In short, Jeter is an ageless wonder
Yankees captain having a historic season for a 38-year-old at his position
Despite his ubiquity in baseball's consciousness over the past 18 seasons, Derek Jeter seems perennially young. He's still an athletic player, still posting big numbers, still the smiling face of the Yankees.
Even when Jeter's numbers declined over the past two years, it was difficult to think of him as old or aging. Old players don't steal 34 bases in two years, as Jeter did in 2010-11. Old players don't win Gold Gloves, as he did in '10. His numbers were off a bit, sure, but to watch Jeter, it was hard to see a difference. Some players look old when they get old. Jeter never has looked old.
So as the 13-time All-Star has bounced back in 2012, with a season that wouldn't look out of place at the height of his prime, the performance has been taken on its own merits. That's a tribute to Jeter. He's a great player having a strong year, and that's been the story.
As a result, Jeter's age may be getting neglected. For any player to hit like he's hit, while playing shortstop, provides a nice contribution. For a 38-year-old shortstop to do it is historic.
In his age-38 season, Jeter is doing things what only a few players have ever done. His combination of effectiveness, durability and position is nearly unprecedented for a 38-year-old player. He's not just been good, he's been good while playing nearly every day at an age when most players have hung 'em up.
"You've got to get here a little earlier, stay a little longer," he told reporters recently. "I'm sure that applies to most people that are standing here right now. You've got to do things a little bit differently. But I think that's normal. I think that's for everyone. My fifth year wasn't like my first year. Just like this year isn't like five years ago. I think you make adjustments throughout the years."
Before we delve into the numbers, here's a quick definition of the terms. For purposes of determining who counts as a shortstop, the threshold is that players must have played at least 70 percent of their games at the position in the season in question. A player's season age is generally considered to be his age on June 30. Jeter turned 38 on June 26. The historical comparisons are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Entering Thursday, Jeter was hitting .319 with a .363 on-base percentage and a .443 slugging percentage. He's amassed 182 hits, leading the American League, and also tops the circuit in plate appearances (616) and at-bats (571). He has 14 home runs, 85 runs scored, and an OPS+ (a measure of OPS relative to the league average, adjusted for home ballpark), of 117.
The numbers look nice, though maybe they don't pop off the page. But they should.
Jeter has already obliterated the record for home runs by a shortstop of his age. No other shortstop in Major League history has hit even 10 home runs while playing in his age-37 or later season, and Jeter has 14. There have been 13 10-homer seasons by shortstops age 35 or older, and Jeter has three of them -- the only player with three.
In addition, by going 3-for-5 in Thursday's 6-4 win at Tampa Bay, he set a record for hits in a season by a 38-year-old shortstop. The record had been 181, set by Honus Wagner in 1912. Only four players have managed even 170 hits as a shortstop at 37 or later, with Luke Appling (180 at age 39) and Omar Vizquel (171 at age 39) also on the list. If Jeter ends up leading the league in hits, he will be the oldest shortstop ever to do so, passing Wagner, who was 36 when he did so in 1910.
To take it a step further, only one 38-year-old at any position has led his league in hits in a non-strike-shortened season: Paul Molitor, who compiled 225 hits in his age-39 season in 1996. Pete Rose was 40 when he led the National League in hits in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
Jeter is on pace to play about 140 games at shortstop this year. He would be the 17th 38-year-old in history to make even 130 appearances at shortstop in a season, regardless of performance. That would be his eighth season with at least 135 games at short since his age-30 campaign, which would once again put him in a group of three -- this time with Vizquel and Appling.
It's not just counting stats, either. Jeter's rate stats are historic as well. If he keeps up his current numbers, he will be the third shortstop in history to post at least a 115 OPS+ at age 38 or later while getting enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. Wagner and Appling each did it three times (and Wagner also did it at 37).
If you increase the plate-appearance threshold to 600 (which Jeter has already passed), you can drop the OPS+ all the way to league average and it's the same three names. Jeter would join Wagner and Appling (twice each) as the only shortstops in history to rack up 600 PAs with at least a league-average OPS at age 38 or older. And Jeter, of course, is well above average this year.
At his current pace, though, Jeter is going to get far, far more than 600 plate appearances. He's on pace for more than 700, in fact, and should get there pretty easily. If he does that, while keeping up his level of performance, he'll be the fourth player ever, at any position, with at least 700 plate appearances and a 110 or better OPS+ at 38 or older.
In short, sure, we knew this guy was good. And we knew he'd been good for a long time. But it's an awfully short list of people who have been this good, this late in their careers, while playing short. Not that that should be surprising.
"I think you can sit around and keep telling yourself you're getting old, you're getting old, and I think you start to feel that way," Jeter said. "I understand in sports as you get a little older people talk about your age but it's another thing I don't go out there and think to myself 'I'm 30-something years old.' I just think about trying to perform."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.