NPF: JETERMANIA II

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on August 5th, 2011 by Ed

The over-the-top sycophancy with which ESPN covered Derek Jeter's quest for 3000 hits almost irritated baseball fans enough (check out Jeter Filter, the Chrome app that removes Derek Jeter from your internet) to obscure what a remarkable feat #2 accomplished. While in practical terms the milestone represents an arbitrary act repeated an arbitrary number of times, from a baseball perspective the 3K Hit Club is among the more difficult to join. It almost inevitably requires a player to break into the majors full-time at an early age (preferably no later than 23), play more than 18 seasons without losing any significant time to injury, and remain productive into ages (40+) at which most men injure themselves getting out of bed.

Put it this way: 200 hits is considered a remarkable season, a feat managed by only a handful of players annually. If a player played 15 seasons, say from ages 23 to 38, he would need to average 200 hits per season to total 3000. For reference, only two players (Ichiro and Pete Rose) have ever gotten 200 hits ten times in a career. So yes, we saw something rare when Jeter crossed 3000.**

The question is, when might we see it again? A brief overview of the active leaderboard suggests that we may be waiting for some time. Some players who appear close have reached the dead end of their careers, while the number of promising young players is small.

Before we take a look, I consider 2000 hits by age 35 to be a useful cutoff point. If a player has not reached that, his odds of reaching 3000 are essentially nil unless he A) can rack up an improbable 200 hits per year from 36-40 or B) plays productively to 42-45. It's not impossible, but the odds are very long.

The closest active players are Ivan Rodriguez (2842, Age 39) and Omar Vizquel (2835, 44). I-Rod has tried valiantly to be the first catcher to join the club, but he is now hitting a feeble .210 in part-time duty with the Nationals. His next stop is the glue factory. Vizquel is already well beyond a reasonable playing age and is riding the bench for the White Sox. He has 36 hits this season, so he would probably need to play four more years, i.e. to 48 or 49, at his current rate to reach 3000. Nope.

The next two players are more likely, Alex Rodriguez (2762, 35) and Johnny Damon (2678, 37). A-Rod's challenge is to stay healthy at this point. He's declining but still productive. 250 hits in 3 or 4 more seasons should be a snap, but he's also regularly missing months at a time with various ailments. Odds of success: 80%. Damon, conversely, is healthy but no longer the player he once was. He has averaged over 150 hits annually since 2006, so his challenge will be to find a team that will let him play full time for two more seasons – while hitting about .270 without power, defense, or speed. His odds are about 50/50.

Vladimir Guerrero (2526, 36) seemed like a good candidate for most of his career, but he is the kind of player who ages terribly. And he has. With his body falling apart and his swing-at-everything approach suffering at the hands of Father Time, I don't see a team offering him full-time DH duty for 3 or 4 more seasons while OPSing .720. 20% chance. Chipper Jones (2567, 39) has better odds of impregnating another Hooter's waitress.

No other active players have 2500 hits. In the 2000-2500 club, most contenders are too old and/or clearly shot. Miguel Tejada (2357, 37) is embarrassing himself at this point, OPSing .600 as a utility man. Bobby Abreu (2353, 37) and Todd Helton (2338, 37) are still decent hitters but too far away for their age. Magglio Ordonez (2127, 37) is broken down and even farther away. Jim Thome (2255, 40) is on his last legs. Edgar Renteria (2297, 34) started strong, playing full time at age 20 and reaching 2000 hits before 30, but just fell apart when he turned 30. No way. Carlos Lee, Orlando Cabrera, and Scott Rolen (all < 2100 and Age 36) are all in serious decline; only Lee is a full time player anymore. So if A-Rod and Damon fail, who will be next? The odds are in favor of the youngest members of the 2000 hit club: Albert Pujols (2005, 31) and Adrian Beltre (1996, 32). Pujols seems like a lock, but we will need to see where he is in 3-4 years to get a better idea of how his production changes as age takes hold. 80% chance. Beltre is in the Guerrero class – swings at everything, never takes a walk, and won't age well. I'd put his odds lower, around 20%. Juan Pierre (1959, 33) seemed like a good bet throughout his 20s (four 200 hit seasons!) but now is such a liability in the field and at the plate that he won't be a full time player for much longer.

Of players still in their twenties, the current hit leaders are: Carl Crawford (1559, 29), Miguel Cabrera (1521, 28), Jose Reyes (1261, 28), David Wright (1202, 28), and Robinson Cano (1201, 28). Crawford is on a good pace, but is he having a fluke bad year or is 2011 a sign of bad things to come? Of this group, who are all too far away to project, the best odds would seem to belong to Crawford and Cano, who is entering his prime and shows durability. Cabrera may make it if alcohol and weight don't do a number on his body.

The short answer, then, appears to be that if A-Rod or Damon do not make it in the next 2 or 3 seasons, we will probably be waiting a decade or more to see another player reach 3000 hits. That Jeter fellow may be overrated and overexposed (not to mention the worst defensive player in baseball) but what he has accomplished at the plate is indeed historic.

**The same could be said for Craig Biggio, but I don't recall ESPN caring much about that one.

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