This may be Yankee fan bias, but it has always seemed as though baseball analysts and opposing fans have been in a rush to predict the untimely end of Derek's career. Baseball Prospectus wrote of Jeter's 2007 season, "The second half of 2007, taken together with his age, suggests that the day of reckoning finally has arrived." Jeter put an OPS+ of 121 in 2007. If that's the day of reckoning then may all Yankee players prove so decrepit.
Prior to that it always seemed as though analysts would argue Jeter's greatness, but couch the arguments in statements about how it was more than the numbers. This seemed to be an offshoot of the days when Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez were vying to be the best shortstop in the game. A-Rod's numbers at short speak for themselves, but now that Nomar is all but finished in baseball its easy to forget that he hit .372 one season and that Jeter was easily the worst of the three.
But what did that mean? There was never a need to ignore Derek Jeter's numbers when arguing his credentials. Even without the five championships Derek has put up hall of fame numbers from day one of his career. In 15 seasons Jeter has never put up less than OPS+ of 102. He's never had fewer than 156 hits, and that was in an injury shortened season. He's never had fewer than 10 homers. For any player, especially a shortstop, those numbers are excellent, and I've purposefully omitted situational numbers such as runs scored (he's got a lot, by the way).
Jeter played into his detractors' hands in 2008 when he put up his worst offensive season. His ISO dropped to .108, representing an alarming decline in power. PECOTA predicted that trend to continue, projecting a .289/.354/.389 slash-stats performance from Jeter in 2009. That would have been good enough to keep Jeter on the team, but as his 2010 free agency season approached, along with the 3,000 hit mark, that performance would have put the Yankees in a bind.
Fortunately, Derek never got the message that he was supposed to fade slowly into an announcer's booth. We all know that 2009 instead turned out to be a return to form. Jeter's OPS+ of 132 is tied with his 2006 performance as the 2nd best in his career.
I like to attribute two reasons for this so-called resurgence. First, Jeter was hurt for much of 2008. He was hit on the hand early in the season. The injury derailed what had been an excellent offensive start. It has also been reported that he struggled with a pulled groin for much of 2008 as well. Either one of those injuries would do a number on any player.
Second, hall of famers aren't meant to be easy to predict. That's what makes them hall of famers. 2009 was a strong reminder that Jeter's career, as with the career of any of the all-time greats, defies expectations to begin with. On average, even the best players don't perform to Jeter's level for so long. The safe money would be to predict against a player achieving 3,000 hits or 500 home runs. Once a player has put up those kinds of numbers he has already put himself into a category of player reserved for baseball outliers. Why should it become any easier to predict such a player's later career?
Having said all that I'm still going to try to project Derek Jeter's next few seasons. Baseball Reference does the hard work for me. What stands out is that Jeter has already surpassed many of the players of his kind. Through age 35 Roberto Alomar, Frankie Frisch, and Craig Biggio are reported as being the most similar to Jeter.
None of these comparisons is satisfactory. Alomar certainly did have similar stats through age 35, except he was out of baseball by the end of his age 36 season. He also started playing full-time two seasons earlier than Jeter.
Frisch is a hall of famer from the 1920s and 30s with a career OPS+ of 110. That's fine and good, except I firmly believe it is a waste of time to compare modern players to guys from an era when ball players endorsed cigarettes. Plus, Frisch put up an OPS+ of 98 when he was 35 and was out of a baseball a couple of seasons later.
From a longevity perspective Biggio may be a suitable comparison. He played until he was 41 and his career OPS+ of 111 seems close to where Jeter's may be once his playing days are finished. But the comparison leaves me cold. Jeter's age 34 and 35 seasons were better than Biggio's (102 and 132 OPS+ versus 93 and 110). Jeter also seems to have a lot left in the tank, while the numbers show that Biggio was already in decline by the time he was 34. After his 35 season he would never perform better than an OPS+ of 104 and put up four seasons below 100.
What these 3 players have in common is that their skills were eroding rapidly by the time they were Jeter's age. Only Biggio's age 34 and 35 seasons were similar to Jeter's in that he too had something of a resurgence at that age. In light of this, it becomes easier to understand why so many baseball prognosticators have been anticipating the end of Jeter's dominance for so long. That's what players similar to him have almost always done at his age. Fortunately for Yankee fans Jeter doesn't seem to be showing any signs of doing that.
For my part, I'm going to avoid making predictions beyond 2011. Jeter is in a contract year in 2010 and I predict big things, an OPS+ of 120 at least. In 2011, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Jeter will cruise past 3,000 hits early in the season. After that, he's playing with house money.