Saturday, November 25, 2006

Bob Klapisch: Derek Jilted

[Obviously, I'm still not over the absurd outcome of the AL MVP selection process...Justin Morneau had a good season for a good team but Joe Mauer was the Twin's MVP...excellent defensive catchers who win batting titles are somewhat rare. That being said, Jeter should have won the award. - jtf]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The beauty (and curse) of voting for the MVP award is that it's so ill-defined, just like the strike zone. Umpires don't call balls and strikes; they interpret them. The same blurry formula applies to judging baseball's most talented players, which is another way of saying: Good luck to anyone entrusted with a ballot.

I was one of the two New York-area writers asked to pick the American League's MVP this year. My vote went to Derek Jeter, with Justin Morneau second and Johan Santana third. In an election between right and right (there were no wrong choices here), it was Jeter's average with runners in scoring position that set him apart. For all the years we've heard that Jeter's value to the Yankees could only be quantified by intangibles, finally there was a cold, hard statistic that backed him up.

At .381, Jeter was nearly 100 points better than the industry's most feared hitter under pressure, David Ortiz. Not only did Jeter keep his cool, he did so in June and July, back when the race in the AL East was for real. Jeter was relentless when the Yankees needed him most, while Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield were on the disabled list and Alex Rodriguez was sunning himself in Central Park. The Yankee captain didn't hit the most home runs or pile up the RBI like traditional MVP winners, but in terms of rescuing his team, there wasn't a better day-in and day-out product on the market.

Of course, Jeter is no machine; he's a man, and an imperfect one at that. His range is limited at short, he strikes out too often for a No. 2 hitter (once every six at-bats). Jeter has yet to smooth A-Rod's path in New York, which, like it or not, is part of his responsibility as Yankee captain. Jeter should stick up for all his teammates, the way he did for Jason Giambi after the first baseman reportedly admitted to using steroids while testifying at the BALCO grand jury.

Jeter isn't the friendliest Yankee of this era. He doesn't have Bernie Williams innocent charm, nor does he have Mariano Rivera's off-the-field compassion. But none of that matters when you're standing in the batter's box in the ninth inning with the game on the line. Jeter is on his way to the Hall of Fame precisely because he's so coldblooded; he chooses this demeanor because it helps the Yankees, it suits his career and it makes it impossible for outsiders (like the press and fans, you and me) to get too close to him.

That's why we'll never know how Jeter really feels about being denied the MVP -- at age 32, most likely his best and last chance to win the award. If Jeter is burning inside, he'll never admit it. In a statement released by the Yankees, the shortstop called Morneau a "special player" whose first-place finish was "well deserved." Good for Jeter. Stoicism is out of fashion in this ESPN-highlight era, so to hear (or, to be more precise, to not hear) Jeter's from-the-heart response only heightens his mystique.

Thing is, there's no mystery in explaining his greatness in 2006. He beat opposing pitchers when it counted because of his enormous focus and concentration. In that sense, Jeter was the anti A-Rod, not worrying about the crowd reaction, the next day's headlines or a George Steinbrenner rebuke if he were to strike out in the ninth inning. That's why Jeter was able to single-handedly end the Red Sox' season during the historic five-game sweep at Fenway.

His two-out, two-strike RBI single off Jon Papelbon in the ninth inning on Aug. 20 did more than send the game into extra innings and lead the Yankees to an eventual 8-5 win. It broke the Red Sox' hearts. There was Papelbon, throwing his blistering 96 mph, two-seam fastball -- an impossible pitch to elevate. But Jeter somehow found a way to lift the ball into shallow right field, scoring Melky Cabrera with the tying run. That kind of hitting takes more than talent -- A-Rod has more power, speed -- it takes an internal decision to simply not fail.

A few players have it, most don't. Even Morneau conceded, "With all the pressure [Jeter] deals with, the way he handles it, he definitely deserves something like this [award]."

That's not to say a vote for Morneau was wrong, or that it's proof of an anti-Yankee bias around the country. If that were the case, A-Rod would've never won last year. Instead, there were enough voters who were more impressed with the Twins' need for grace under pressure through September, which Morneau, who drove in 130 runs, 33 more than Jeter, delivered. The Star-Ledger's Ed Price, who had the area's other MVP ballot, was swayed by that very reason.
In an e-mail Tuesday, Price wrote, "I voted Morneau first because his team was in a closer race, and I thought the way he played when the Twins got hot and got back in the race made him more instrumental to his team's finish."

Ironic, isn't it, that the Yankees' success worked against Jeter. Had they limped into the playoffs with, say, 90 wins, he would've likely routed the field. Instead, Jeter will have to live without an MVP award, the one he's waited for his entire career.

Unjust? Probably. But don't expect Jeter to complain. Being cool, even as No. 2, means never asking for a recount.


1 comment:

mike said...

I do have to admit that drop off from Joe Mauer to Mike Redmond was pretty extream. What were the Twins to do on days Joe Mauer wasn't in the lineup and they had to settle for a .341 hitter playing catcher?