Even if he had slowly begun fading away this season at age 38, Derek Jeter's place in baseball history would have been secure. He has Enough World Series rings for a whole hand and a guaranteed first-ballot entry into Cooperstown, and his name will be mentioned when discussing the greatest shortstops of all time. What Jeter is doing this season, batting well over .300 and leading the American League in hits, not only has Skip Bayless absurdly insinuating the possibility of steroid use, but also has people wondering if he has a chance to catch Pete Rose. So, does he have a shot?
Coming into Wednesday night's action, Jeter had 3,256 hits and could reasonably expect to finish the season slightly above the 3,300 mark. Using that round number, he would enter 2013 trailing Pete Rose by 956 hits. Assuming that he breaks the 200-hit mark this season, he'd have only to repeat that feat for five more seasons and the record would be his. Not so hard, right? Well, maybe if Jeter was 30, but the task is a lot tougher at his advanced age.
Jeter has twice had 1,000+ hits in a five-year span, doing so the second time from the ages of 31-35. Again, this would make the task of catching Rose seem at least possible assuming Jeter plays into his 40s, but that assumption requires a great leap. Only one player has ever had a thousand hits after Jeter's current age of 38, and that is Rose himself. Getting 200 hits after age 40 isn't impossible, but the decline at that age is significant. Rose had 172 hits at age 41, but his health and playing time declined after that point. Another of the all-time greats, Ty Cobb, played well at 40 but was out of baseball within a couple of years.
Of course, this isn't to say that Jeter can't be the exception to the after-40 rule. He's no doubt in excellent shape, and he's proven more than once that his critics and detractors would do well not to discount him. If he's going to play long enough to really make a run for the record, it's likely that he won't be doing so from the shortstop position. Omar Vizquel has managed to stay at the shortstop position into his 40s, but he may be the exception proving the rule. Despite his Gold Gloves, many among the SABR crowd have been critical of Jeter's defense due to his scoring poorly in advanced defensive metrics. Those criticisms will likely only become louder as he loses range. We can't possibly know how Jeter thinks, but given his reluctance to shift positions in the past it's unlikely that his pride would allow him to hang around as a defensive liability. Mark Teixeira is signed through 2016, eliminating a shift to first base, so Jeter would likely end up in a corner outfield position.
Another issue that could impact Jeter's chase is his contract status. He's signed through 2013 with a player option for the following year, at which point both he and the team will have to make a decision. Both Jeter and the Yankees have a great deal of pride, and want nothing more than to win, so neither is likely to do anything that would hurt the team. If Jeter is in a noticeable decline, it's difficult to imagine him chasing a record instead of bowing out gracefully. The Yankees, meanwhile, aren't likely to keep Jeter around for a record chase unless he is helping their efforts at winning. Jeter also presents himself as a very intelligent and self-aware individual who likely understands his legacy, meaning he's not likely to jump ship to another team for selfish purposes.
Even prediction models have limited value when applied to Jeter. Bill James' Favorite Toy calculator estimates that Jeter will finish with around 3,800 hits, retiring not long after his 40th birthday. However, if he remains a healthy contributor for the Yankees, it is difficult to see Jeter retiring at that point. Instead, it seems more likely that any future decisions will hinge instead on his health and happiness. Any other estimates about his final numbers are essentially guess work since no perfect model exists.
Will he break the record held so long by Rose? The reality is that it seems very unlikely, simply because there are too many variables stacked against him. Age, injury risk, the decline that comes with age 40 - none are impossible, but it will be a tough mine field to navigate. Perhaps the best approach is to simply do what we've been doing for the past two decades. That is to enjoy watching a true professional and all-time great proving that he hasn't yet lost his ability to be an elite player. Even if he doesn't approach the record, that should be more than enough.