Alas, I was disappointed. Whomever wrote the headline – it might have been columnist Kevin Kernan, but it might not – was referring to Derek Jeter’s famous flip, but to the Yankees’ collective flop this season. Here’s a bit of Kernan:
The Captain is at his best in October, where he carries a lifetime .308 postseason batting average.
The Flip was made on Oct. 13, 2001. No play better exemplifies Jeter’s winning approach, his creativeness and his ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Instead of The Flip, here in 2014, the Yankees are giving us The Flop.
They can’t stand up to the challenge.
At the age of 40, Jeter was supposed to go out the right way, playing October baseball and letting the chips fall where they may. Perhaps, Jeter would have one more heroic October in his body. Yankees fans dreamed of him going out the way he came in — his first full season in 1996 — a champion.
Have I mentioned lately that writing sports columns a few times per week, on the fly and with little or no research involved, might literally be the best job in the world? I know. I used to do it (except sometimes with research).
Anyway, remember just a couple of years ago when there was plenty of speculation – including here, here, and here – about Jeter perhaps collecting 4,000 hits and perhaps even challenging Pete Rose’s career record. Granted, I did essentially dismiss Jeter’s chances of doing those things. Still, things might look quite a different right now, for both Jeter’s milestone numbers and the Yankees, if he hadn’t suffered that catastrophic ankle injury two Octobers ago.
Or would they?
Two things make projecting Derek Jeter’s theoretical, injury-free, post-2012 exceptionally difficult. One, while projections are good with groups of players, they’re not really so accurate for individual players for just one or two seasons. And two, there have been so few players like Derek Jeter that history, at least in this particular and specific sense, just isn’t all that useful.
How few players have been like Jeter?
He was the Yankees’ regular shortstop in 2011 and ’12, when he was 37 and 38. Care to guess how many other shortstops in major-league history totaled at least 200 games in their Age 37 and 38 seasons?
Of those 12, seven are in the Hall of Fame: Honus Wagner, Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, Bobby Wallace, Rabbit Maranville, Pee Wee Reese, and Dave Bancroft. And four of the other five are borderline candidates, if not more: Omar Vizquel, Bill Dahlen, Maury Wills, and Dave Concepcion. Among all these guys, Larry Bowa’s the only one who’s never really been a part of the Hall of Fame discussion. Probably because he was a truly awful hitter and won only two Gold Gloves.
Yet another problem with using those dozen shortstops as comparisons for Jeter: Most of them weren’t nearly as good as him, hitting-wise.
So what do you do? Look at just the good-hitting shortstops at these ages? All the shortstops? Or do you look at all players this age, regardless of position?
Well, the problem with looking at just the good-hitting shortstops is there are so blamed few of them. Only four shortstops were at least 5 offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR) in their Age 37-38 seasons: Wagner (off the charts at 12 oWAR), Jeter (7), Ozzie (6) and Vizquel (5).
Wagner’s hitting declined at 39 and 40 … then jumped up at 41 and 42. At 41, he was still among the best players in the National League. What a freak.
Ozzie’s hitting fell off at 39 and cratered at 40, when he played in only 44 games. He did enjoy a nice little comeback as a part-timer at 41, in his last season.
One of Vizquel’s very best seasons as a hitter came when he was 37, and he was decent at 38 and 39, too. At 40, he was the worst he’d been since his rookie season, 18 years earlier.
I’ll hit the other guys, in decreasing order of oWAR in those 37-38 seasons, just briefly...
Dahlen hardly played after those seasons. Wills played in 71 games in his Age 39 season, batted .129, and that was it for him. Aparicio was decent at 39 as the Red Sox’s every-day shortstop. But he never played again, either. Wallace didn’t play regularly after his Age 38 season. Maranville did, holding steady at 39 before declining at 40. Reese played in just 103 games at 38, and finished his career as part-timer at 39. Bowa played in 86 games at 39, in his last season. Concepcion batted .319 as a part-timer when he was 39, then slumped to .198 just a season later. Bancroft played in just 10 games after his Age 38 season.
So the non-hitting shortstops were mostly finished after their Age 38 season. They mostly stopped hitting, and their gloves generally weren’t still good enough to carry their anemic bats any longer.
Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel kept playing, but were essentially finished as good hitters at 40.
Which really leaves only Wagner, who was still good at 39 and 40 and great at 41.
Given all that, has it ever made much sense to think Jeter would still be a good hitter at 40? Decent, yes. Good, probably not.
He did hit particularly well at 38, with roughly 4 oWAR. But he was below 3 at 36 and 37 … so doesn’t his probably ~2 oWAR this season, at 40, seem right in line with reasonable expectations? Yeah, it probably does.
Getting hurt in 2012 and missing most of last season probably cost Jeter around 150 hits. That hardly cost the Yankees a playoff spot, though; they finished 6 1/2 games out in the wild-card standings, despite a second-half push from the front office. So the injury didn’t cost Jeter 4,000 hits, and didn’t cost the Yankees a playoff spot last year. Probably not this year, either, since he’s been roughly as good as a 40-year-old shortstop can be. Oh, and that 2012 ALCS, in which Jeter got hurt in the 12th inning of Game 1? The Tigers swept the series, outscoring the Yankees 13-2 in the last three games. So it’s unlikely, if hardly impossible, that Jeter would have made a real difference there, either.
Absent injury, Derek Jeter’s fans would have been treated to a great many more exciting moments in 2013. Otherwise, though, baseball history would have rolled merrily along in just about the same way it actually did.