The 2014 season has reached its midway point, meaning Derek Jeter's farewell tour, age-40 season and goodbye to the game of baseball has reached the same juncture. When assessing Jeter's play thus far, context is critical.
On the surface—looking only at the raw numbers and production from New York's shortstop—Jeter is having his worst season in the big leagues. With an OPS+ of just 83, the former MVP candidate is hitting 17 percent below league average.
Defensively, the days of jump throws in the third base hole and instinctive genius across the diamond have disappeared, replaced by a shortstop with poor range and diminishing foot speed. While FanGraphs actually rates Jeter's defense as a tick above average, the 20-year pro has made some rare mental mistakes in the field.
Yet for all the reasons that Jeter's current talent level and production can be critiqued, two factors should override the numbers and offer perspective: age and health.
First and most important, Jeter is in the midst of his 40-year-old season. With his milestone birthday coming a few days ago, the future Cooperstown-bound star is in rare company among shortstops in baseball history.
As you can see by the following chart, Jeter's production thus far in 2014 currently ranks fourth out of the five shortstops to garner at least 250 plate appearances in their respective age-40 seasons. With time to improve or decline further, Jeter could realistically surpass Honus Wagner in OPS+ at the same age or fall to the bottom of the list.
|Rare Company: 40-Year-Old SS with 250 PA|
While the numbers can be instructive, think about the small amount of names on that chart. Jeter is just one of five shortstops ever to take the field this much at such an advanced age. That in itself is remarkable, a sentiment echoed by Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes, per Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today Sports.
"Do you know how difficult it is to play shortstop? It's super hard," Reyes said. "You have to be in on all the plays. And to be moving so much at 40? Wow, Jeter, many blessings. My respect to you."
Upon turning 40, Jeter didn't offer any insight or reveal any issues with age, per Dan Barbarasi of The Wall Street Journal. As the first half of his final year commenced, the same stoic, focus Jeter was evident.
"Physically, I feel the same," Jeter said. "I really don't sit down and look at my age and adjust or compare. I've just never done that. I figure I probably shouldn't start now."
In Reyes' tribute to Jeter, he referenced "moving so much," a basic tenant of manning the shortstop position at the big league level. The fact that Jeter, after missing almost the entire 2013 season due to complications from leg injuries and surgery, has stayed healthy enough to play in 67 games is remarkable.
With diminishing skills and production, it's easy to reference that Jeter's impending retirement is the right call and that the Yankees will likely find a way to upgrade the position when the all-time great hitter departs, but those ideas cloud the reality of New York's situation: If Jeter wasn't playing right now, regardless of the numbers, the team would be in a worse spot.
As presently constituted, the Yankees don't have a shortstop capable of outplaying Jeter. Sure, Brendan Ryan is a defensive wizard who could add to the team defense, but his career OPS of .619 is inept and too low to play on an everyday basis.
While the team is likely to be aggressive at the trade deadline, shopping for an upgrade at shortstop simply isn't in the cards considering the needs for an impact starting pitcher and infielder with pop at second or third base.
Home runs, like the one hit in Toronto's Rogers Centre earlier this week, are few and far between for a hitter currently posting a .327 slugging percentage, but there's value to what Jeter has brought to the Yankees this year, especially when considering his age and the lack of viable replacements behind him on the depth chart.
John Harper of the New York Daily News recently wrote about Jeter's importance to this particular Yankees team, highlighting what a breakout could mean for a mediocre offense.
Five years ago, he posted a 6.5 WAR and finished third in the AL MVP vote for the eventual World Series champions in New York, a magical run for the then-35-year-old shortstop. The blast from the past proved to be Jeter's final special season, but the fact that he's still going is something to behold.
If you had told general manager Brian Cashman that Jeter would still give the Yankees 100-plus games, around 1.0 WAR and be able to hold down the shortstop position five years later, it's likely the longtime executive would have signed up for that deal on the spot.
Moving forward, the Yankees shouldn't expect far more from Jeter than he's provided throughout the first half of the 2014 season. If he can simply replicate his first half numbers, a line line could look something like this: 140 games played, 150 hits, .320 OBP, 20 extra-base hits.
While that may not seem like much, only two shortstops in baseball—Ian Desmond and Jed Lowrie—reached those totals last season, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
With one half of his final season left to go, Jeter is a far cry from the player he once was, but the fact that he's taking the field every day, providing some value and further cementing his status as a rare and special shortstop, is the most glaring takeaway from this farewell tour.