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For want of an ankle, a hit king was lost?

What if Derek Jeter hadn’t broken his ankle in the 2012 ALCS?

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees - Game One

As might be apparent from my recent what-if on the 1994 Yankees and how we might think of them in a universe without a work stoppage, the current lockout has engaged the “what if” part of my brain. While thinking about the accolades and relative greatness of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter recently, another hypothetical came to mind. Let’s go to another parallel universe, one where Jeets never broke his ankle in the 2012 ALCS.

As Andrew pointed out to me when I pitched this idea, by the end of 2012, it really was more of a “when” Jeter would break down rather than an “if.” Jeter played through a lot of nicks and dings and pains. Not counting his abbreviated rookie season, the Captain averaged 144 games played over his remaining 19 seasons. Not counting all those playoff games. That is a lot of wear and tear.

Most crucially, in that fateful stretch run and playoffs of 2012, Jeter toughed out (or tempted fate, depending on your viewpoint) a bone bruise in his left ankle over the final month of the season. That ailment left Jeter something of a ticking timebomb.

A month later, during Game One of the American League Championship Series versus the Detroit Tigers, Jeets’ left ankle went from bone bruised to broken, ending his playoffs. He returned to the field on July 11, 2013, but only appeared in 17 games that season. He played one final full campaign in 2014 as a replacement level performer, and then retired, entering Cooperstown just a few months ago.

So… what if? What if Jeter had avoided catastrophe? To begin, it is probably a decent bet that the Yankees don’t go down to an ignominious sweep at the hands of the 88-win Tigers. Forget the intangible effect of seeing Jeter’s injury in the opening game of the series. He had just finished a campaign wherein he hit .316 with an MLB-best 216 hits and a 114 OPS+. And he kept that up in the ALDS against the Orioles, with 8 hits in 22 at-bats and an .891 OPS. This was a productive and valuable Derek Jeter. The 2012 postseason might have been very different.

But honestly, my “what if” is much more interested in the years that (would have) followed 2012 and how they might have affected the twilight of Jeter’s career. In our timeline, when he hung up his cleats after the 2014 season, he did so with some really impressive counting stats. Jeter finished his career 11th all-time in runs scored with 1,923 for example, one spot ahead of a fellow named Lou Gehrig and just outside of a top-10 that is replete with legends and baseball immortals.

A full and healthy 2013 almost certainly shoots him up that list. 90 runs, for example, would place him in ninth, ahead of Cap Anson and just behind teammate and frenemy Alex Rodriguez’s eventual career total.

The idea that has really piqued my curiosity though is how a healthy 2013 could have changed Jeter’s career hit total. When he hung up his cleats, he did so with 3,465 hits, just outside the top-five all-time. Even if he had still retired after 2014 in our No-Broken-Ankle timeline, a full 2013 season with 166 hits would have snuck him past Stan “The Man’ Musial into fourth place (he averaged 192 hits per season from 2009 through 2012, so I don’t think I am being greedy with my hypothetical).

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees

But would a Derek Jeter with 3,631 hits really have retired after the 2014 season? Here’s the sticky wicket, the crux of my hypothetical. Alternate Universe Jeter, at the end of 2014, would have been 626 hits from Pete Rose in the scenario I am posing – assuming what I think is a low-ball 2013 hit total and an unchanged 2014 hit total when his batting average plummeted to .256, the worst single-season average of his career.

If his 2013 season had been closer to the four campaigns that preceded it – let’s give Jeter his average of 192 hits – his career total becomes 3,657. A 2014 season with less regression than we saw in the main timeline? Let’s say he hits .275 instead of .256. That’s 160 hits instead of 149. New career total: 3,668. Multiverse Jeter now sits 588 base hits from baseball’s disgraced Hit King.

So here we are. Multiverse Jeter is through his age-40 season. Only Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, and Rose stand in his way of baseball’s hit crown. Is it outside the realm of possibility that this Jeets would have kept playing, knowing he needed to average fewer than 150 base hits over the next four years to dethrone Rose, claim a hallowed baseball record, and further cement his status as an all-time great?

But it gets more interesting… bear with me. So Multiverse Jeter decides he wants to depose Rose (to the absolute delight of MLB, I suspect). Would he and the Yankees have been able to come to mutually agreeable terms so that he could do so in pinstripes? Or would he have had to go play for *shuffles AL deck* the Texas Rangers to get there? We’ve got pretty compelling evidence that Hal Steinbrenner likes to keep an eye on every single one of his pennies.

Would his cost-benefit analysis conclude that the PR and ticket sales of Jeter chasing down Pete Rose was worth the… 10 million dollars a year that Jeter might have wanted over the next four seasons (he played the 2014 season on a 1-year, $12 million contract)? Or would he have let The Captain walk, to get to 4,257 in a different uniform? Would Jeter have taken less money to accomplish the feat as a Lifetime Yankee a la Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Mantle? Or would he have realized that, much like Ruth, no matter where he went, everyone would remember him as a Bronx Bomber?

I don’t know the answer to the hypothetical I have posed. I like to think that Multiverse Jeter would have chased down the record as a Yankee, ultimately retiring as baseball’s untarnished Hit King after the 2018 season. But when I look at the current landscape, I wonder if Jeter was our last, best hope at seeing the career hits record fall.

Joe Baseball, just entering the majors this season, would need to average 213 hits over 20 years to surpass Rose. Easy peasy, I’m sure. The active leader in the clubhouse? Miguel Cabrera. With 2,987 hits, he’s only 1,300 or so away, at age-38. José Altuve, seven years younger than Miggy, is 2,500 hits away from Rose. Under the age of 30? Manny Machado, 28-years-old, is 2,831 hits in the rearview mirror.

We should be hesitant to say anything is inevitable. Likewise, records that seem nigh-unbreakable can find themselves in danger of falling – for any hockey fans in the crowd, see Ovechkin, Alexander and his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record. But it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that when Derek Jeter’s left ankle broke in the 2012 ALCS, Pete Rose’s hit record found itself safe for the foreseeable future.