Team do not often employ starting shortstops who are closer to 50 than to their high school graduation. That's just a fact of life in baseball. However, not many teams can say that its starting shortstop is one of the best to ever play the position, either. The Yankees and Derek Jeter find themselves in a unique position; despite his second-half surge last year, Jeter is still not the same player that he was as recently as 2009. Yet he is under contract through 2013 with a player option for another season after that and has stated that he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
So even with his diminished defensive skills and slowing bat speed, the Yankees will, barring injury, continue to trot Jeter out as their shortstop for a few more years. Thus, the question must be raised about how many shortstops turning 38 have had productive seasons. The short answer? It has happened, and not just once or twice. Is it likely though? Follow the jump and find out.
Our friend, Baseball-Reference Play Index, will be a wonderful assistant for this examination! In the search for 38-year-old players who appeared in 90% of a minimum 100 games at shortstop (as Jeter will in all likelihood), only 21 such seasons show up, thus proving how the rarity of the situation.
There are some notable names, in there; specifically, Honus Wagner affirms his status as the best shortstop ever with a 8.1 rWAR season at age 38. Further, Luke Appling also proves his status as most underrated shortstop ever with three good seasons after age 38, including a 4.6 rWAR season at age 42. However, with these good seasons come subpar ones, like Larry Bowa's -1.1 rWAR disaster in '84.
It should be understood that Jeter's sub-replacement-level defense knocks him down a few pegs on the rWAR scale, as the system takes the sum of offensive WAR and defensive WAR. His '11 season of 0.7 rWAR would land between Rabbit Maranville's two seasons on the list ('30 & '31), so that does not portend great things if rWAR is the only criteria. Jeter's main value at this point comes from his offense, which is still good for a shortstop. His late-season surge last year bumped his OPS+ up to 97; although the stat is not listed in the chart above, Jeter's 2011 OPS+ would be behind Wagner's 144 in '12, Appling's 125, 125, and 117 in '47, '49, and '46 respectively, and Wagner's 113 in '13. Not bad company to be around, especially there have not been many shortstops in history with the offensive capabilities similar to Jeter. It might be asking a little much of Jeter to approach seasons like Wagner and Appling's when he's only had an OPS+ above 102 once in the past four years, but it would be fair to expect a minimum 95 OPS+ season. Hell, if an 40-year-old Barry Larkin could muster a .289/.352/.419 triple slash in his final season after all those years of injuries, it's certainly possible for Jeter to equal or better these numbers.