While playing at the age of 35 in 2009, Derek Jeter assembled a .334/.406/.465 slash line, good for an .871 OPS and 125 OPS+. By any number of perspectives, it was a remarkable year.
The OPS+ was the third highest since 1901 for any full-time shortstop at that age, and he became the first shortstop ever to collect 200 hits at 35 years old while finishing with 212. The Yankees shortstop even stole 30 bases while being caught only five times for a success rate that was the fifth highest in the American League that year.
For those who had witnessed a dip in his play the year before and were cognizant of his age and mileage (through 2009, he had started 2,118 games at shortstop), the season took on greater stature than even the numbers suggested -- it felt like a one-year renaissance, a summer-long return to glory before the inevitable deterioration and decline started to have a significant influence on his play. And when Jeter posted a 90 OPS+ in 2010 (the lowest of any full season in his career) and was sitting on a line of .260/.324/.324 in mid-June of 2011, that interpretation of the magical 2009 season seemed confirmed, cemented.
After that statistical and narrative nadir culminated in a DL stint in June of 2011, Jeter's next 228 games produced a .321/.369/.434 line, for an OPS (.803) not too far off his career mark of .829. This sample size, of course, includes his 2012 season -- one that in many ways recaptured the feel of 2009. The allure of his performance in 2012 -- at 38 years old -- stems from a pair of perspectives, both of which have vibrant connections to the past.
For one, Jeter embarked on a dramatic climb through the ranks of the 3,000-hit club, passing Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Paul Waner, George Brett, Cal Ripken, Jr., Nap Lajoie, Eddie Murray and Willie Mays on his way to a position in the top 10. He now stands 211 hits away from moving into sole possession of fifth on the all-time list, which would leave him behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial.
Secondly, Jeter's 2012 season -- in the context of old shortstops -- reached levels rarely (or never) seen before: it was a season for (and about) the ages, and one that assuredly rests as one of the biggest highlights of 2012.
Features of Jeter's 2012 season include:
An AL-leading 216 hits. This total -- the most ever for a shortstop 38 years old or older -- made Jeter the third player in history to be this old and lead his league. In 1981, Pete Rose led the National League with 140 knocks at 40 years old, while in 1996, Paul Molitor led the AL with 225 hits at 39. Jeter's 216 were the second most for any player 38 or older season, behind Molitor's total. The previous high for a shortstop this old (or older) was Honus Wagner's 181 in 1912.
293 total bases -- the most ever for a shortstop 38 years old or older season. The previous high was Wagner's 277 in 1912. Among 38 year old or older middle infielders, this total is the highest, and for all players at any position for the age range, it is the seventh highest total.
47 extra-base hits -- the third most by shortstop 38 years old or older season. In 1912, Wagner had 62, and in 1915, he had 55.
A .316 batting average -- second highest among all qualifying shortstops 38 years old or older season. Again, Wagner is at the top, with a .324 mark in 1912.
A 114 OPS+ -- the seventh highest among qualifying shortstops at 38 or older. The top six slots are all owned by Wagner (who is at the top with a 144 in 1912) and Luke Appling, with three apiece.
In our baseball world, any line of numbers and achievements that allows for a legitimate connection to a season manufactured by Honus Wagner -- undeniably, the greatest shortstop who ever laced them up on a Major League ballfield -- is one worthy of multiple looks and considerations, a convergence figuratively shouting for celebration.
In this particular case, with the starting point for the connection having occurred a century ago, a look back to Wagner's 1912 season -- a year in which he boldly added to a resume already overflowing with achievements -- seems appropriate and subsequently beneficial to affixing some texture to Jeter's 2012.
When the Pirates opened their 1912 season in St. Louis to take on the Cardinals, Wagner was already the owner of eight batting titles, had already claimed four rate stat Triple Crowns, had led the NL in OPS eight times, had topped the circuit in total bases six times, and had captured four RBI titles (and this outline only reveals some of the categories in which he had reigned). And although Wagner was the oldest regular in the NL in 1912, and in the face of the highest run-scoring environment in the league in almost a decade, the Flying Dutchman did more than just hold his own.
Behind a league-leading 102 RBIs (he is still the oldest player in the modern era to lead the league in this category), Wagner also finished in the top-five in the league in slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, and extra-base hits. And it gets even better, for those who place confident stock in evaluating a player's overall value, with Wagner's 7.9 WAR not only leading all position players in the NL, but still standing as the fourth highest in history for a position player in his age-38 or older season (he is behind Barry Bonds in 2004, Ted Williams in 1957 and Bonds in 2003). Taking on the rest of baseball history's age-38 (or older) players, Wagner's 144 OPS+ is the 15th highest and his 62 extra-base hits are tied for the 11th most.
From his age-39 season through the end of his career, Wagner went on to post a 111 OPS+, the fifth highest for any modern era player who played at least 500 games from that point on, and the second highest for any shortstop, behind Luke Appling's 116.
Only three players since 1901 have accumulated at least 200 games while manning shortstop in at least two-thirds of those contests, from their age-39 season forward: Appling, Wagner and Ozzie Smith. So the historical record for comparisons to Jeter in 2013 will be quite shallow. And with the Yankees captain returning from an ankle injury, there is no telling as to what might be in store for 2013 and beyond. But after seeing what he did in 2009 and how he again fought back time in 2012, there is some cause to be optimistic that the upcoming season will feature more than just an ongoing climb up the all-time hits chart.
Defying Father Time
A look at Honus Wagner's 1912 season at age 38 compared to Derek Jeter's campaign at the same age in 2012