On Derek Jeter and getting a ton of hits

Stop and think, for just a second, about for how long Derek Jeter has been a sabermetric punchline. 

At first it was the holy trinity of shortstops, which made Jeter kind of a joke because A-Rod >>>> Nomah >>> Jeter, right? Then there was the advent of play-by-play data and The Fielding Bible, which (sanctioned by Bill James!) definitively proved that Jeter was the worst defensive player of any kind ever, while he was winning three straight Gold Gloves at shortstop. Then there’s his renaissance year of 2009, when the joke was his supporters’ argument that he deserved the MVP in the face of the years Joe Mauer and Zack Greinke were having. Then there was the two years preceding this one, when Jeter combined below-average offense with defense that was 24 runs below average per Total Zone, and looked very much like an albatross the Yankees were going to be stuck with, for PR reasons, for essentially as long as Jeter wanted to stick them with himself. Then there’s the joke that Jeter might hang around for long enough to challenge 4000 hits or Pete Rose’s all-time record, all while killing the Yankees at SS. Hilarious!

That’s a minimum of thirteen seasons, in my estimation (since it was 2000 when A-Rod and Garciaparra really set themselves apart). Jeter’s been a joke for longer than the entire careers of David Eckstein, Ben Sheets or Pat Burrell. That’s an impressive thing in and of itself, isn’t it? And I think it’s enough.

Make no mistake: a lot of it has been justified. Jeter’s never been quite as great as the mainstream would lead you to believe, and while we probably shouldn’t have been as confident as we were, there’s still plenty there to make one pretty confident that Jeter has largely been a terrible defensive shortstop (Colin Wyers’ anti-PBP-data FRAA is even less kind to Jeter than TZ is, and considerably so). And it was generally recognized that Jeter was a great player…just not0 appreciably more great than, say, Barry Larkin or Bobby Grich. 

Yet as I write this (not counting Tuesday’s game, in which he went 0-for-5) Derek Jeter is hitting .336/.384/.482. The resultant 126 OPS+ and 134 wRC+ would be right in line with the best seasons of his career (excepting his brilliant 1999). And you might argue that we’ve only got one month on which to base an assumption that he’s anything other than what he was in 2010 and 2011, his .389/.433/.589 April; his May (.293/.339/.353) looks a lot like his last two seasons. But that April was easily the best month of his last three years, and he’s off to a pretty good start in June (Tuesday notwithstanding). Also: he hit as many home runs in his first 223 PA of 2012 as he did in all 607 PA of 2011. And while Total Zone gives him -8 runs at short, the fact remains that the Yankees — no doubt concerned with Jeter’s legacy and the fans’ reactions, but much more concerned with winning baseball games — still apparently feel comfortable running him out there at short. 

It’s just not as easy to stick a fork in Derek Jeter as it looked like it was a few months ago. He’s also currently got 3,163 hits, which some people think means something, and which is easily the leader among active players and 15th in history. It’s reasonable to think he has 100 more hits in him this year, which would vault him past Cal Ripken, Nap Lajoie and Eddie Murray and put him at 12th all-time. With 20 more hits next year, he passes Willie Mays. With, say, 175 more, he passes Eddie Collins, Paul Molitor, Carl Yastrzemski, Honus Wagner and Cap Anson, and suddenly sits in sixth place all-time, behind Rose, Cobb, Aaron, Musial, and Speaker. Hit totals are dumb, but that’s pretty impressive. 

I’ve always kind of laughed (as was my duty, as a saber-friendly fan) at all the hoopla surrounding Jeter’s hit totals, but I’m starting to buy into some of it, a bit, because it’s cool. Here’s where Jeter ranks among all batters through their age-38 seasons (with 108 games left, and it’s worth noting that with his June 26 birthday, Jeter misses having this be his age-37 season by less than a week):

1. Ty Cobb 3821
2. Hank Aaron 3391
3. Pete Rose 3372
4. Tris Speaker 3292
5. Stan Musial 3203
6. Derek Jeter 3163

Giving him the same 100 hits for the rest of the season that I just (conservatively) gave him, Jeter ends his age-38 year in fifth place all time, 30 hits away from 4th and 109 off of Rose’s pace.

Here’s the list for players in their first 18 seasons:

1. Pete Rose 3372
2. Hank Aaron 3272
3. Ty Cobb 3264
4. Stan Musial 3203
5. Derek Jeter 3163

100 more hits puts Jeter one hit away from #3 on this list, and nine off of #2. And Aaron and Rose got full seasons from the get-go, while Jeter played only 15 games in his first “season,” so that’s probably not entirely fair to Jetes. 

So here’s where I’m going with all this: I think this is starting to get pretty interesting. Hit totals are pretty meaningless; part of it comes from just not walking very much (though Jeter’s walk rates have never been bad, per se), and anything that equates one single with one home run is pretty silly. But, I don’t know, it’s at least interesting. And as much as I’ve laughed at the speculation about Jeter and his hits total, I’m starting to think it’s something worth keeping an eye on. He’s really unlikely to get to Pete Rose’s 4,256; giving him those 100 hits for the rest of this year, he’d need basically six more seasons at 170-175 hits a year to get there. Even 4,000 seems unlikely. But Hank Aaron’s 3,771? That’s another three 170-hit seasons after this one. Right now, that seems within reach. 

Derek Jeter, along with being one of the greatest players of his era, is also one of the greatest we’ve ever seen at the art of just getting hits. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty large part of the whole goal, even though it’s emphatically not the whole of it. I’m not going to tell you how to live your baseball-loving life, but for me, I think I’m ready to put away the snark and try to appreciate the rest of what’s been a really great, unique ride.

While continuing to hate the Yankees, obviously.  

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