Derek Jeter had an amazing career — you probably don’t need us to tell you that. He was particularly productive from 1998 to 2006, a period that yielded three World Series titles and five appearances in total. The Captain averaged 5.11 fWAR per campaign over that span, which we will go ahead and call his peak.
The 1999 season was arguably his finest, as my colleague Estevão recently pointed out. He was magnificent that year and probably deserved more MVP consideration. Today, however, we will talk about the time Jeter came the closest to actually winning the American League MVP award, which was 2006. Minnesota Twins slugger Justin Morneau narrowly edged out the Yankees’ shortstop 320 points to 306 and took home the award.
It was close, but Jeter probably deserved to finish higher than Morneau. Let’s take a look at their numbers:
Jeter: 5.6 bWAR, 118 runs, 214 hits, 14 home runs, 97 RBI, 34 stolen bases, .343/.417/.483, .900 OPS
Morneau: 4.3 bWAR, 97 runs, 190 hits, 34 home runs, 130 RBI, three stolen bases, .321/.375/.559, .934 OPS
Jeter gets the edge in bWAR, runs, hits, stolen bases, batting average, and OBP; while the Twins’ first baseman won the head-to-head in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and OPS. Many people thought Jeter was robbed at the time, and some of them still do. However, if we are fair, he didn’t really deserve to win the award. It was one of his finest seasons and there is absolutely no doubt about it, but there are at least four or five players who were worthy of consideration. Frankly, some of them had better cases.
Consider, for example, David Ortiz. No Yankees fan ignores how good he was, especially in those mid-2000s years. In 2006, the designated hitter slashed .287/.413/.636 with 54 home runs, 137 RBI, 119 walks, and a 1.049 OPS. He also had a higher bWAR (5.8) than Jeter even though he didn’t really contribute much defensively, but probably lost out because voters didn’t like the fact he was a DH and Jeter was thought to be a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop. That year, Jeter won his third Gold Glove award even though he had -16 Defensive Runs Saved. Of course, DRS was not really a thing back then, and neither was WAR. Now, we know that defense wasn’t Jeter’s forte.
But back to the MVP race. Ortiz was third in the race, and Frank Thomas was fourth with his 39 home runs and 114 RBI. Chicago White Sox slugger Jermaine Day had a phenomenal campaign that year, hitting 44 long balls, driving in 120 runs, and slashing .315/.385/.622 with a 1.006 OPS. He had a case over Jeter, too. The sixth-placed Joe Mauer led the American League in batting average with .347 and beat out both Morneau and Jeter in bWAR with 5.8, tying Ortiz’s output.
Perhaps the most deserving MVP candidate that year was Morneau and Mauer’s teammate on the Twins: Johan Santana. The dominant left-hander won the pitching Triple Crown with a 19-5 record, a 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts. With 7.6 bWAR, Santana had by far the highest output of all MVP candidates in the junior circuit in 2006, but sadly for him, voters were not really keen on giving the award to a pitcher at the time. Back then, the last time a hurler won in the American League was Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and in the National League it was Bob Gibson in 1968!
Jeter’s combination of batting average (the stat was still held in high regard around those days), power, ability to get on base and speed made him a prime candidate to take home his first MVP trophy. It wasn’t meant to be, but make no mistake: the Captain wasn’t robbed.