Over the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time reviewing the entire 2012 season, which featured another division title and unfortunately another disappointing playoff exit.
Thirty-eight-year-old shortstops are not supposed to lead the league in hits. Heck, they aren’t even supposed to be good. It’s a physically demanding position and by the time a player starts to approach 40, they usually just can’t handle it anymore. It’s a young man’s position. Coming into the 2012 season, exactly two players in baseball history age 38 or older managed to qualify for the batting title while playing at least 75% of their games at short and still be above-average offensively…
Hall of Famer Honus Wagner did it four times and Hall of Famer Luke Appling did it three times, all over 60 years ago. That’s it, that’s the list. In fact, prior to 2012, there were only 23 instances (involving just 12 players) in history of a 38-year-old qualifying for the batting title while playing primarily shortstop, regardless of offensive production. It’s an exclusive list, a list that Derek Jeter joined this season.
Jeter’s resurgence started with his calf injury in June of last season. He had hit just .267/.336/.357 from Opening Day 2010 until the date of the injury last summer, a span of 1,032 plate appearances. That’s not a small sample, and at his age, it was easy believe his Hall of Fame career was winding down. Jeter spent his rehab time working with organizational hitting coordinator Gary Denbo to iron out some mechanical issues, making adjustments that allowed him to hit .331/.384/.447 in 314 plate appearances after coming off the DL. It was the Jeter of old, not old Jeter.
That second half success carried right over into 2012. The Cap’n opened the season with a torrid April, going 37-for-95 (.389) in the team’s first 22 games. He peaked at .397/.439/.595 on May 6th and at the All-Star break it was still a robust .308/.354/.411. He started the Midsummer Classic in Kansas City not only because he’s one of the most popular players in the world, but because he absolutely deserved it based on his performance. Jeter picked up the pace after the break, going 10-for-27 (.370) in his first seven games back and hitting .325/.372/.449 in the second half overall.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Jeter’s season was his rebound against right-handed pitchers, who had given him a hard time the last two years and even after working with Denbo in the second half of last season. He didn’t for much power against same-side pitchers, but his .294/.346/.377 line against righties was far better than his .261/.321/.327 line against them from 2010-2011. Lefties had no chance — Jeter hit .364/.399/.542 against southpaws, a 157 wRC+ that ranked 19th in baseball. The guys ahead of him are mostly in-their-prime right-handed sluggers like Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp. The Cap’n absolutely punished lefties in 2012.
Derek finished the season with a .316/.362/.429 batting line overall in an MLB-best 740 plate appearances. Not only did he perform, but he stayed in the lineup despite nursing a left ankle problem late in the season. Jeter led the league with 216 total hits, eleven more than the second place Miguel Cabrera. Those 216 hits were just three shy of his career-high set way back in 1999, and it also set a record for the most hits by a player in his age 38 season, surpassing Pete Rose in 1979 (208). Only Paul Molitor (225 hits at age 39 in 1996) has had more hits in a season that age or older throughout baseball history.
Along the way, Jeter climbed from 21st on the all-time hit list to 11th, passing all-time greats like Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, George Brett, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, and Willie Mays. Early next season, like the second or third series of the year, he should jump past Eddie Collins and into tenth place on the all-time hit list. A modest season gets him into the top-six at this time next year, but another great season will get him into the top-five all-time.
Jeter wasn’t the Yankees’ best hitter this year — Robinson Cano did hit .313/.379/.550, after all — but he was certainly their most reliable and consistent hitter. He was the guy everyone wanted to see at the plate in a big situation, and frankly I hadn’t felt that way about Derek since at least 2009, the last time he truly was a superstar-caliber hitter. That left ankle ended his season in Game One of the ALCS, a sour ending to an otherwise spectacular season. Great players do things other players can not do, which is why Jeter became the first full-time shortstop in more than 60 years to be an above-average hitter at age 38.