Just when we all thought New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s career was about to start steadily sliding along that downward slope, he quite emphatically slammed on the breaks. Jeter played in 159 games last season, accumulating a league-leading 216 hits and posting a .316 batting average. He scored 99 runs, knocked in 58 more, and had his highest doubles output (32) since 2007. On top of that, he was selected to his 13th all-star game and won his fifth Silver Slugger award.
Due to his fantastic season at the age of 38, the prospect of Jeter challenging baseball legend Pete Rose’s career hits record is very real. It’s a long shot, and the odds are against him for sure, but if the baseball stars are properly aligned, it can be done.
I know what you’re all thinking. Jeter turns 39 in June and still trails Rose by 952 hits. He would need five more seasons of 190 hits to get there. That means playing top-tier baseball at the age of 43. I get it. Really, I do. But it’s not like this hasn’t been done before. In fact, Rose did it.
When Rose turned 39 way back in 1980, he had 3,375 hits. Jeter will celebrate his 39th birthday on June 26. In 1980, Rose had 72 hits by the time June 26th rolled around. If Jeter keeps that same pace, he’ll have compiled 3,376 hits—one more than Rose at the same exact age. Surprised? Advantage: Jeter.
Now here’s where things get tricky for Jeter. At the age of 39, Rose became a permanent first baseman. Except for a handful of games in right field, Rose’s days of playing the “skill” positions were over by that time. Jeter, on the other hand is still a shortstop, and he’s still recovering from a broken ankle that was suffered in the postseason. The one positive for Jeter here is the latest Alex Rodriguez PED accusation, which is causing the Yankees to seriously consider parting ways with the former all-star. If they find a way to rid themselves of Rodriguez’ contract—he’s signed through 2017—it could pave the way for Jeter to move to third in 2014. That’s a big if. Advantage: Rose.
Rose was healthy enough to play until he was 45 years old, but his last truly productive year came when he was 41. After the 1982 season, he never had better than 121 hits. So Jeter really doesn’t need to hit that 190 mark each year, but he would need to experience the same longevity that Rose did. That would mean playing for another six years. His contract is up after the 2013 season, but he’s expected to pick up his player option to remain with the Yankees in 2014. After that, a new contract would depend on production. If the production isn’t there, then this entire conversation becomes irrelevant. However if Jeter is still hitting anywhere near the way he hit in 2012—even at 80 percent of that high level—the Yankees would be crazy to let him leave. No one, especially the Yankees, wants to see Jeter chasing history wearing anything other than pinstripes. There are so many unknowns here that it’s impossible to make an educated comparison, especially since we’re talking about something that Rose has already accomplished. Advantage: Rose.
Jeter’s biggest obstacle will come in the way of health and a simple desire to keep playing. Injuries are as unpredictable as anything in the game of baseball. Again we can reference the 2012 postseason as evidence of that. But there are some major differences in the injury factor now as related to the early 1980s. Players are, generally speaking, in better shape now. They have every possible piece of health and exercise equipment at their immediate disposal. They are better educated and have access to a greater number of professional trainers, nutritionists, and strength coaches. In this sense, Jeter should be able to play for as long as he wants to. And that’s the question. How long will he want to hang around? There are likely just two major issues that will influence that decision—winning and how close he is to Rose. For the sake of a better argument, let’s say Jeter avoids any freak, career-ending-type injuries in the future. And let’s assume that the Yankees stay competitive in the next few years—not exactly a huge leap there. Advantage: Jeter.
So what does all that mean? Well, it still means that Jeter is chasing nearly 1,000 hits with a bum ankle and his 39th birthday right around the corner. But it also illustrates the fact that Jeter has a very real chance of challenging Rose’s record. At this point in Jeter’s career, he has taken an almost identical path to that which Rose took. The numbers at every age throughout their careers are remarkably close. If I were Pete Rose, I wouldn’t exactly be shaking in my cleats right now, but I sure as heck would be paying attention to the box scores. Whatever the outcome, it should be a lot of fun to watch. Advantage: MLB.
(JM Catellier is the author of the book Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site: www.fixingbaseball.com)