The Elder Statesmen of Baseball: The Top Five over 35
The players who are featured on this list are guys I grew up watching and collecting their baseball cards. They are the first crop of players that I remember from the first year they started playing to the the point that they are in their careers now.
But before I begin to ramble about my boyhood idols (I still get choked up about my Ichiro rookie card), its necessary to set some parameters.
In order to judge the longevity of these great hitters, I took into account the length of their MLB service, team accomplishment, their personal accolades, as well as their current contributions to their team, because let's face it, ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez may be the greatest hitting catcher whoever lived, but I can’t consider a player who isn’t starting on a regular basis for this list.
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5. Ichiro Suzuki
I mean him no disrespect by putting him in the five-spot on my list, but among the five, he has the least amount of MLB service. Still, with 10 years in Major League Baseball, making the All-Star Team every year since his arrival not counting 2011, Ichiro Suzuki has proved to be one of the most dynamic forces baseball has ever seen.
Even before signing with Seattle in 2001, Ichiro was a prized hitter in Japan’s revered NPB. In eight seasons with the Orix Blue Wave Ichiro hit .353 and won three consecutive Pacific League MVP’s (1994-1996). Ichiro was great in the NPB, but what he’s done in the MLB has made him a Hall of Famer.
You need look no further than Ichiro’s rookie campaign to see how much of an impact he made on the team. Already with a talented roster with the likes of John Olerud, Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez and Mike Cameron, Ichiro fit right in right away with this blend of professional hitters.
In ’01, Ichiro hit an American League-leading .350, was named AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP. Only once before had this feat ever been accomplished—Fred Lynn with the Boston Red Sox in 1975.
Not only was Ichiro’s first MLB season a personal success, but the Seattle Mariners won an AL-record 116 games, tying the 1906 Chicago Cubs with the most regular season wins in history. Unfortunately, Seattle ran into the buzz saw that was the New York Yankees in the 2001 ALCS, losing in five games.
Regardless of Ichiro not making it back to the postseason since his rookie year, what he could plausibly accomplish with his time left in the MLB numbers-wise is astounding if you think about it.
Before he finishes his career, Ichiro could conceivably pass Pete Rose’s all-time record of 4,256 hits when combining his numbers from Japan and the United States. Right now, Ichiro has more than 3,600 career hits and depending on how much longer he intends to play, Ichiro could amass 3,000 hits in the MLB and become “The World’s All-Time Leader in Hits,” solidifying his spot as the greatest hitter whoever lived…or at least the greatest slap-hitter who's ever lived.
4. Vladimir Guerrero
A notoriously bad-ball hitter, Vladimir Guerrero takes the fourth spot on my list. He has as solid of a resume as anyone on the list, but like Ichiro, he has no championships to speak of, which is why I have him here and not higher.
A journeyman of sorts these days, Vlad is with his third team in as many seasons in 2011, but the change of scenery hasn’t affected his swing all that much. The 2004 AL MVP is still productive at 36 years old with the Baltimore Orioles, albeit only out of the DH spot. He is always a player that you can mark down for 100 RBI before the season starts (ten times he has drove in over 100 runs in a season).
A rare combination of power and average, Vlad is one of those special talents seen only a handful of times in an era. His 442 career home runs and .318 career average both rank fifth among active players. In a day and age full of swing-and-miss power hitters, Vladimir Guerrero is an exception to the rule. He will undoubtedly being getting a call from Cooperstown once he decides to hang his cleats up.
3. Chipper Jones
I have a soft spot for the No. 3 hitter on my list because he was the guy I grew up idolizing the most as a young baseball player. Starting with his rolled up socks and knack for the big hit, Chipper Jones mesmerized me with his ability to be so consistent from both sides of the plate. A career .304 hitter, Jones ability to to hit from both sides of the plate made him a nightmare for right- and left-handed pitchers alike (.304 versus RHP, .305 versus LHP in his career).
Behind only Mickey Mantle in home runs hit by a switch-hitter, Chipper Jones has been the face of the Atlanta Braves organization for almost two decades. He has hit 443 home runs in his 18-year career all the while playing his entire career in one city. In the free agency era, it's players like Chipper Jones and New York's Derek Jeter who will be immortalized because they played their entire Hall of Fame careers with the organizations that drafted them.
Throughout his career Jones has been accustomed to winning. Don’t think the Braves did as much winning as they did throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s just on pitching. Chipper has been a force in the middle of Atlanta lineups since winning a World Series in 1995.
Another one of Chipper’s crowing achievements came when he won the NL MVP in 1999. Then, in 2008 just to show baseball that he was still at the top of his game, Jones hit .364 and won his lone batting title. The guy is timeless. He just goes out there and hits. He will be remembered as one of the true relics of the game and my all-time favorite baseball player.
2. Alex Rodriguez
The active career home run leader Alex Rodriguez lands the second position on my list. Hitting 626 home runs over an 18-year stretch, Rodriguez is in reach of breaking the official, or somewhat unofficial, career record of 762 home runs hit by Barry Bonds.
I think he has to be on this list, but I found it difficult to try and place Rodriguez somewhere appropriately because of his checkered past with steroids. All PED’s aside, Rodriguez would have put up numbers similar to the outstanding ones he put up in his years in Texas, with or without performance enhancers. He just has that kind of raw ability. However, where he stands with HOF voters is questionable at best. It will be interesting to see what the climate of the baseball community will be when he retires.
A 13-time All-Star and three-time winner of the AL MVP award, Rodriguez could potentially break some of the more significant offensive records in MLB history, including home runs and runs batted in if he can stay healthy (right now A-Rod is sidelined after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. The injury will have him out for four to six weeks but back in time for the final month of the season).
From early on in his career, you could tell that A-Rod was going to be a well above average hitter, a guy who was going be the main attraction in whatever lineup he hit.
In his first full year in the majors, Rodriguez hit an AL-best .358, cracked 36 home runs and drove in 123 runs, all from the non-traditional power position of shortstop. Of course he later moved to third base when joining the New York Yankees, but alongside the Yankees’ Derek Jeter and the Red Sox's' Nomar Garciaparra, A-Rod helped ushered in the new era of shortstops in the major leagues.
Cal Ripken, Jr. broke new ground by being an incredible defensive player and a potent offensive player, but A-Rod took it to a different stratosphere. Look at Troy Tulowitzki, Starlin Castro, Hanley Ramirez. All are guys with big frames hitting the ball with authority at a position once only revered for its defensive standouts.
Fast forward to 2009. Rodriguez put all of his postseason demons to rest when he helped lead the Yankees to their 27th world championship in franchise history. Having been billed as a player who couldn't win the big one, Rodriguez put those notions to rest by hitting .365 in the ’09 playoffs with a monstrous output of six home runs and 18 RBI in 15 games.
The downside to Rodriguez's career is that he's never really come across as an authentic guy. People like Derek Jeter because he keeps his nose clean and dates super models. Rodriguez comes off as always searching for the politically correct answer and what people want to hear. Being an admitted steroid user, the HOF voters could elect not to elect A-Rod in as a member of the elite fraternity that is the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He certainly has the statistics to merit such entry, so I’m sure there will be a lot of anticipation and debate when he finally goes on the ballot.
1. Derek Jeter
Topping the list is a hitter who leads all active hitters in hits. He is THE Yankee shortstop. He is Derek Jeter.
In a period directly following the Steroids Era, when the purity and integrity of the game have mattered most, Jeter has been a model citizen for the MLB, avoiding any type of major public controversy in his 17-year career. He's a personable guy and leads by example on the field.
A lifetime .312 hitter, Jeter will was the first Yankee to eclipse 3,000 hits when he went 5-5 against the Cleveland Indians the weekend leading up to the All-Star game. Being only the second man to ever hit a home run for his 3,000th hit (Wade Boggs), Jeter stands as a pillar for the game.
It's tough to believe he's the first Yankee to reach this career milestone considering the infinite list of great Yankee hitters there are. This is a list that includes Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Unbelievable.
Never a league MVP or league-leader in home runs, Jeter’s offensive prowess has consisted of hitting line drives gap-to-gap. Once in a while he’ll hit one over the fence, but I would bet it was a line drive to right field that just got out.
In today’s game of baseball where getting on base is valued very highly, Jeter has etched himself into history as one of the great table-setters to ever play. Jeter has performed at the highest level when it has mattered the most.
In 147 postseason games played, the most in baseball history, Jeter holds the MLB record for hits (185) and runs scored (101). Regular season success is one thing, but to play well in the playoffs and to do it year in, year out, the way Jeter has, it’s beyond comprehension.
The numbers speak for themselves. But what they don’t mention is how instrumental of a leader he has been for the Yankees organization. He takes care of business on the field and takes responsibility when they don’t get the job done. You won’t find a more humble player either, which scores major points with me. That’s why Derek Jeter is pound-for-pound the Best Hitter Over 35 in my book.
Honorable Mention: Todd Helton, David Ortiz, Paul Konerko, and Lance Berkman