It wasn't very long ago that Derek Jeter, who collected his 3,000th career hit Saturday, was considered to have a chance at bigger game -- 4,000 hits, or even 4,257, breaking Pete Rose's all-time mark. At the end of the 2009 season, Jeter had 2,747 knocks and had turned 35 midway through the campaign. He was coming off one of his best offensive seasons, batting .334, roping 18 homers, stealing 30 bases and posting a career-best strikeout-to-walk ratio. Through the same age at the end of the 1976 season, Rose had 2,762 hits. It would take significant longevity and a lot of luck, but Jeter had positioned himself as the first player to have a reasonable shot at the all-time hits record since Rose set it a quarter-century ago.
Well, the thing about pace is that it's all in the past. At 36, Jeter put up the worst season of his career, batting .270 with diminished power. He did collect 179 hits but fell behind Rose's pace -- the switch-hitter had 204 at the same age. This year, Jeter has continued to struggle, batting .257 with a near-complete loss of power and going on the disabled list for just the second time. He has 79 hits this season, on pace for about 135 or so. The combination of lost time -- he'll be more than 100 hits behind Rose's pace by the end of the year -- and lost skills has pretty much taken the all-time hits record off the table. So the question now becomes, how many hits will Derek Jeter end up with?
There are many ways to run at the issue, mostly involving Jeter's peers. Unfortunately, history indicates that 37-year-old shortstops don't have a ton of hits left in their bats. The upper bound is Honus Wagner, who had 942 hits from age 37 to the end of his career. Then again, Wagner at 36 and 37 was just about the best player in baseball, leading the NL in hits in 1910 and batting average and OPS in 1911. Wagner is one of the 10 best players in baseball history, and even the most ardent Jeterians will have to acknowledge that Jeter isn't quite at Wagner's level.
Forty-seven players have been at least part-time shortstops at the age of 37 or later, but the ones who had the most substantial playing time were almost all glove men. Once you get past Wagner, it's all defense: Omar Vizquel, with 849 hits since his age-37 season and still going, and down through Rabbit Maranville, Ozzie Smith and others of that ilk. Late-career longevity for shortstops has largely been tied to defensive performance, or at least reputation. Jeter's defense has been a subject of substantial debate for most of his career, and no one would put him in the class of Smith or Vizquel as a glove man. Bat-first shortstops who had late-career success are few and far between. There's Wagner, then Barry Larkin (332 hits at 37 or later), and then it falls off considerably.
Jeter will be 38 next season. There have been just 80 times in baseball history in which a player has been a regular shortstop at 38 or older, and the vast majority of those were by players far, far superior to Jeter defensively. Now, Jeter has some advantages not tied to his play. The two years left on his contract will provide substantial incentive for the Yankees to play him, and playing time is half the battle. That his offense is sub-par hasn't stopped the Yankees from batting him leadoff this year and may not stop them from trying him in a position with a higher expected level of offensive performance, such as third base, left field or even DH. This seems almost inevitable.
Consider, for the moment, Cal Ripken. Ripken played his last game at shortstop in 1997, at the age of 36, in a season in which, like Jeter at 36, he posted career-worst numbers. At 37, Ripken had the worst year of his life, just as Jeter is this season. Ripken would play three more seasons as a third baseman and collect another 306 hits, losing much of his last big season, 1999, to assorted injuries. Ripken is, through last year, one of Jeter's closest statistical comps; the 10 players Jeter is most similar to averaged 362 additional hits from age 37 (Johnny Damon is still active and collecting them) with a wide range of outcomes. Roberto Alomar had no hits left in him, while Pete Rose, again an outlier, had another 1,290 hits. Seven of Jeter's top comps had fewer than 300 hits left in them at age 37 and later.
Jeter will join the 3,000-hit club at a relatively young age, 37. Of the 27 MLB players to reach that mark before he did, just six did it at 37 or younger. Those six players would rack up anywhere from 142 more hits (Robin Yount) to 1,256 more (Pete Rose). As with comparing Jeter to Wagner, the problem here is that the six players include four all-time greats -- Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker, players with whom Jeter isn't particularly comparable. Rose comes up again, and that's interesting in that Rose picked up an awful lot of playing time that he probably didn't deserve on his way to the all-time hits record, showing as one of the worst first basemen in the game a number of times in the 1980s, but always getting a job the next year. Jeter hasn't quite slipped to the level of Rose, and I doubt we'll see him as a player/manager, which Rose was for his last two and a half seasons of active duty. Jeter may, however, continue to play despite a low performance level for any number of reasons.
The number of hits Jeter ends his career with will come down to whether his bat bounces back. Two years ago, Jeter was a very good player -- even his defensive performance was among the best of his career. The falloff of 2010 has led to the collapse of 2011, and while the Yankees have stuck by their captain so far, in no small part because of the lack of a clearly superior alternative, that may not continue to be the case. Based on the performance of players in various comparable groups -- and particularly informed by the experiences of Ripken and Barry Larkin, I project that Jeter will rack up another 322 hits in his career, and finish with 3,330, good for 11th all-time.