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Put Into Context: Jeter’s Return

Updated on March 28, 2014

Put Into Context

Put Into Context is a series that looks at today’s issues and uses baseball’s rich historical data – which stretches back to the beginning of the National Association in 1871 – to learn more about a player’s place in history, to help project future performance or simply to find out if a situation or accomplishment is really as singular as it might appear. With nearly 150 years in the books, much of what seems unique actually has precedent. There’s no guarantee similar situations will result in similar outcomes, and the environment or meaning is often radically different, but it can be instructive – or at least interesting – to find similarities. Despite the whole “from father to son” generational link, baseball fans really do tend to have short memories.

Derek Jeter's Challenge

In just a few days, the wait will be over. Derek Jeter will, most likely, be back on the diamond, wearing pinstripes and playing shortstop. Maybe he’ll be the same old Jeter; maybe he’ll be another washed-up star trying desperately to regain a form that’s gone the way of the dodo.

Jeter’s comeback is being watched with tremendous anticipation in the baseball world. Yankee fans and Jeter supporters want to see a legend go out on top, renewing his assault on the record book. And even many Jeter bashers don’t want to see a top player go out with an injury-induced whimper.

For the number-loving crowd, there’s another question: what can we expect from an ironman who had his career interrupted by major injury at such a late stage? Who is his “comp”?

Jeter played in 159 games at age 38 in 2012. He hit .316 and led the league in hits, plate appearances and at-bats. You don’t get to be much more of an everyday player than that. But his injury-marred 2013 campaign included only 17 games and 63 at-bats. He hit a single (but very dramatic) home run and batted .190, one hundred percentage points below all but one of his full-season averages.

Derek Jeter's 2013 season was a virtual loss. What does history say about his odds of coming back at full strength?
Derek Jeter's 2013 season was a virtual loss. What does history say about his odds of coming back at full strength? | Source

Jeter's Past Three Seasons

Home Runs

Who Compares to Jeter?

While there are many players whose careers were only briefly derailed by a lost season in their late 30s – my personal favorite, Dave Winfield, comes to mind – what about missing an age 39 season?

I turned to Baseball Reference’s Play Index to find out. I looked for players who played 100 or more games at age 38 but 25 or fewer at age 39. Technically, there were many, many players who fit the bill. But most of them actually retired after a full season at 38. There were some who played just a few games at 39 as their careers wound down: Felipe Alou, Jimmy Callahan, Dave Bancroft and Max Carey. A few others played full seasons at age 39 in the minors.

Very few of the players played at age 40, and as far as I can tell, none of them had circumstances similar to Jeter’s. Earl Sheely played three full minor league seasons after his last big league appearance at 38. Jimmy Collins played two full minor league seasons at 39 and 40 and a few more games at 41. Grover Hartley played at 38, coached at 39 and played and coached at 40. Julio Franco played a full season in Japan at 39, played in Mexico at 40 and got into one MLB game that year before resuming his wild journeys. Al Todd played full minor league seasons at 39 and 40, then returned to the bigs at 41. Fred Clarke was player-manager at 38, manager only at 39, and got into a few games at 40, 41 and 42 while still managing.

And then there’s Jim Edmonds, who played 111 games at 38, didn’t like the offers he got at 39 and sat out, then played 86 games at 40 before retiring for good.

Since 1901, nobody has played as a regular at age 38, missed most of age 39 due to injury and played again at 40. Not in the minors in a failed attempt at return, not in a few games in a failed attempt, not as a success story. It simply is unprecedented. As long as Jeter is on the diamond this season in a professional game, he is making history.

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's home run record after rebounding from a nearly-full season absence -- and he did while older than Jeter.
Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's home run record after rebounding from a nearly-full season absence -- and he did while older than Jeter. | Source

What Do You Expect?

Do you think Derek Jeter will have a good, bad or abbreviated season?

See results

Comebacks by Older Players

Barry Bonds
Tony Gwynn
Ozzie Smith
Brett Butler
Rabbit Marinville

Fogies Strike Back

Unless, of course, it has happened to an even older player…

Actually, it has happened, and quite recently to a legend. Barry Bonds played 147 games at age 39, just 14 due to injury at 40, and then two full seasons more. Like Jeter, Bonds was an everyday player for two decades before being derailed. When he came back, he wasn’t quite the same player, but he was still recognizable, not a shadow of his glory years.

Granted, most Jeter fans – perhaps most baseball fans – don’t exactly want to see those two players in the same sentence. The positions, body types and styles are entirely different, let alone the likely difference in steroid usage. But it does appear to bolster Jeter’s odds to see an example.

Another (and better loved) legend, Tony Gwynn, was limited to 36 games at age 40 due to a knee injury following an All-Star season at 39. Gwynn rebounded, somewhat. He played 71 games, mostly as a reserve, and hit a Gwynnish .324. Although he was less of a regular at 39 and played more at 40, Ozzie Smith had a similar circumstance, bouncing back from injury with a solid final season in a limited role.

And if you expand the parameters a little for Jeter’s own age, there’s Brett Butler. Butler was diagnosed with cancer early in his age 39 season. He missed most of the year but returned at the end and hit .283 in 105 games at age 40, although his power numbers were worse than usual.

Another shortstop, Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, played 143 games at age 41, then missed a season with a broken leg before coming back for 23 games in 1935 at age 43. While he made it back at an even later age, it can’t really be seen as a success because of his poor level of play – he hit .149 – and the few games he was used. Not that the 1935 Braves were worth sticking around for. One of the worst squads ever, it was also the last team Babe Ruth played for, and he didn’t even stick around to the All-Star break.

Conclusion: We'll See

Essentially, Jeter’s odds are long, but not unprecedented. Some durable Hall of Fame-level players have shown remarkable resiliency even in the face of major surgery at the tail end of their careers. It does seem foolish to expect an MVP-type year, but it is just as foolish to count Jeter out. If anybody is going to be an exception, it is likely to be a guy who already has been. Jeter, Bonds, Gwynn and Smith all broke the mold throughout their careers, defying the odds over and over.

In a few days, we’ll have a better sense of which way Jeter’s comeback will go. Either way, it’s pretty historic. He was far more of an everyday player than others with late-career injuries, and missed more time than most.


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