Friday, July 23, 2010

Jeter vs. Rose: The Hit Kings

Yesterday, I briefly mentioned that Jeter had a shot at Pete Rose's all-time hit record. After the post, I had a conversation in the comments that sent me deep into the bowels of Baseball-Reference. The results surprised me.

(Note: this morning's full post is below...I wanted to isolate the Jeter-Rose discussion here.)

Why Jeter is Ahead of Pete Rose's Pace

(and Why it Probably Won't Matter)


The whole thing started, as most great ventures do, with Robinson Cano. As he approaches 1,000 hits, I wanted to get a sense of his quality againt Rose and Jeter(conclusion: he's doing quite well, but he's very young). The main stat I used was hit percentage. That's simply the number of hits divided by the number of total plate appearances (PA). I use PA instead of at-bats since ABs discount walks and hit-by-pitch incidents. If we want to know how many hits a player gets per at-bat, we need to factor in how many times they reach base on something other than a hit; a player who walks more will have fewer opportunities to accumulate hits.

The other factor to consider, besides hit %, is age. If we can figure out which player had more hits, and a higher hit %, at the same age, we'll be able to understand who's "winning" the race for the all-time record, and whether their pace is sustainable.

Pete Rose ended his career in 1986 with 4,256 career hits. It's a number that sounds insurmountable. But let's see where he stacks up with Jeter.

First, for no good reason, I made it tough on myself. Jeter turned 36 on June 26, one month ago. I wanted to figure out how many hits he would be projected to have when he turned 37. As of last night, he has 2,855 hits in 10,242 plate appearances. That's a career hit percentage of 27.87.

Jeter has averaged 697 plate appearances per year (742 per 162 games, but we'll go by the first average to play it conservative and account for the bumps and bruises that inevitably plague older bodies). That means that one year from now, he'll have roughly 10,939 plate appearances. But we want to figure out how many he'll have when he turns exactly 37. So we'll take that yearly calculation, and subtract one month. Baseball is essentially a 6-month season (April is not a full month, but it's filled out by the handful of October regular season games), so we'll divide 697 by 6 to get 116 plate appearances per month, then subtract that to deduce that by his birthday next June, a relatively healthy Jeter should have 581 more plate appearances. That gives him 10,823 total.

Now, to figure out how many hits...the easy way is just to calculate 27.87 percent (Jeter's career hit percentage) of 581. But we should allow for some decline, since a ballplayer's productivity naturally abates with age. Rose's hit %, for example, fell a full point between age 37 and the end of his career. On the other hand, Jeter's hit % between 2006 and 2009 was 28.8, actually a full point above his career average. So I'll allow for a very small decline over the next year...let's say 27.6 instead of 27.8. That gives him 160 more hits. When we add that to his current total of 2,855, we get a grand total of:

3,015 career hits (and a 27.8 hit %) for Derek Jeter on his 37th birthday.

Let's see how that compares to Rose. His birthday is on April 14th. When he finished his 'age 36' season in 1977, he had 2,966 hits. By his birthday in '78, when he turned 37, he had 2,977. His hit % was 27.7.

Conclusion: Derek Jeter should be leading the all-time hit race by 38 hits when he turns 37. He'll also have a slightly higher hit rate.

So that was the hard way. Also the fun way. The easier and more mundane way would just be to compare the two at age 36. Here are the numbers:

Derek Jeter, 36th birthday: 2,835 hits, 10,153 PAs, 27.9% hitting.

Pete Rose, 36th birthday: 2,769 hits, 10,017 PAs, 27.6% hitting.

Even better, we can do current stats:

Derek Jeter, 36 years, 27 days: 2,855 hits, 10,242 PAs, 27.9% hitting

Pete Rose, 36 years, 27 days: 2,796 hits, 10,105 PAs, 27.7% hitting

So in all three categories (36th birthday, current age, and projected 37th birthday), Jeter has more plate appearances, more hits, and a higher hitting percentage. He's the better man. By all accounts, you can expect him to break the all-time hit record, right?

Well, no. There are three main reasons why Rose is still the favorite.

1) You'll notice that even over the space of one year, between age 36 and age 37 projected, Jeter's lead diminishes. At 36, Jeter led by 66 hits. Less than one month later, that lead had been reduced to 59. And projecting for age 37, Jeter's lead falls to 38. That has a lot to do with the fact that Rose put together four very solid seasons between '77 and '80 (age 36-39). He hit .307 and tallied 795 hits during that span. Even though he bottomed out a bit after that, Jeter will have to produce impressively to keep pace. So far this year, he's been off a bit, and thus the projected lead keeps falling.

2) Rose played until he was 45. Longevity was his biggest strength. As we've seen, Jeter is a slightly better pure hitter, but Rose lasted a long, long time. And his production only suffered mildly with age; by the stats, he managed over 600 plate appearances every year until his 40th birthday, and he only seriously declined after age 43. Will Jeter even have the desire to play that long? If so, will he stay healthy? Rose was a rare specimen, and though it's possible that Jeter may be a rarity himself, it's not statistically likely.

3) Circumstance. Jeter is an iconic Yankee, and it would be strange if he ever played in a different uniform. Unfortunately, the Yankee standard of excellence dictates that he probably can't play with the club until he's 45. Sentiment only goes so far. In order to duplicate Rose's longevity, Jeter would probably have to play third base for a lower tier club. I don't see that happening.

All things considered, the smart money is still on Rose. But then again, Jeter could surprise us. He's known for keeping in great shape, and his focus on baseball is fairly singular. If anybody can last into his mid-40s and maintain productivity, it's the Captain. As a Yankee fan and a fan of baseball, it would certainly be fantastic to see the crown transferred from one of the game's biggest cretins to a man of Jeter's stature.

Time will tell.

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