A funny thing kept happening to Derek Sanderson Jeter — he put up these incredible seasons as legitimately one of the three or four best position players in the game, but he kept coming up short in American League MVP voting. I admit that there’s a little bit of oddity in campaigning for Jeter to get MVP recognition; the man was the face of baseball for 20 years, and he didn’t really need an MVP award to earn any more money or fame in his career.
Still, these awards matter. Bryce Harper notching his second MVP trophy this season moves him in the public eye into his proper place on a Hall of Fame track, so it’s appropriate that today, we’re taking a sabermetric-inclined examination on what could, or perhaps should have been, Derek Jeter’s second MVP award: the 2006 season.
A slash line of .343/.417/.483 was good enough to land Jeter second in MVP voting that year. It was a 138 wRC+ when accounting for era, position, and environment. Now, I don’t care about batting average, but it’s really hard to not have a good season when you rack up that many hits — more on this next week. Still, to be as charitable as possible ... the 2006 AL MVP was a weird, weird vote.
My countryman Justin Morneau took home the award, even though he wasn’t even the most valuable player on his own team. Again, MVP isn’t the WAR Leader Award, but merely taking a cursory look fWAR and bWAR, Morneau finished outside the top 20 in the AL in both metrics. He had a .934 OPS and an identical wRC+ to Jeter, so while his offensive output was good, it wasn’t anything spectacular.
The Twins did finish with the second-best record in the AL, but second to the Yankees, and Morneau’s teammates Joe Mauer and Johan Santana assembled more credible MVP cases than the Canadian first baseman. As to Jeter’s case specifically, the 2006 Yankees boasted a pretty all-time terrible defense, and the captain was no exception. UZR/150 thinks he was bad and DRS thinks he was pretty definitively the worst defensive shortstop in baseball, which drags down his overall WAR, even if he was the best offensive shortstop.
We see this kind of thing in “modern” baseball too, with players like Fernando Tatis Jr. seeing anywhere from a quarter to a half-win loss in overall value simply because, at a certain point, you can’t outhit bad defense. This will likely become more cogent when Statcast rolls out its version of WAR, as the more granular OAA metric will likely shed more light on how much overall value you trade off by sending out a plus-plus bat with bad-to-putrid defense.
Still, even with all the hand-wringing around Jeter’s glove ... hitting is still really valuable, and he was the second-best player in the AL in 2006. But just like 1999, one player stood out from the field, when wrapping in all the elements of value, that in a saber-inclined revote, probably still keeps Jeter off the first-place finish for the MVP.
Grady Sizemore triple-slashed .290/.375/.533, a 132 wRC+ while playing all 162 games for Cleveland, and depending on your metric of choice, a good-to-excellent defender in center field. He finished 11th for MVP; it didn’t help that his team took a step back from a promising 2005 to finish under .500 and far behind Morneau’s Twins in ‘06, losing him the narrative vote, but even on a better team, his contributions wouldn’t have been gaudy. In a way, WAR was built for players like Sizemore. He was someone who did everything at a really high level, but without any one real plus-plus tool. It’s easy to look at a player who hits 50 home runs or plays Ozzie Smith-level defense, and intuitively understand that player is valuable.
But there’s a cumulative value to certain players — the guy who’s a top-20 hitter but not the best in the game, a good fielder without the flashiest glove, and strong in all areas without real weaknesses and yet never finding himself at the very top of any one leaderboard. In the current free agency class, Carlos Correa is a player like this, and in 2006, so was Sizemore. All those good things he did, over 162 games, meant that he finished the season half a win above the entire field by bWAR, and almost two full wins better by fWAR.
And then there are the most interesting cases farther down the ballot — the two best hitters in the AL, Travis Hafner and David Ortiz, they of the 176 and 157 wRC+ respectively. Hafner ended the year with a six-win season, despite only appearing in 126 games and playing just 33 innings at first base, while Ortiz saw 68 innings in the field.
No player has ever won MVP while being a full-time DH — as we discussed earlier this week, Shohei Ohtani’s MVP campaign in 2021 only came about because of his combination of offense and pitching — so I don’t think that Hafner or Ortiz would end up the league MVP, even with a sabermetric revote. However, I think there’s a very serious case to be made that they finish ahead of Morneau in a modern context. MVP isn’t the WAR award, but it’s hard to ignore the almost two full wins of value more that players like Pronk and Papi put up over the Twins’ first baseman.
2006 was Jeter’s third or fourth-best overall season, but it came together at a time when the Yankees were great, and while the impact of defense wasn’t really understood, we had begun to understand the total value of offense — that OBP was a better measure of overall offensive impact than average, for example. It’s an MVP-caliber season when viewed through a modern lens, but like 1999, there’s one standout performance, that of Grady Sizemore, that probably keeps Jeter off the top of the ballot in a SABR revote.
On the whole, the 2006 AL MVP looked like this:
Taking in everything we’ve talked about, I think Sizemore is likely to win the thing, with Jeter, Mauer, Ortiz and Hafner filling out the rest of the ballot. Johan Santana presents an interesting case — he was the best pitcher in baseball, but he wasn’t quite as dominant as someone like Pedro Martinez in 1999 or Clayton Kershaw in 2014, so while I definitely think he finds a place on this ballot, I don’t think he’s a winner.
We’ve now looked at two MVP campaigns from the Yankee captain, where both in real life and our hypothetical revote, he remains a bridesmaid, with that elusive AL MVP probably remaining out of his reach thanks to incredible, career-defining performances from one other player. In Part III, we’re going to look at how this is really the story of Jeter’s career — he was consistently one of the best, but usually fell short of being the absolute best player in any given season. Still, to do that every season, 155 games a year, for 20 years, is incredibly valuable, and builds a Hall of Fame career; one that dare I say, should have been unanimous.