankees to the playoffs, but he asserts himself among the all-time greats in baseball history.