On the day he turned 35, (June 26) Derek Jeter had 65 more career base hits than the all time hit king, Pete Rose, had on his own 35th birthday. While he has faced constant criticism about his defense and lack of power at the plate, it is time to recognize, as evidenced by his hit totals, that Jeter is indisputably one of the greatest hitters of all time.
At the age of 35 only Robin Yount, Henry Aaron, Ty Cobb, and Rogers Hornsby compiled more hits than Derek Jeter. And in a head-to-head comparison with Pete Rose, Jeter tops the hits leader in nearly every important statistical category.
At his present pace attaining 4,000 hits is a real possibility for Jeter and, with the assistance of health and longevity, he may even challenge Rose's all time record. As previously noted, Jeter is outpacing Rose in hits at age 35, but that is only a partial view of the comparison at that age:
Rose: .311 avg, .381 obp, .814 OPS
Jeter: .316 avg, .386 obp, .844 OPS
Jeter even has nearly 200 more steals than Charlie Hustle, racking up 292 to Rose's 106. By nearly every statistical measure Jeter is easily the more complete and prolific hitter, so by this conclusive analysis it seems only fitting that Jeter — as long as he stays healthy — is capable of making a run at the all time hits total.
Beyond the typical Jeter-centric criticisms, many feel that, because of his position, he will not be able to display the longevity that Rose possessed, and this will prevent him from reaching 4,000 hits, never mind the 4,257 it would take to top Rose. In reality, Pete only had four more prolific seasons after 1976 when he turned 35, topping 200 hits only twice. But because Pete hung around in the league until he was 45, he was able to amass such a seemingly insurmountable total.
The unfounded perception that Jeter is declining at 35 is based solely on last year's numbers. While 2008 was admittedly a down season for the Yankees' captain (his 179 hits broke his three season streak of topping 200 hits), his .300 batting average and .363 on-base percentage were still very good, even while his career-low .771 OPS reflected his lack of power and run production. He scored at least 100 runs and knocked in 70 in every full season except last year (88 runs, 69 RBI) and the injury-truncated 2003 (87 runs, 52 RBI). It was a tough year for the Yankees in 2008 and Jeter was not immune from the effects of their struggles.
2009 though, has seen a return to form for the Yankees' shortstop. Heading into Sunday's game against the Mets, Jeter's stat line was very good all around, featuring a .308 batting average, a .377 OBP, 47 runs, and a .828 OPS — the last figure boosted by his nine home runs, 30 RBIs (while moving from batting second to leadoff). Jeter has even shown renewed speed, taking advantage of his new leadoff role to steal 17 bases, a higher total in 68 games this season than he posted in the entirety of 2007 or 2008. These statistics hardly outline a player that is winding down in his career or eroding physically.
Inevitably, it is likely Jeter will have to make of position change, especially if he wants to have a chance at the all time hits record. Much of Rose's longevity can be attributed to his switch to the less physically demanding first base, a luxury Jeter will not have given the long terms involved in the contract of Mark Teixeira. A switch to the outfield wouldn't be unprecedented (Robin Yount) and there is always the option of moving him into a permanent DH role. While many have stated their belief that Jeter's pride would never allow this — they may be right in the context that winning and "dignity" are undoubtedly more important to Jeter than records — if he feels that a switch would facilitate the future success of the team, pride would likely not be an issue. Jeter has a proficient enough arm, as well as speed and range, to play left field and could also be an Edgar Martinez-like figure (with less power) as a DH. Most of Derek's injuries over the years have occurred in the field (diving head first into the seats isn't healthy for anyone) so the DH role would seem to be the most conducive to his longevity and maintaining his highest level of productivity.
Derek Jeter is second in Yankees' history in total hits behind only Lou Gehrig, fourth in runs scored, fifth in total bases, forth in doubles, and second in stolen bases (Rickey Henderson popped in for a few seasons in the 80s). When he scored his 1,500th run, he joined Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle as the only Yankees to achieve and surpass that total, and while the stat is obviously more in flux, he is fifth in career batting average above such Yankee greats as Don Mattingly, Bill Dickey, and Bob Meusel. His name already rests among the pantheon of Yankee greats, and yet the Captain is still actively and productively adding to his already impressive totals that will one day earn him his plaque in Cooperstown.
Jeter has a long way to go before he catches Pete Rose. He will have to continue his standard productivity for a number of more seasons, always hovering near 200 hits for at least the next five years. But given Jeter's inside-out style at the plate — reliant more on pitch recognition and reaction than pure bat speed — combined with the fact that he will always be protected in very good lineups, Jeter may be more tailored to bring the "all time hits leader" moniker to the Hall of Fame than most give him credit for.
Over the last few years every chase for a record in baseball has seemingly been tainted with the stench of the steroid era, but if Jeter can stay injury free, perhaps agree to a position change, and desires to continue playing that long, the baseball world may be treated to its first pure moment of history that it can get behind and celebrate in a very long time.