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Analytics Love Derek Jeter, Part I: The 1999 AL MVP

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The first installment of a sabermetric-inclined review of the onetime Captain.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

I don’t care about the Hall of Fame, but sometimes, you have to pay attention to the discourse — in 2021, that meant following all the coverage as Derek Jeter was inducted. I think there’s a narrative about Jeter among certain Yankee fans, that he is the last bastion of The Eye Test, the Will to Win, the final redoubt of a pre-analytics age. We know Derek Jeter is a Hall of Famer because we saw him be one, and no reconsideration of his defense is needed or wanted.

And I think this is mostly a bad take — sabermetrics is just one way to view a player’s career, and indeed, it’s often a more comprehensive lens. Advanced stats can tell us that Jeter’s defense wasn’t very good, but applying a sharper lens to his career as a whole, we also find areas where he was significantly underrated, and outside of the five boroughs, arguably undercelebrated.

To start, we have the 1999 AL MVP race, won by Iván Rodríguez, having himself a really good, six-and-a-half win season for the 95-win Texas Rangers. Of course, Derek Jeter was better than Pudge, by about 70 points of OPS, 30 points of wRC+, and more than half a win, while the Yankee shortstop wasn’t even a finalist for the award, finishing in sixth place despite leading the AL in bWAR and virtually tied with Manny Ramirez for the AL lead in fWAR.

Yes, Pudge was a catcher who hit .332, but Jeter put up a season that, if analyzed with a 2021 approach to value, would have him finish on the podium for the one accolade missing from his resume. In the WAR Era, which I define as 2010-forward — after Ben Zobrist’s famous SI cover story brought the metric into the mainstream — only one player, Francisco Lindor in 2018, put up more total value than Jeter in ‘99 while appearing in more than half his games at shortstop.

But the MVP isn’t just a WAR leaderboard, nor should it be. By OPS, Jeter’s .990 would put him third in that WAR Era bracket, and his 156 wRC+ ties him for third with what Fernando Tatis Jr. just did in 2021, en route to a third place finish in the MVP race. In short, what Jeter did in 1999 would arguably be the best all-around season from a shortstop in the last decade — a better hitter than Lindor, a better fielder than Tatis Jr. and played more games (158) than Hanley Ramirez or Troy Tulowitzki.

So by opening up Jeter’s career to closer examination, using the tools of the SABR trade, we actually get a better idea of how good he was, relative to his peers. He had better seasons than Pudge, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar, who all finished ahead of him MVP voting. Manny Ramirez had a better season offensively, but I think Jeter’s positional advantage at least draws him even with the then-Cleveland outfielder.

Of course, there’s one big name missing from this conversation, Pedro Martinez. He finished second in MVP voting in 1999, actually winning more first-place votes than Pudge, and had perhaps the greatest single pitching season ever, in the history of the game. If we’re using a more advanced means of evaluating Jeter’s season, adjusting his offense for era and position, and looking at metrics like WAR, we have to do that for Pedro too - he outclassed the Yankee captain by FOUR and two full wins by FanGraphs and B-Ref respectively.

Pitching MVPs are rare — Shohei Ohtani only won this season because of his fantastical combination of pitching and offense, the work on the mound alone wasn’t enough to merit the award. Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 campaign was a pairing of his excellent year, but also not having the most robust competition — if you don’t count framing runs, which metrics like fWAR didn’t until last season, nobody in the NL topped seven wins, making Kershaw the obvious choice.

Still, if we had a revote of this MVP race, with a modern philosophy and modern voting block, Pedro’s all-time great season probably ends up ahead, but Derek Jeter likely moves from also-ran status to finalist, and who knows, voters make weird decisions sometimes.

Even though a more sabermetrically-inclined look at the 1999 AL MVP probably doesn’t get Jeter that elusive leaguewide hardware, I think the point stands. Sabermetrics doesn’t exist to poke holes in players that are in the Hall of Fame, rather, to allow us a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of what value is. By using metrics that just weren’t around, or weren’t seen as insightful 20 years ago, we actually get a better understanding of how good Derek Jeter was all along — that is, perhaps the best position player in baseball in 1999, even if Rafael Palmeiro got more votes.