Jeter faces tough odds in his late 30s

Derek Jeter

After a very public contract negotiation, Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees have come to terms on a three year deal that will pay the shortstop $17 million per year. The contract contains a clause which ensures that Jeter will be the highest paid shortstop in the game during that period.

Yankee fans are universally celebratory. Yankee brass is happy to have their captain tucked away for the time being, and avoiding a drawn out contract squabble is a plus. The Yanks also avoid the stomach-turning possibility of seeing Jeter in an Angels or Red Sox uniform. Jeter admitted that he had no intention of talking to other teams. Regardless, Yankee Nation breathes a sigh of relief.

In June of 2011, Jeter’s 17th season in pinstripes, he will turn 37 years old. Being the shortstop for the Yankees seems to be what Jeter was born to do, but few players have ever played shortstop for any team at that age. In fact, over the last 50 years, which happens to encompass the entirety of baseball’s expansion era, only eight shortstops have started regularly for their teams after the age of 36. In order for the Yankees to get their money’s worth, Jeter will have to play much better than any of those shortstops did in their late 30s. Given that he had his worst season ever in 2010, that may prove difficult.

The eight shortstops to start regularly at the age of 37 or older since 1961 are:

Luis Aparicio
Maury Wills
Dave Concepcion
Larry Bowa
Alan Trammell
Ozzie Smith
Barry Larkin
Omar Vizquel

These eight shortstops combined for 19 seasons after the age of 36 where they were regulars. BY far the most successful of the group is the most recent: Omar Vizquel, who was a regular at the ages of 37, 38, 39, and 40. Twice, in 2004 at the age of 37, and again in 2007 as a 40-year old, Vizquel posted an OPS over 700. Only Ozzie Smith (in 1992 at the age of 37) and Barry Larkin (40 ears old in 2004) reached 700 in on-base percentage plus slugging. The vast majority of the shortstop seasons at age 37 and older saw the player post measly offensive numbers. In most cases, these shortstops held onto their starting jobs because they were still adequate (or in the case of Vizquel and Ozzie) or very good with the glove. Few offered any sort of offensive production. Only Larkin slugged for a mark as high as .400 in a season after the age of 36.

Only one shortstop in that group collected as man as 40 extra-base hits in a season, and the most hits in any season by a shortstop over the age of 36 is 171. Not one “senior citizen” shortstop hit higher than.295.

In 2010, Jeter won the Gold Glove Award, but few believe he’s really the best defensive shortstop in the league. He earned the award on reputation. His offensive numbers plummeted, which is to be expected when compared to the other shortstops at the age of 36 and older over the last half century. Whereas catchers begin their decline after the age of 32 (with very few exceptions), shortstops start the decline at 36. In 2010, Jeter’s slugging percentage dove to .370, 82 points below his career mark. The highest slugging percentage by a shortstop at the age of 37 was .388 by Vizquel in 2004. Jeter will have to buck the trend that has seen shortstops rapidly lose their power after the age of 36. The most homers hit after the age of 36 has been eight, by Larkin.

Underlying these numbers is an obvious bad omen for the Yankees: another reason there have been so few effective shortstops who played into their late 30s is that they don’t stay healthy. The wear and tear of the middle infield position takes a toll on their body. Concepcion, Larkin, Trammell, Bert Campaneris, Royce Clayton, and Mark Belanger are a few of the shortstops who physically just couldn’t do it at the same level anymore once they reached 36-37.

Only Aparicio, Vizquel, Wills, and Ozzie were able to stay health and play every day for multiple seasons at an advanced age for a shortstop. All of those shortstops were smaller than Jeter, who more closely resembles the physical mold of guys like Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount, who switched to less demanding positions in their earlier 30s to extend their careers.

It remains to be seen if Jeter will buck the odds and be productive into his late 30s. Certainly the Yankees will reap the benefits of his 3,000th hit and the goodwill he brings to the game and their historic aura. But how much of that will offset a steep decline in his production, which history tells us is likely?

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