Stat Speak: Yanks' 'Key Three' are legendary

Stat Speak: Yanks' 'Key Three' are legendary

Stat Speak: Yanks' 'Key Three' are legendary
On Sept. 28, 1996, there were 33,612 fans in attendance for a ballgame between the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway Park. The Yankees had already clinched the American League East, while the Red Sox had been eliminated from Wild Card contention.

For Red Sox fans, the game is perhaps most notable for marking Roger Clemens' last start for Boston. For Yankees fans, however, the game carries much more significance, and is attached to a much neater set of emotions -- emotions that have been polished, refined and brought to a vibrant luster nearly 15 years later.

That Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park marked the first time Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera all played in an official Major League game together. On that day, Jeter owned 194 career hits, Posada had played in a total of eight Major League games and had collected zero extra-base hits, and Rivera owned a career 3.40 ERA and five saves. None of the three had participated in an AL Championship Series or had stepped onto a World Series stage.

Since that game 15 seasons ago, Jeter has collected 2,732 more hits, Posada has rapped out 636 extra-base hits, and Rivera has saved 554 additional games while compiling a 2.02 ERA. Jeter has played in 53 ALCS games, Posada has played in 45 and Rivera has pitched in 33. And all three have been a part of seven pennants and five World Series titles.

Unlike the Braves' pitchers from the 1990s who evolved into a single entity known as MadduxGlavineandSmoltz, Jeter, Posada and Rivera have maintained separate identities and narratives and have -- each in his own way -- carved out a singular etching on the Yankees' timeline while making a case to someday be honored among the greatest the game has ever known.

In 2010, Jorge Posada cleared both the 1,500-hit and 1,000-RBI markers. Posada, who has caught 1,573 games, stands as one of 10 catchers (with 75 percent of their total games at catcher) to have driven past both of those milestones.

Catchers with 1,000 RBIs and 1,500 Hits, Sorted by OPS+
Catcher Hits RBIs OPS+
Mike Piazza 2,127 1,335 142
Bill Dickey 1,969 1,209 127
Johnny Bench 2,048 1,376 126
Gabby Hartnett 1,912 1179 126
Yogi Berra 2,150 1,430 125
Jorge Posada 1,583 1,021 123
Carlton Fisk 2,356 1,330 117
Gary Carter 2,092 1,225 115
Ivan Rodriguez 2,817 1,313 107
Larry Parrish 1,782 1,070 106
In addition to his impressive placement on the list above, Posada also can claim:

• the sixth-highest on-base percentage (.377) among catchers

• the third-most walks (897) among catchers

• the eighth-most home runs (261) among catchers

• the ninth-most extra-base hits among catchers

Moving away from the catcher position, Posada -- as a switch-hitter -- has also distinguished himself. All-time, among players with at least 3,000 career plate appearances, his 123 OPS+ is tied for the 12th highest, and is fourth best among active players behind Lance Berkman (145), Chipper Jones (142) and Mark Teixeira (134).

Posada has been behind the plate for 12,871 innings, with 645 2/3 of those innings dedicated to catching Rivera. That, in and of itself, would be enough for most catchers in history to boast about -- having caught a couple of seasons' worth of pitches for the greatest closer the game has ever seen.

In his age-40 season in 2010, Rivera continued to add to a legacy that has been notable for its dominance and absolutely extraordinary for its span of excellence.

In 1997 -- in his first year as closer for the Yankees -- Rivera accumulated 43 saves and finished the year with a 1.88 ERA. In 2010, Rivera again recorded at least 30 saves (33) and again finished the year with a sub-2.00 ERA (1.80). Those two bookend seasons give him 10 with at least 30 saves and an ERA below 2.00 -- more than double any other pitcher in history. Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan have had four such seasons, and none other have had more than three.

Rivera enters the 2011 season with 559 saves -- 42 shy of tying the recently retired Trevor Hoffman for the most ever. Since '05, Rivera has recorded at least 42 saves twice, in '05 and '09. That '05 season also stands as an interesting starting point for examining just how mind-boggling Rivera's late career has been. From '05 (his age-35 season) through last season, Rivera has put up the following numbers:

• an average of 37 saves a year

• a 1.88 ERA over that span

• a 0.894 WHIP over that time

• a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.76:1

While all of those numbers are marvelous, perhaps the most striking is that WHIP. Entering the 2005 season, Rivera's career WHIP stood at 1.067. Over the past six years, he has put together five seasons in which he allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning. No other pitcher can make that statement.

One more set of numbers should be enough to illustrate the point of Rivera's remarkable late-career compilation -- 14 pitchers in history have recorded at least 100 saves from their age-35 season and on. The 14 -- along with a set of stats -- are listed below.

Pitchers with 100-plus saves from age-35 season on
Pitcher Saves ERA WHIP K/BB
Mariano Rivera 223 1.88 0.894 5.76
Hoyt Wilhelm 174 2.29 1.044 2.46
Bob Wickman 111 3.08 1.337 2.25
Stu Miller 100 2.44 1.128 2.39
Trevor Hoffman 249 3.01 1.064 3.61
John Smoltz 144 3.28 1.155 4.11
Dennis Eckersley 293 3.18 1.058 6.46
Doug Jones 175 3.44 1.250 3.84
John Franco 129 3.42 1.402 2.08
Rick Aguilera 107 3.91 1.194 3.10
Lee Smith 123 3.84 1.338 2.39
Todd Worrell 111 3.41 1.265 3.30
Jose Mesa 183 4.20 1.467 1.57
Todd Jones 135 4.35 1.412 1.96
While many in the baseball world will tune in during the 2011 season to see if Rivera can continue to defy the normal ravages of time, an equal number (and actually, probably a whole lot more) will be turned toward another Yankees player as he tries to fend off the physical realities after nearly 2,300 career games at shortstop. This season, Jeter, who has played the fifth-most games all-time at shortstop -- will be attempting to reach a milestone achieved by only 27 players in history: 3,000 hits.

For those of you looking to be on hand, Jeter is 74 hits shy of the magic number; last year, he collected his 74th hit in the team's 57th game, on June 6. This year, the Yankees' 57th game takes place in Oakland on June 1.

Jeter's pursuit of that nice, round number will certainly be framed by the co-existent interest in seeing he how performs a year removed from his worst as a Major Leaguer. Not counting his debut season in 1995 (when he played in 15 games), Jeter's 2010 OPS+ of 90 was the lowest of his career, and marked the first time he had been under 100.

In sharp contrast to 2009, when everything seemingly went right for Jeter, last season represented a nadir of sorts. Now, entering his age-37 season, Jeter faces a history of evidence which tells us this: Shortstops in their late-30s, unless they are named Honus Wagner or Luke Appling, do not perform very well with the bat. Since 1901, there have been 37 examples of a shortstop, in his age-37 season or older, qualifying for the batting title. Of those 37 seasons, 23 resulted in the player finishing the year with an OPS+ below 90. On the other hand, Jeter is one of the greatest-hitting shortstops in baseball history, so perhaps he (and his fans) should be looking at the examples of Wagner and Appling for indication of what might be possible, should everything break right, for the Yankees' captain.

Highest OPS+ by a shortstop in His Age-37 Season or Older (since 1901)
Player Year OPS+ Season
Honus Wagner 1911 156 age-37
Honus Wagner 1912 144 age-38
Honus Wagner 1915 126 age-41
Luke Appling 1947 125 age-40
Luke Appling 1949 125 age-42
No matter what Jeter's final season numbers in 2011 look like, his pursuit of 3,000 hits should spark a host of words and interpretations of his sparkling career. Consider some of the realities below:

• Jeter owns the second most hits and total bases (4,218) for any player with 75 percent of his total games at shortstop, and owns the fifth-most extra-base hits (763)

• Jeter's .837 OPS is fourth highest, his 119 OPS+ is tied for fourth highest, and his .385 on-base percentage is also tied for fourth highest (these rate stats are for all players with at least 3,000 career plate appearances and 75 percent of career games at shortstop, since 1893)

• Jeter's seven seasons of at least 200 hits ties him with Wade Boggs, Charlie Gehringer and Rogers Hornsby for the seventh-most all-time

• Jeter's 13 seasons with at least 100 runs scored ties him with teammate Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson and Lou Gehrig for second-most in history. That quartet trails Hank Aaron, who had 15 such seasons

• Jeter's career WAR stands at 70.1 -- third highest since 1893 for any player who played 75 percent of his career games at shortstop. WAR is Wins Above Replacement, or the number of wins the players added to the team above what a replacement player would add.

Roger Schlueter is a senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.