The world of Major League Baseball was taken aback in February when New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced that he would retire at the end of this season.
Part of the shock was that he chose to tell the world his news via his Facebook page. (Yet, when you think about it, what a great method for bypassing the media hysteria that would have resulted at the scheduling of a news conference.)
Even more, though, the surprise was rooted in Jeter’s competitiveness. He was coming back after more than a year of frustrating rehabilitation from the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 American League Championship Series. No one knew if Jeter still had it in him to be successful on the diamond, but what if he could still play at a high level? How could he walk away from the game? After all, at the age of 38, he had hit .316 in the 2102 season and led the league in runs scored.
But walk away is what Jeter said back in February that he would do. And, although other players in recent years, such as Ryne Sandberg and Jeter’s longtime teammate Andy Pettitte, have retired only to return later to the field, that seems unlikely for the Yankee captain. Especially after the round of celebrations and gifts and ovations at every park he’s visited this year.
Jeter turned 40 on June 26 and is having a very solid season, hitting .275 going into Friday’s game, the 5th best batting average among American League shortstops. And his OPS was .329, second best among his colleagues at that position. He’s playing tantalizingly well, but, even if the Yankees don’t make the play-offs this season or don’t go far in the play-offs, don’t look for him to change his mind.
Don’t tempt fate
Life after 40 is not kind to major league ballplayers, even Hall of Famers. Looking around and looking back over baseball’s past, Jeter knows this.
In the last four decades, 41 position players have been elected to the Hall by the Baseball Writers Association of America. (This doesn’t include those voted in by the Veterans Committee who were from earlier eras.) Of those 41 position players, 25 didn’t play past the age of 40, and many left at a younger age.
So there’s one lesson: Three out of every five of these Hall of Famers didn’t tempt fate by playing into their “old age.”
Hitting like a backup catcher
The other lesson is starker: As a group, the 16 who played at least one season beyond the age of 40 had a lifetime batting average of .289. If they’d stopped playing after their age-40 season, it would have been .291 for the group.
A drop of two points in a batting average may not seem like much. But think of these proud and driven players and consider that, as a group, their batting average from their years of playing after 40 was a brutal .254. Or about at the level of a backup catcher.
During his one season as a 41-year-old, Eddie Murray batted .222, more than 60 points lower than his lifetime number. Willie McCovey, in his two post-40 seasons, hit .238.
Ozzie Smith, the St. Louis Cardinals shortstop, was one exception to the rule. In his single season past 40, he batted .282 in 82 games, enough to bring his lifetime average up a point to .262.
The other was catcher Carlton Fisk who not only played the most physically demanding position on the diamond through his age-45 season but was amazingly consistent. Through the age of 40, he batted .269. Over the next five years, he hit .269.
The post-40 batting average declines of three other baseball greats — Andre Dawson, Tony Gwynn and Willie Stargell — weren’t enough to change their lifetime averages. But, for the other 11, poor performance from 41 on tarnished their earlier achievements.
While most of these suffered lifetime losses of only a point or two in their batting averages, three — Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Mays — ended with lifetime averages that were three points lower than they had been after the season they turned 40.
One particularly sad case was that of Mays, one of the greatest ever to play the game. During two post-40 seasons he played with the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets, he batted a lowly .232. That dropped his lifetime average down to .302.
Another was that of Hank Aaron who hit the same .232 during his two years with the Milwaukee Brewers after catching and passing Babe Ruth for the home run crown during his age-40 season. As a result, his lifetime average fell from .310 to .305, a loss of five points.
Also suffering a five-point lifetime drop was Rickey Henderson. In his four seasons after the year he turned 40, he batted just .228, dropping his lifetime average to .279.
Outside the Hall
My suspicion is that Derek Jeter hasn’t crunched the numbers in exactly this way. But, as a student of the game, I’m sure he’s got a good feel for how those who have gone before him have been humbled by age and how his own body will increasingly betray him.
And, if he wanted one final lesson, he can look outside the Hall of Fame — to Pete Rose.
Rose played five years beyond his age-40 season as he racked up hits, ultimately surpassed Ty Cobb and became the Hits King with 4,256. But, during those five years, he batted only .261, and his lifetime average suffered.
After the year in which he turned 40, Rose was batting .310. But, by the time he played his last game, his career average had fallen to .303. A seven-point drop.
Jeter doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Patrick T. Reardon