Enjoy it now, Yankee fans. This will be Derek Jeter’s last great season.
Growing up a non-Yankee fan in the New York area, nothing has grated at me more over the years than the intensity of the man crush that typical Yankee fans have on Derek Jeter. It reminds me of those old SNL skits about the Chicago Bears fans who think that “Da Bears” and Mike Dikta can do anything.
Jeter can do no wrong in the eyes of love struck Yankee fans. And the annoying thing to a Yankee hater like me is that on or off the field, it often seems true although to be fair he has at times failed in the clutch.
I’m a bit of a contrarian and nothing scares me more than group think, so I’ve had a hard time accepting the fact that Jeter is a such a special player to begin with. For years I thought that he was an OK fielding, good hitting shortstop who won the career lottery by being able to play in New York. And for years, I’ve patiently waited for Jeter’s inevitable decline.
Yes, Yankee fans, even Derek Jeter will tail off due to the passage of time. He can’t play (at least at a high level) forever.
This season, Jeter is 35 and having a terrific year. Annoyed by this, the only course of action available to me was to tell myself that this HAD to be his last great year.
So, I started by taking a look at Hall of Fame shortstops. It was then that I realized that there simply weren’t many who were comparable to Jeter, at least as a hitter. For many years, baseball simply didn’t demand offense from the position. Sure, you have Honus Wagner and some other all time greats from the very early days of the game who have huge offensive stats, but I didn’t feel like that was a fair comparison.
The three relatively modern players who seemed closest to Jeter as hitters were Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, and Cal Ripken. Banks hit over 500 homers and clearly had way more power than Jeter or the rest. Yount won two MVPs compared to none so far for Jeter. And Ripken, we’ll it’s the streak that printed his ticket to Cooperstown, of course.
Feeling that Banks might not be the fairest of comparisons, I also decided to take a look at Barry Larkin. Larkin played short as a fixture for the Reds for many years and has career numbers within shouting distance of Jeter. Larkin may even end up in the Hall some day keeping Ripken and co company.
So let’s take a look at Jeter’s possible future by seeing what Banks, Yount, Ripken and Larkin managed to do at bat after hitting the age of 35.
As I noted earlier, Banks isn’t the best comparison. For one, he had way more power than Jeter, but more significantly he stopped playing shortstop at 30. From ages 33-36, Ernie Banks was still pretty much Ernie Banks as a hitter. But at 37, he hit a wall. He still had his power. Hitting 32 homers as a 37 year old and 23 the next year, but his batting average took a dive. His highest average from age 37 on was .253, which is about 20 points lower than his career average. Banks finished out his career in 1971 getting in only 39 games as a 40 year old. The year before, he’d played in 72 games.
Moving on to Yount, who I initially thought might be a better comparison to Jeter than Banks. Only, it turns out Robin Yount was done at shortstop at age 28 despite winning an MVP at the position in 1982. What jumped out at me about Yount, is that the two time MVP was out of the game at 37. Jeter’s just two years from being 37. For Yount, 1989 was his last great year. He was 33 and it was the last of four straight .300 seasons. At 34, Robin Yount dipped to .247 and never hit higher than .264 afterwards.
So what about Ripken? The iron man’s last great season came in 1996 at the age of 35, which was also his last year at short. Ripken hit 26 home runs while driving in 102 and batting .278. Those may not seem like amazing numbers now, but from a historical prospective that’s a lot of offense from a presumably steroid-free shortstop. In the next two years that followed, the games played streak went on, but in Ripken’s last three years he couldn’t stay on the field. From age 38 to 40, he played 86, 53 and 128 games in each season. Clearly, Ripken’s age had broken down the iron man.
Finally, we go to Barry Larkin. Larkin may be the fairest comparison of all. Larkin played only shortstop, like Jeter. And like Derek Jeter presumable, Larkin only played for one club his entire career, the Cincinnati Reds. Larkin’s last truly great year was in 2000 at the age of 36. He batted .313 in the 102 games he played in. The next year he played in 45 games. At the age of 38 he played in 145. In the final two years of his career while his batting average was within shouting distance of his career average, he played in only 70 and 111 games. He was done at 40.
So, what conclusions can we draw? A few, I think.
First, Derek Jeter is a pretty unique guy. Not even some of the contemporary greats like Banks, Yount and Ripken managed to last at shortstop as long as he has. Derek Jeter belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Second, Barry Larkin is way more like Derek Jeter than I realized. Imagine if he’d played in New York…
Third, as you get older it gets tougher to stay on the field. Yount was done at 37. The others all went on way beyond that. Banks, Ripken and Larkin were able to post respectable numbers into their late thirties. But, all three of them missed significant time.
So, here’s the conclusion. Each year that goes by, it gets tougher for Derek Jeter to produce another great year. His numbers might not decline, but he may find that he’s not able to stay on the field.
I’m not wishing ill on Derek Jeter. I’ve come to respect him for his accomplishments on the field and (now that I’m a dad) for being a role model off the field. But, the simple truth is this is very likely Derek Jeter’s last great season. So, whether you’re a Yankee fan or not, take time to enjoy Jeter now.