Age is Just a Number for Derek Jeter

The Captain

Derek Jeter is defying all logic at age 38. Nobody is supposed to hit .321 with a .353 wOBA and 121 wRC+ at this point, especially shortstops. Playing at such a physically demanding position, only behind catcher and arguably center field, Jeter should be well into his decline. After 2010, when he posted a 94 wRC+, it seemed like Jeter’s run of great seasons were over. The years of having the advantage of a good hitting shortstop and the years of .300+ batting averages looked like they were in jeopardy. This carried over into last season, too, but after returning from a calf injury and getting his 3,000th hit he was back to being the same old Jeter. In 2012, he continues not to miss a beat.

Amazingly, Jeter’s power has been impressive, hitting 14 home runs already this season. He hasn’t had this many since 2009, when he launched 18. Much of this can be credited to a well above career norm 20.6% HR/FB ratio. Overall, Jeter is hitting the ball harder this season, with 20.9% of batted balls being line drives. In 2010, when it seemed like Jeter was entering a steep decline, he was only hitting liners 16% of the time. For his career, he has a 20.1% line drive rate.

With that line drive rate right around his career average, it’s not like he’s getting lucky. Additionally, his .348 BABIP may seem high, but realize that it is below his career mark of .354. This is because Jeter does have a tendency to pick up infield hits: 8.6% of the time in 2012 vs. 8.1% in his career. Simply put, Jeter is tearing the cover off the ball this season, leading to his his impressive batting average, wOBA, and wRC+.

It also seems that Jeter has been more aggressive this season. His walk rate is down to 5.3%, below his career rate of 8.7%. This definitely isn’t great for a leadoff hitter, but he’s been getting so many hits (leads the league with 175) that his OBP is still very good at .363. Another indicator of Jeter’s increased aggressiveness is his career low strikeout rate, at 11.9%. Aside from 2003 and 2011 when he missed time due to injury, Jeter has never struck out less than 99 times in his career. He’s only at 70 at this point in the season, so it seems like he should end up with less than that mark. The piece of evidence that effectively proves his increased aggression is his swing rate: 49.4% this season up from a career mark of 47%. Even from watching games, it seems like Jeter has been going after that first pitch he sees more often than usual.

As alluded to in the previous paragraph, Jeter leads all of baseball in hits, and it’s not even that close. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates is second with 164. Barring injury, it will be the seventh time Jeter attains 200 hits in a season, the first time since 2009. Incredibly, there are only three players to ever have 200 hits in a season at age 38: Peter Rose, Jake Daubert, and Sam Rice. Daubert and Rice played in the early 20th century, while Rose of course is baseball’s all-time hit leader.

So, how does this age 38 season stack up against other players? Thanks to fangraphs.com, finding out this type of data is easy. In terms of wRC+, his 121 mark is good for 20th best of all time. The guys ahead of him are the usual suspects: the Babe Ruths, Ted Williams, and Hank Aarons of the world. He’s also ahead of plenty of hall of famers who played at less physically demanding positions, like Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson, etc.

How does this season compare to other shortstops at age 38? There is only one other shortstop, ever, to put up a higher wOBA and wRC+ than Jeter at that age: Honus Wagner. Certainly, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We should also take into account that Wagner was 38 in 1912, so we’re talking about a completely different era of baseball. It’s arguable that Jeter is the best hitting shortstop of the modern era with undeniably the greatest longevity. Detractors may say that his poor fielding should have moved him from the position long ago, like how age forced guys like Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken to move from the position. Regardless, Jeter deserves credit for still being able to hit like it’s the prime of his career, playing such a demanding position full time since 1996.

Of all the hall of fame shortstops to continue playing at the position at age 38, only Jeter and Wagner have a wRC+ above 100, and both of theirs are excellent: 121 and 141. The other HOFers? Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, Luis Aparicio, Bobby Wallace, and Rabbit Maranville.

Out of curiosity, how does Jeter stack up against all hall of famers who are known as shortstops at age 38, even if they were at another position?

You can throw out the guys with sample size numbers (Appling, Cronin, Davis, Jennings). Once again, Jeter stacks up with the very best of them. Ripken is the new guy ahead of Jeter, but even so he only played about half a season (1999). Looks like a blip, too, considering after 1992 he only posted two seasons of wRC+ better than 100! Those years were 1994 and 1997, when he had 112 and 102 wRC+ respectively. Cal became a third baseman at age 35. Ripken’s last season was 2001.

There are some pretty impressive names he’s ahead of on this list. There was no doubt of Jeter getting into the hall when his playing days are over, but this just cements Jeter as arguably the greatest shortstop of the modern era. His ability to play the position at a high offensive level throughout a long career is second to none in recent times. He’s still got next year and a 2014 player option on his contract, so hopefully he continues to defy the odds. If not, enjoy the remarkable performance we’re seeing in 2012. No shortstop may ever accomplish this again.

Photo By Chris Ptacek [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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