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Thursday (Derek Jeter over Joe Mauer for MVP?) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand under Professional baseball Updated: September 3, 2009 - 9:00 AM

Let's start here: Derek Jeter is, indeed, a viable candidate for American League MVP. He is not the best candidate, but he is at least a candidate. He is having a very good season -- batting .332 with 17 HRs and 61 RBI -- and has helped the Yankees regain their place atop the AL East. We also have nothing against Jeter personally. In fact, he's always seemed like a pretty good person. Upon seeking him out in the Yankee Stadium Clubhouse for a pre-ALDS story on the Yankees in 2003, we were not rebuffed by Jeter. In fact, he answered all of our questions during a brief 1-on-1. He gets it.

What we cannot fathom, however, is the premise of a story posted yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. The essential premise is that even though everyone knows Joe Mauer is having a better statistical season in every way possible, and even though some other players are also putting up big numbers and might be more deserving, why not give this year's AL MVP award to Jeter as some sort of lifetime achievement award. Sorry, but that set us off. We had to attack the piece Fire Joe Morgan style (and wow, we really wish Ken Tremendous still did his thing so he could have a swing at this one). We have no qualm with the writer, other than that we think he was coming at the story from a flawed place. So, here we go. Article in plain text, our interjections in bold.

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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.

Actually, this pretty much never happens in baseball. The MVP is given to the player who has the best season and/or the greatest impact on his team. It’s strange how it works that way.

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.

So far, all I am inclined to do is give Derek Jeter the MVP of Derek Jeter’s Latter Half of the 2000s. I mean, it’s great that he’s outperforming previous Derek Jeter years, but how about we don’t use that as criteria for the real MVP race.

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."

So when he’s compared to his mediocre-or-worse-than-average previous seasons in the field, this year’s Jeter is better! Maybe  his range is even “almost adequate!

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.

Indeed. Most of us call those gentlemen “leading MVP candidates.”

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."

Oh, sweet mercy. Really? How do you measure the value of inspiration and professionalism? Can you put a price tag on a cloud? On Jeter’s calm eyes? On the knocking knees of swooning NYC coeds? Are those some more swing votes for Jeter as MVP?

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.

He loves to play the game! Just like Brett Favre! He’s just having fun out there! Just give him the MVP already!

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 Forbes.com 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."

Derek Jeter makes the Yankees better JUST BY BEING THERE. Just by standing there at shortstop, he makes the pitchers pitch better. You can’t make it up. Of course, Mark Teixeira makes the Yankees better by driving in an insane amount of runs and playing Gold Glove caliber defense. But I’m sure we’ll get to that later.

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.

Wait, what? He’s 1,500 hits shy of Rose, and he’s 35 years old. So assuming he gets 200 hits a year for the next 8 years until he’s 43, which should be a breeze, yeah, he’s on pace to challenge that record. Maybe we should hold off on this lifetime achievement MVP until that 200-hit season when he's 43.

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.

And this pertains to 2009 how? Both Rodriguez and Morneau deserved their awards, by the way.

"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?

I love Paul Newman. He was great in so many films. He was merely OK in The Color of Money. So I tried to look that up for comparison’s sake to see which actors might have been miffed. But it took a while. Know why? The Color of Money came out in 1986, which is generally how the winning year for an Oscar is referenced. In any event, I would say William Hurt, Bob Hoskins, Dexter Gordon and James Woods would probably have something to say.

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."

Which is why Jeter is a great teammate ... but probably not the MVP.

Your thoughts?

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