1:49 pm Aug. 20, 2012
Astonishingly, Derek Jeter has embarked on a 2012 season that would fit comfortably in his prime years.
It is astonishing because Derek Jeter is 38 years old. He had a marvelous 2009 season, at age 35, but that figured to be the last time Yankee fans would see their legendary shortstop play at an elite level. He was decidedly ordinary in 2010 and 2011, par for the course with for baseball player, and particular for one playing every day at shortstop.
And yet Jeter's 2012 has him at a .321 batting average, 10 home runs, entirely familiar levels for Jeter. His O.P.S.+ of 112 is just down from his career mark of 117. At age 38, he is having a quintessential Derek Jeter season.
The result has changed the conversation from how much longer the Yankees can put up with a subpar performance at shortstop to allow a legend to take the field for them, to a very different one: Can Jeter catch Pete Rose for the career hits mark, at 4,256?
Jeter, after Sunday night's three-hit performance against the Red Sox, is leading the league in hits at age 38. That, itself, is a rarity. It has put him up to 3,251 career hits, or just 1,005 shy of Rose.
To make up that remaining distance, Jeter will need to collect more hits than anyone has after age 38. That mark is held by Rose, at 884. But there have other players who managed a pace that would get Jeter to the record.
Let's give Jeter another 50 hits over the final quarter of the 2012 season, getting him to 3,301 by the start of 2013, his age-39 season. That leaves him 955 behind Rose.
At age 39, Paul Molitor was absolutely dominant for the Minnesota Twins, collecting 225 hits as part of a season that saw him post a 116 O.P.S.+ over 729 plate appearances. If Jeter matches that 1996, he'll be 730 away from Rose as he turns 40.
At age 40, the Hall of Fame outfielder Sam Rice collected 207 hits during a 1930 season in which he hit .349. Add that to Jeter's total, and he'll be just 523 awat from Rose as he turns 41.
Rose himself had the best age-41 hit total in 1982, collecting 172 more of them while playing in every game for the Phillies and hitting .271. That would bring Jeter to within 351 of Rose if he matches Rose's 1982, and Jeter wouldn't yet be 42.
The most hits by any 42-year-old were collected by, astonishingly, a shortstop. Luke Appling played 141 games at the position for the 1949 White Sox, hitting .301 and adding 148 hits to his total. If Jeter does the same, that gets him to within 203 of Rose entering his age-43 season.
Even more incredibly, a catcher of all positions helps him at age 43. Carlton Fisk, collected 111 hits for the 1991 White Sox while catching 106 games. A similar season from Jeter, without the wear and tear of staying behind the plate, gets Jeter to within just 92 hits of Rose entering what would be the magical age-44 season.
It is Rose's 107 hits at 44 that puts Jeter over the top. But interestingly, Sam Rice's age-44 season total of 98 hits would tie Jeter with Rose as well. Presumably, if Jeter ended the 2018 season tied with Rose at 4,256 hits, he'd get the chance to collect 4,257 in April of 2019.
If it seems generous to compare Jeter to those who have been the very best performers at each age from now, consider that Jeter is well within range of collecting the most hits by anyone at age 38, more than Molitor or Fisk. He's on pace to best Sam Rice's age-38 total of 202. And he's even on pace to best the man he's chasing for that lesser record: Pete Rose, who had 208 hits at age 38, back in 1979.
And if all this seems too aspirational for Jeter, well, it did back then for Pete Rose, too. The record breakers go out and exceed what has come before them. It is silly to expect such performances, as a matter of course. But dismissing Jeter's ability to do so is done in the face of how revelatory his longevity, and the quality of it, has been to date.