The big baseball news yesterday was Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit, and whatever you feel about his defense, his all-star worthiness or his pinstripes you have to give him credit for that. Only 27 players in the history of the game have made it to 3000, and if his rings and other assorted hardware hadn’t already guaranteed it – membership in this club should seal the deal on Jeter’s eventual Hall Of Fame bid. And when it comes, he will deserve it – though he has played some bad defense at short, he has also hit well at a position at which offense is scarce and his career WAR total is north of 70.
So, if that milestone means so much: how did Derek Jeter get there, and does our own Miguel Cabrera have a shot?
The first thing Jeter has done right is start young. Jeter entered the scene shortly after his 21st birthday, soon won the ROY and never looked back. 21 isn’t particularly young among members of the 3000 hit club, but it’s pretty young for a hitter in general, even among top prospects. The second thing is stay healthy, Jeter missed significant time only once in his career and still played in 119 games that year. The third thing is pile up plate appearances – it helps to hit towards the top of a good lineup. Over his career Jeter has averaged 4.6 plate appearances per game, compare that to 3.74 for Brandon Inge – who has hit towards the bottom of bad lineups. The fourth is, of course, to hit – Jeter’s claim to fame is one of the consistently highest BABIP numbers in the major leagues.
On the first count, Miguel Cabrera comes out ahead – he made his major league debut at the age of 20, giving him almost a full season’s jump on Jeter. On the second count, Cabrera increases his lead – he has averaged more games per season (not counting partial rookie years) than Jeter had to this point and has never yet played in fewer than 150 games. On the third count, Cabrera trails significantly – coming in at only 4.27 plate appearances per game. The Tigers are not the Yankees, and cleanup is not second. That may not sound like a huge difference, but to put it in perspective if the two players were accumulating hits at exactly the same rate it would take Cabrera 181 games longer to reach 3000 for that reason alone.
On the fourth count, Cabrera falls farther behind – ironically, because he is so much the better hitter. As far as what they do with the ball, things are at worst a wash for Cabrera – they both have historically high BABIPS and while Cabrera strikes out a bit more he also launches the ball over the fence more (and homers are hits too – giving Cabrera the higher career batting average). Unfortunately, while Cabrera’s power numbers are up as he has entered his prime and his strikeouts are down, nobody seems to want to pitch to him anymore. A walk is a good thing for the team, but as far as individual milestones are concerned it is little more than a wasted opportunity to notch another hit. And while Cabrera’s career walk rate of 11% may not seem that far above Jeter’s 9%, Cabrera’s has been trending steeply upward. If Cabrera were to revert to his career BB average, this gap would increase the length of time to get to 3000 by only 20 games, but if he continues to walk at this year’s 17.2% clip it would take quite a bit longer.
Miguel Cabrera is only 28 and already almost halfway there, at 1497 hits. By the end of his age-28 season he should be in the vicinity of 1570 hits, compared to 1390 for Jeter. You can chalk all that up to a year’s head start (and more games played per season), Jeter had only played in 1093 games compared to an estimated 1350 for Cabrera. Jeter has added more hits per game, though, and Cabrera’s ‘lead’ is likely to shrink as Cabrera gets older. But he might, if he stays as healthy as he has (and Jeter has) get there younger. If we assume the same performance as his career numbers, Cabby will need another 1296 games to reach 300. If we assume the same health (and hence games played per season) he’s had since his arrival in Detroit it will take him the remainder of this season and another 7.82 seasons to get that many games under his belt. That would put Miguel Cabrera’s magical 3000th hit around game 129 – late August, 2019 with Cabrera still 6 months shy of his 37th birthday.