The prospect of New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter catching Pete Rose as baseball’s all time hit leader seem to grow less remote by the day. It was not long ago that the chances of Jeter passing Rose as baseball’s hit king seemed so small that they were barely worth serious consideration. And while it still can be considered a long shot, the fact is that Jeter has actually accelerated his pursuit of Rose and is farther ahead of Rose’s pace than ever before.
I will explain how all of the ‘intangible’ considerations factor into the chances of Jeter breaking the all time hit record (for once, these may hurt Jeter), but first let us look solely at the statistical comparisons.
There are two basic statistical ways to look at this: what is Jeter’s hit total compared to Rose’s at the same age, and what is Jeter’s hit total compared to Rose’s at the same number of plate appearances? I would argue that the most important factor is age, as obviously it will eventually take its toll on Jeter and every other player. While the rate of decline is very difficult, if not impossible, to forecast, what we can do is use Pete Rose as the benchmark, and see how Jeter’s numbers compare.
As he enters Game Two of the 2009 American League Championship Series against the Anaheim Angels, Derek Jeter is 35 years, 3 months and 21 days old and has collected 2,747 hits in his career. When Rose was the same exact age as Jeter is today, on August 4, 1976, he had 2,693 hits. So, Jeter is 54 hits ahead of Rose’s pace, based on his exact age.
The other viable way to analyze Jeter’s chances is to look at the number of plate appearances he has and how that the number of hits he has compares to Rose’s number at the same number of plate appearances. While probably not quite as valuable as the age factor, plate appearances do describe how efficient Jeter has been in the accumulation of hits and therefore how many more plate appearances might be needed. “Plate appearances” differ from “at bats” because plate appearances count sacrifices, walks and hit by pitches. While none of those count against a player’s batting average, they do count against, in a sense, the accumulation of hits.
As mentioned above, as Derek Jeter enters Game 2 of the 2009 League Championship Series, Jeter has 2,747 hits in 9,809 plate appearances. When Rose had 9,809 plate appearances, he had 2,708. Here again, Jeter is ahead of Rose; using plate appearances as the measure, Jeter leads by 39 hits.
Of course, Pete Rose finished his playing days with 4,256 hits. As Jeter today has “only” 2,747 hits, he needs 1,509 hits to tie Rose. That would be no small feat. Jeter’s averages 208 hits for every 162 games played. Jeter has been very durable, playing between 149 and 159 regular season games a year, except for 2003 when a fluke accident on the basepaths caused him to play in 119 games. If he can continue to average about 200 hits a year, (which is a big if), he would need to play another seven or eight years to catch Rose. At that point, Jeter would be 42 or 43 and probably would have amazed everybody with his durability as much as his hitting prowess.
So while the numbers seem daunting enough, there is another factor at play here. While this is difficult to prove, there was always a sentiment that, particularly in the later stages of his career, Rose was focused much more on personal accolades than on his team. Yes, he wanted to win, and yes he could still help, but he became less an important cog in a big time championship caliber team (that the Big Red Machine was) and more a guy trying to build his numbers. Derek Jeter has never seemed to be about statistics. Yes, perhaps that could change in due time, but to date, Jeter not only says all the right things about wanting to win, he backs it up by taking walks, hitting behind the runner and willingly (perhaps too much so at times), laying down sacrifice bunts.
Can he do it? It probably still will not happen. Even with the lead he has on Rose, too many things would need to happen, or not happpen, for him to reach this mark. But Derek Jeter is not somebody you want to bet against. As he enters the final stages of his career (which could be very long and productive stages), it would thrill baseball and its fans to see one of the games truly good guys, untainted by scandal and bad off the field behavior, capture one of the most hard to achieve records in all of sports.