Thursday, July 7, 2011

Derek Jeter's march to 3,000 hits

As the Derek Jeter countdown ticks toward 3,000 hits, is it OK to change the subject?

Look, nobody loves debating whether this man is one of the most overrated or underrated players in history more than me. I did, after all, write a book about that once (shameless book-plug link). But there's other stuff to talk about.

And I would never dismiss the importance, to the Yankees, of the clear reality that Jeter isn't the same player he used to be. But there's other stuff to talk about besides that, too.

The reason is this: What Derek Jeter is now -- as a player, as a hitter -- has very little to do with how he got to the precipice of 3,000 hits.

You know what got him here? Greatness. That's what.

Pure, relentless, machine-like greatness. For a decade and a half. Nonstop.

Very, very, very few players -- and fewer shortstops -- have had the kind of career this man has had, where every season looked just about exactly like every other season. Until the last two, anyway. And that's what it takes to get a man into the 3,000-Hit Club.

But for some reason, as Jeter completes the journey to one of the most important milestones of modern times, we haven't focused enough on that aspect of Jeter's march to 3,000 hits. So let's change the subject, OK?

STRIKE ONE -- JUST 17 DEPT.
He arrived in the big leagues on May 29, 1995. He arrived to stay in September 1995. So this is only Jeter's 17th season in the major leagues. And you know how many players since 1900 have reached 3,000 hits in 17 seasons or fewer?

Just five -- and now him.

See if you've heard of these other five men:

Pete Rose, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Paul Waner.

And if you'd like to see how many hits some other great players had in their first 17 big league seasons, check out this list at baseball-reference.com. It was a list that really put this feat in perspective for me.

STRIKE TWO -- THE 190-HIT CLUB
Take a look at Jeter's career numbers. Now check out the hit column. Maybe Jeter didn't quite crank out 190 hits or more in every season of his career. But it was close.

He's done it 10 times already. And the list of players who have had 10 seasons of at least 190 hits since 1900 is another very cool group. Here it is, according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia:

1. Pete Rose, 13
2. Ty Cobb, 12
T3. Stan Musial, 10
T3. Derek Jeter, 10
T3. Ichiro Suzuki, 10

If you're hanging around with those dudes, you could hit, friends. It's that simple.

But this guy wasn't just slapping singles for all those years. If you want to limit the list to seasons of 190 hits and a .400 slugging percentage, only Rose, Cobb, Musial and Jeter had at least 10 years like that.

And how many other players had at least 10 seasons with 190 hits, plus double figures in both home runs and stolen bases?

Not ONE.

Just Derek Jeter.

You could look it up.

STRIKE THREE -- IN SHORT ORDER DEPT.
Finally, there's one other thing we ought to mention: This man did all this as a shortstop.

My friend Brian Kenny got me to thinking this week how rare it is to inject that little subplot into the 3,000-hit conversation. So let's inject it right now.

How many members of the 3,000-Hit Club spent most of their careers as a shortstop? Precisely two -- Honus Wagner and Calvin E. Ripken Jr.

And while the list of shortstops with sustained stretches of offensive excellence is longer than that list, it isn't a whole lot longer.

There's no easy way to measure that sort of thing. But the statistic that comes closest is adjusted OPS-plus, because it adjusts the numbers for eras, ballparks, etc.

So through the miracle of the baseball-reference.com Play Index, I ran this list of most seasons with an adjusted OPS-plus of 110 or above by shortstops in modern history.

No shortstop in history had more seasons like that than Wagner (13). But after him, the leader board looks like this:

Jeter 11
Arky Vaughan 11
Luke Appling 11
Barry Larkin 10

Wagner, Vaughan and Appling are already in the Hall of Fame. Larkin should be standing at the podium 12 months from now. And you know where Jeter is heading one of these years.

Brian Kenny and I also talked on his radio show about how many shortstops had a 10-season stretch you would rank above Jeter's 10 best seasons (1998-2007). The only names that even made it into the conversation were Wagner, Vaughan, Ripken and Alex Rodriguez. And A-Rod didn't really play 10 full seasons as a regular shortstop, so he probably shouldn't count.

Larkin was close, but didn't stay anywhere near as healthy. Alan Trammell and Robin Yount were slightly behind. Ernie Banks would have surpassed Jeter, but he didn't play 10 full seasons at short. Guys like Lou Boudreau, Vern Stephens and Joe Cronin were in there someplace. And then there was Ozzie Smith.

He wasn't in the same area code as Jeter offensively. And even if you factor in defense, there was no 10-year stretch in which the Wizard's wins above replacement total beat Jeter's greatest decade.

The way Derek Jeter played baseball over those 10 years doesn't resemble the kind of baseball he's playing now. That's indisputable.

But as this guy stands on the verge of becoming the first Yankee in history to accumulate 3,000 hits, it's time to take a step back and salute the career that made all this possible. Really.

We'll have plenty of time to debate what the rest of Derek Jeter's career will look like. Is it OK if we resume that debate once hit No. 3,001 arrives? Sure it is. Trust me on this.


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