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Derek Jeter and the 1999 MVP

Derek Jeter was one vote shy of being unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame this year, but that didn’t stop the haters from shouting from the rooftops (read: shouting on Twitter) that he is overrated.

The most common argument they use are defensive metrics, which, yes, are pretty ugly when you look at the last third of Jeter’s career. I’ll even give you that he wasn’t an elite defender in the prime of his career and probably did not deserve to win five Gold Gloves (that award is bull shit anyway).

The other common argument is that Jeter never won an MVP.

This 2006 MVP re-vote was going around Twitter yesterday and apparently Feinsand and others want to retroactively award Jeter the trophy. That was the year he finished 2nd, his highest finish, but it was not the year he deserved the award.

I was surprised the article didn’t mention 1999, undoubtedly Jeter’s best season and the year he should have won the award.

The 1999 MVP

This is how the ’99 MVP race finished:

  1. Ivan Rodriguez, TEX
  2. Pedro Martinez, BOS
  3. Roberto Alomar, CLE
  4. Manny Ramirez, CLE
  5. Rafael Palmeiro, TEX
  6. Derek Jeter, NYY

Pudge no doubt had an excellent year (35 HR and 125 wRC+) but he definitely got the catcher bump. He was the 6th most valuable player in the league using bWAR and the 4th using fWAR. I know WAR isn’t everything, but it’s a good “catch-all” stat and especially useful when looking back on something that happened 21 years ago. I did not watch Rodriguez play everyday in 1999. Heck, I didn’t even watch Jeter play everyday in ’99 and even if I had, I was 11 years old so it’s not like I could recall everything. But I can look back at Baseball Reference and Fangraphs to see that Jeter, along with Manny and Alomar, and probably even Nomar Garciaparra, deserved the award over Pudge.

I’m going to remove Pedro from this discussion because I’m not a huge fan of giving the MVP to a pitcher. Can they in some cases be more “valuable” (whatever that means to you) than a position player? Yes. But they have the Cy Young award, so it’s easier for my brain to keep them separate.

To be honest, if you wanted to give it to Pedro in ’99 then I really don’t have an argument because he was so freakishly good and laughably better than every other pitcher in the league from 1999-2000, and would have won back-to-back-to-back Cy Young’s if not for an injury in ’01. Go look up his stats. His ERA was a full TWO RUNS better than the second-best pitcher in the league.

OK, back to the position players. Here is how the league stacked-up using bWAR:

  1. Derek Jeter (8.0)
  2. Roberto Alomar (7.4)
  3. Manny Ramirez (7.3)
  4. Nomar Garciaparra (6.6)
  5. Ivan Rodriguez (6.4)

And here’s how they ranked using fWAR:

  1. Manny Ramirez (7.5)
  2. Derek Jeter (7.4)
  3. Roberto Alomar (7.3)
  4. Ivan Rodriguez (6.8)
  5. Nomar Garciaparra (6.3)

Why are they different? The simple answer is that each uses different components when making calculations. If you have like 3 hours to kill (which we all do during these times) then check out explanations of each: Fangraphs vs. Baseball Reference.

Which one should we use? It really doesn’t matter. I’ve found that position player WAR is more similar on the two platforms than pitcher WAR. For this argument I presented both so you get the full picture.

The MVP is also more complicated than just ranking players by WAR, and people who do take the fun out of the conversation.

What is an MVP?

Ah, a classic baseball debate. Some voters really focus on the word “valuable” while others treat it like the Best Player Award. While it might not be fair, the definition seems to vary season to season.

Sometimes voters get swept-up in story lines like Ichiro winning Rookie of the Year and MVP in 2001. He won it that season because Ichiro was an international sensation and the Mariners lost their best player in free agency and still ended up winning 116 games.

Sometimes no player has a standout season and the vote goes to the best player on the team with the best record. Take 2008 for example. None of Dustin Pedroia’s numbers make you say “wow,” but he won because the Red Sox had a great season and he was equally as good when compared to the rest of his peers. It seems the voters really took the word valuable into consideration in ’08.

I don’t love the idea of giving the MVP to a player on a mediocre team, but sometimes greatness can’t be ignored like whenever Trout wins on a sub-.500 Angels team.

In an ideal world there would be 3 awards:

–MVP which could be treated as the “valuable” award and go to a position player or pitcher on a good team.

–Cy Young which goes to the best pitcher.

–Offensive award (nobody cares about Silver Slugger) for the best hitter. Call it the Mike Trout Award for all I care even though he’s still playing.

I think that would solve the yearly problem we have with the MVP.

Argument for Jeter in ’99

Unfortunately for a long time the MVP went to the player who had the most Home Runs and Runs Batted In. Home runs are obviously great but RBIs are frankly a stupid way to measure a player’s greatness. Jose Abreu led the AL in RBI in 2019. If he did that in 1999 he would have probably been in the top-5 for MVP voting, but he finished 19th instead.

Jeter’s traditional power numbers (24 HR, 102 RBI) didn’t pop like his peers.

Back in 1999 when hitters were mashing 40+ homers and Jeter had only 24, it would have been really difficult to give him the award. Writers would have probably been slammed for it. But we know a lot more now than we did 21 years ago, and I’m not talking about steroids.

Jeter finished 2nd in batting average (.349), 3rd in on-base percentage (.438), 5th in wOBA (.433), and 5th in wRC+ (156). He led the AL in hits (219) and played 158 games on the team with the best record in the league. He also had 37 doubles, 9 triples, and 134 runs scored, and played shortstop, a more important position than corner outfield or first base where many of the 40 homer mashers played that he was compared to.

His rival Nomar, obviously also a shortstop, had an amazing year as well but only played in 135 games. Injuries can sometimes prevent you from winning MVP and they may have for Garciaparra in ’99.

Another thing Jeter had going for him was that he was the guy on the ’99 Yankees. Bernie Williams had a great season but finished 11th in voting. Alomar and Manny finished top-6 but played on the same Cleveland team, and Pudge and Palmeiro had each other in Texas. In certain cases teammates can steal votes from one another.

I think what seals the argument for Jeter in ’99 is WPA. Win Probability Added captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. It literally gets to the heart of the “valuable” debate.

Here’s how the AL ranked in WPA:

  1. Derek Jeter (6.86)
  2. Manny Ramirez (5.54)
  3. Roberto Alomar (5.28)
  4. Rafael Palmeiro (5.25)
  5. Ken Griffey Jr. (4.50)

Pudge Rodriguez ranked 53rd. Yikes.

Let’s look at some recent years to see if WPA and MVP results align:

  • 2019 MVP winner: Mike Trout | WPA rank: 1st
  • 2018 MVP winner: Mookie Betts | WPA rank: 2nd
  • 2017 MVP winner: Jose Altuve | WPA rank: 3rd (Judge ranked 18th)
  • 2016 MVP winner: Mike Trout | WPA rank: 1st
  • 2015 MVP winner: Josh Donaldson| WPA rank: 1st

For the most part they do. Is WPA perfect? Of course not. No one stat is. But it, along with things like WAR and wRC+, and traditional stats, help build a full picture of who the MVP should be. And when looking at 1999 it all adds up to Derek Jeter.