In order to get them to sign, MLB teams have been paying stars until they are in their late thirties or even into their forties. That way, they keep the annual average value (AAV) somewhat down, and when these contracts become liabilities, inflation will have done its work. It’s still a bit of a risky strategy, however, when it comes strictly to on-field performance in the latter years of the deal. Not many players reach 40 and remain as excellent as they were at their peak, or close to it.
By the time Derek Jeter retired in 2014, he was 40. He wasn’t really productive that year, or even the injury-plagued season before. However, he can say he played top baseball until his age-38 season, in 2012, and that was no small feat.
Jeter was in the middle of a three-year, $51 million contract that season, and while he was coming off a couple semi-down seasons for him (combined 98 wRC+ from 2010-11), he looked very good in 2012 even while approaching 40. Maybe he just felt the stress from his pursuit of 3,000 hits finally off his shoulders for a full season, but regardless, his bat bounced back.
In 2012, Jeter had 3.3 fWAR and a 117 wRC+ as a 38-year-old shortstop, with a .316 average, a .362 OBP, 15 homers, 99 runs, and a league-leading 216 hits. Remarkably, that was his 17th consecutive season of at least 150 hits, matching Hank Aaron.
Jeter also went on to have a 125 wRC+ and a .333 average in the playoffs, contributing quite a bit as the team reached the American League Championship Series.
The Yankees were just three years removed from their World Series victory against the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, and made the playoff every year up until 2012. Jeter and Alex Rodríguez were integral parts of those teams. Both had been dominating together since 2004, but while A-Rod was clearly declining in 2012 in comparison to his lofty standards (though still productive), Jeter was closer to the player he was in his prime that year, even if not quite the hitter he used to be.
In 2012, the Yankees won 95 games and led the AL East. Outside of Jeter and A-Rod they had, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, trade deadline addition Ichiro Suzuki, and Raúl Ibáñez, who was a postseason hero with timely home runs against the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Division Series.
With a big assist from Sabathia, they won that ALDS 3-2 against a Baltimore team that was starting to become a problem in the AL postseason picture, remaining that way until 2016 thanks, in part, to Adam Jones and a very young Manny Machado. Unfortunately, the Detroit Tigers got in the Yankees’ way for the second year in a row, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Aníbal Sánchez, and the AL MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
Jeter hit .364 in the 2012 ALDS, but after more Ibáñez heroics forced extras in Game 1, the shortstop fractured his left ankle while reaching for a groundball. He had been playing on a bone bruise for weeks and it finally gave way at an awful moment. The unfortunate injury ended his season, and Detroit swept that series in four.
2012 also marked the beginning of the end of the Jeter/A-Rod era and the start of a two-year postseason absence for the Yankees in 2013 and 2014. In fact, between 2013 and 2016, the Yanks could only muster one playoff berth, in 2015, when they fell against the Houston Astros in the Wild Card Game.
Injuries completely ruined Jeter’s 2013 campaign, and A-Rod was also limited to 44 games between a torn labrum surgery and the birth of the Biogenesis scandal, one that cost him the entire 2014 season with a suspension. (Although his 2015 comeback was a story all its own.)
Jeter retired in 2014, but the Yankees weren’t really in the postseason race. The last time in Jeter’s career that they were truly competitive was in that 2012 campaign.
In many ways, 2012 was the beginning of the end: the Yankees had made the playoffs just about every year from 1995 to 2012, with the lone exception of 2008. They won the Fall Classic the very next year, though, and we can’t say they answered the same way after missing the postseason in 2013. A fresh generation of Baby Bombers was needed to bring the Yankees back to the heart of the postseason baseball. We can only hope that come 2030, the new captain will have a big age-38 season in him like his predecessor.