Derek Jeter is 38 years old and long the sanctified face of his baseball generation. He plays a glamour position for the most glamorous team in American sports in the biggest city in the country. And yet our ability to properly rate him, or even to decide if he’s overrated or underrated, falls miserably short.
In many loud corners of the Internet, Jeter is a traffic cone standing on the left side of the infield, watching grounders roll by and soaking up undeserved praise for intangibles and leadership. In others, he is the white knight of the steroid era, a clean player who steers the Yankees’ ship, integrity and instinct brimming from every pore. We cannot seem to agree where to meet amid all that middle ground.
Those in the overrated camp must deal with this puzzling contradiction: If Jeter is so overly valued, then how, while playing his entire, decorated career in New York, has he never won the Most Valuable Player award?
Jeter has plenty of ways to find solace from the empty place on his mantle – the 3,000 hits, supermodel girlfriends and five World Series rings are a few. But still, he is probably the best player of his generation to never win the MVP.
Per FanGraphs.com, Jeter in his career has compiled 77.2 Wins Above Replacement, a catchall stat meant to measure a player’s full contribution. No other active player without an MVP trophy has more. No player without an MVP award has punched up that many career WAR since Wade Boggs retired in 1999.
Jeter has come close before. He finished in the top 10 seven times in his first 17 seasons, including top-three three times. He finished second in 2006 to Justin Morneau. In 1999, Jeter batted .349/.438/.552 with 24 homers and 102 RBIs. Somehow, he finished sixth, with Ivan Rodriguez winning with a lower on-base percentage and a roughly similar slugging percentage.
How can Jeter have a career of near-misses and no trophies? The MVP voters often reward gaudy counting stats, and Jeter has never produced eye-popping home run and RBI numbers. He has surpassed 100 RBIs just once, when he drove in 102 in 1999. He’s mashed 20 homers only three times, including 24 in 1999, also a career high. His career is built on consistency – he finished third in the MVP vote in 1998 and 2009.
Jeter’s strong season has inspired some talk this could be the season he breaks through. He leads the league with 169 hits for the first-place Yankees. But, um, no. But he ranks 26th in WAR, behind such players as Mike Moustakas, Denard Span and Edwin Encarnacion. He is not even the most valuable middle infielder on the Yankees, an honor that goes to second baseman Robinson Cano by a large margin.
While Jeter is the best in recent vintage to not win an MVP, he’s far from the best ever. Nine players – all Hall of Famers – have played since the introduction of the MVP and compiled more WAR than Jeter. Wade Boggs, Al Kaline and Eddie Matthews all have strong cases, but the title belongs to Mel Ott.
Ott debuted at 17, retired at 38 and punched up 116.1 WAR. He could have won in 1930, when he hit .349/.458/.578, but the league did not give an MVP because of financial constraints. In 1932, Ott led the league with a 174 OPS+ but lost to Chuck Klein, who mashed at the comically hitter-friendly Baker Bowl.
Ott never finished higher than third in the MVP voting, and so he has to settle for the best player never to win. As Jeter knows, that is not such a bad thing.