Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Case for Derek Jeter, MVP

SEPTEMBER 2, 2009, 6:17 P.M. ET
The Case for Derek Jeter, MVP
In the movie industry, many recipients get an Oscar years after they really ­deserve one, and often as a kind of lifetime achievement award. Paul Newman, for ­instance, took one home in 1987 for his performance in "The Color of Money," and Martin Scorsese in 2007 for ­directing "The Departed." Both could just as easily have been given the Academy Award several times earlier in their ­careers. Baseball's Most Valuable Player awards are no different, and the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter might well wind up as baseball's Paul Newman for the 2009 season.

Associated Press

The Yankees currently have the best record in the major leagues, and many observers think the primary reason is Mr. Jeter, who, at age 35, has ­rebounded from a subpar 2008 season to one of his best years ever. He's done it against all expectations—no team with a 35-year-old starting shortstop has won a World Series since the Yankees with Phil Rizzuto in 1953.

Mr. Jeter has been batting at or around .330 since spring, and—with about 30 games still to play—he has hit more home runs than in any season since 2005. He is running the bases as he did years ago, with a ­stolen-base success rate of more than 80%. His critics have always focused on his fielding, where by most objective yardsticks he has ranked as ­mediocre or worse.

But this year, according to John Dewan, author of "The Fielding Bible," "Derek Jeter is having the best year defensively since I began tracking him with defensive metrics in 2003."

No one would argue that Mr. Jeter's statistics are better than those of Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer, the current favorite in the MVP sweepstakes, who is leading the American League in batting (around .370), on-base percentage and slugging average. For that matter, there are several players, particularly Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, who are outhitting Mr. Jeter in batting ­average and have better power numbers.

The case for Mr. Jeter as American League MVP is being made by more subjective arguments. "How do you measure the value of inspiration and professionalism?" asks Marty Appel, author of "Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain." "Some people will ­argue that intangibles don't ­exist, but in the ninth inning of close games everybody believes in them."

Thurman Munson's and Mr. Jeter's personalities were different; Munson was surly and pugnacious, while Mr. Jeter still projects the image of boyish enthusiasm he had as a rookie in 1995. But, says Mr. Appel, the two share one ­important characteristic: "They both lead by example and performance. They helped make their teams better just by being there. No one ever slacked off with either of those guys on the field." To which Mike ­Ozanian of adds: "Jeter has been the ­anchor on a team that could have been ­derailed by injuries to key players like Alex ­Rodriguez. Winning has to count for something."

Winning and consistency have been Mr. Jeter's trademarks throughout his 14 seasons as a Yankee starter. He's been the linchpin for six pennant and four World Series winners. The Yankees have been the winningest team in baseball since he was given the shortstop's job, and are the odds-on favorites to go all the way this year. He has more hits than any shortstop ever, having passed Luis Aparicio a few weeks ago, and he will soon pass Lou Gehrig on the all-time Yankees hit list. He is on pace to threaten Pete Rose's all-time record of 4,256 career hits.

And yet Mr. Jeter has never been voted the MVP. In 1999, most baseball analysts thought that the Yankee, who batted .349 with 24 home runs and a league-leading 219 hits, was the best player. But sportswriters chose Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez. In 2006, the analysts again favored Mr. Jeter, who batted .343 and stole 34 bases, but the writers went with Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau.

"I think there's always been a bit of resentment toward Derek outside of New York, where he is worshipped," says Dave Fleming of Bill James ­Online. "There's an assumption that New York players have an unfair advantage when it comes to MVP voting, but in the case of Jeter and other New York ballplayers like the Mets' Carlos Beltran, I think you might say there's a ­counterargument: namely, that to play in New York might cost you votes."

So, if Mr. Jeter does slip by Mr. Mauer for this year's award, who's to say it isn't fair after all? And who's to say Paul Newman didn't deserve that Academy Award in 1987?

Still, there is a question as to whether the MVP award ­really means all that much to Derek Jeter. As he put it on Aug. 23 after the Yankees beat the Red Sox—a victory that Mr. Jeter paced by hitting a home run on the game's first pitch off Boston ace Josh ­Beckett—"I'm not thinking about winning any awards right now. The only award that matters is that fifth World Series ring."

—Mr. Barra writes about sports for the Journal.

Write to Allen Barra at

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