A few thoughts on Derek Jeter:
In my room at home there is a poster of Derek Jeter with the word ‘PRODIGY’ displayed in all capital letters.
If I remember correctly, I bought the poster* in Cooperstown twelve years ago in the summer of 2000.
*My parents bought it. I did not have a source of income in the third grade.
According to the internet, a prodigy is a ‘person with exceptional talents or powers,’ and those talents ‘excite wonder and admiration.’ But being a prodigy is more about the future: of what those talents and powers can lead to.
I admire Derek Jeter more than any other athlete for a number of reasons, but I think it boils down to this: the natural progression of a baseball fan is to admire the best player on their hometown team. In the late 1990’s, that player was Derek Jeter.
And then I started middle school, and there was Jeter, who hit .297 in 157 games in 2002.
And then I started high school, and there was Jeter, who hit .309 in 159 games in 2005.
And then I started college, and there was Jeter, who hit .334 in 153 games in 2009. He also finished third in MVP voting, hit .407 in the World Series, and became the oldest shortstop since 1955 to win a World Series.
Now it’s 2012, and I’m starting my senior year in college, and Jeter is hitting .317 with the most hits in baseball.
The idea of being a prodigy in any sport is an interesting one – because, more often than not, a player sizzles out by the time he’s 30. We tend to put athletes on such a high pedestal from a very young age – and then, in the blink of an eye, he’s done. It’s the inevitable consequence of age. By 30, athletes tend to decline. By 35, most have retired.
Jeter is 38 now, and he has shown that he is no ordinary baseball player. His consistency is stunning – and unprecedented.
In the history of baseball, which players have been more consistent than Jeter?
Maybe Cal Ripken. Ripken played in every single game – all 2,632 of them – from 1982 through 1998. But in some of those years he performed below the league average, and by 1996 he was done as a shortstop.
Maybe Hank Aaron. Aaron had 150+ hits in 17 straight seasons from 1955 to 1971. His OPS+ during that time was never below 140, meaning during his WORST year he was still 40% above the league average.
Maybe Pete Rose. From 1965 through 1983, Rose hit .309 with an average of 156 games played and 194 hits per year (this included a strike-shortened 1981 season where Rose only played in 107 games, which skews the averages slightly).
Mays, Musial, Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig – these guys all had higher peaks, but they never put together 17 or 18-year stretches where they were good every single year. It is an absurd amount of time to perform at the highest of levels. I think consistency, or the ability to stay healthy year after year, is one of the most underrated parts of the game. It’s different than longevity – any guy* can stick around the scrap heap into his thirties and forties, but to be consistent at that age is a very, very hard thing to do.
*This is, of course, a gross exaggeration. If you consider all of the people that have ever lived (around 100 billion) versus the amount of people that have played major league baseball (around 18,000**), then it shows you’re more than ‘any guy’ to stick around major league baseball.
** That comes out to .000018% of people that have ever lived.
But here’s the difference – Jeter is a shortstop. And unlike Ripken, he never changed positions. To get this type of production from a 38-year old shortstop hasn’t been seen since the days of Honus Wagner in the early twentieth century.
Forgive me if this comes across as a love-fest for Jeter, because he isn’t a player without flaws. Take 2010 for example, by far his worst year. He hit .270, was terrible defensively, and was a burden at the top of the lineup. Even during this renaissance year, he is still slower than he used to be – and he is a mostly terrible defender. This isn’t a knock on Jeter – it’s just the way it is, and it’s far better than Eduardo Nunez playing every day.