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Posted: Wednesday August 19, 2009 12:30PM; Updated: Wednesday August 19, 2009 1:33PM
Joe Posnanski Joe Posnanski >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Derek Jeter underrated? Yankee icon great in a tangible way

Story Highlights

Derek Jeter has been praised for intangibles, but this year his numbers tell story

Jeter's hitting at home and on the road and playing his best defense ever

A sure Hall of Famer, Jeter will pass 3,000 hits and could keep going and going

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Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter has answered many of his critics by immensely improving his defense.
Chuck Solomon/SI

Not too long ago, I achieved a brief burst of infamy for inventing a new word: Jeterate. The official definition of the word -- which has not yet, as far as I know, been picked up by the Webster's or New Oxford people -- is "To praise someone for something of which he or she is entirely unworthy of praise." The word is obviously inspired by Derek Jeter. And for some reason, this has led a few people to believe I do not like Derek Jeter*.

*Though it is actually another invented word -- Clemenate -- that means: "To hate an athlete in an entirely healthy, fun sports way."

The word, Jeterate, was born of my own frustration -- a frustration shared with many people who are not in love with the Yankees -- that Jeter (because of his looks, his charms, his charisma, his natural ability to lead, his pinstripes) will receive hosannas and standing ovations for more or less anything he does, even ridiculous stuff. Especially INTANGIBLES. Oh, man. Don't get a Yankees fan started on Jeter's intangibles.

The breaking point for me came on a drive from Cooperstown to New York City when I had to endure an endless Jeter radio rhapsody after he got caught in a rundown between third and home. He was thrown out, of course, but apparently he stayed alive long enough to wave the other runners to the next base. The announcers made this bit of waving sound like the greatest bit of leadership in the world since Churchill talked about fighting them on the beaches. "How about that Derek Jeter! That's what makes him great!"

This has been constant. Jeter has received excessive praise for his defense -- and three gold gloves -- though various defensive statistics and subjective viewings suggested that he has been a subpar shortstop.* Announcers and analysts of all kinds will write sonnets to Jeter's baseball brilliance -- the guy never makes a mistake! -- though a closer statistical view shows, for instance, he can be a spotty base runner (last year, for instance, Bill James' analysis showed Jeter to be minus-14 bases as a runner). Captain Clutch is actually hitting below his career averages with runners in scoring position, in late and close situations and in the postseason.

*One of the longtime posters at the awesome "Baseball Think Factory" Web site gave himself the brilliant name "Pasta Diving Jeter" -- a moniker so utterly inspired that I think it should be served at every restaurant in New York City.

So, yes, I will admit that in the past Derek Jeter has inspired some -- call it weariness, I guess. I've always thought he was a terrific player. And I've always thought he was overrated, too. That's a hard double to pull off.

But ... now we'll get to the point of this story. I think that in many ways Derek Jeter this year has added a third title. He has, against all odds, become UNDERRATED. And that is a wicked turn. I think Jeter at 35 is having one of his greatest seasons. I think he's playing defense better than he ever has, he's getting on base and slugging like he did in his prime, and in my view he has been the Yankees most valuable player in 2009. And, for once, it's funny, I don't hear too many other people talking about it.

Now, let me be clear -- there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the American League MVP this year is Minnesota's Joe Mauer, and nobody else is even close, and I feel so strongly about this that I am doing daily updates about it on my blog. But the Twins are probably not going to make the playoffs, and there are many people who feel that the most valuable player must come from a playoff team. And if that's the case then ... well, I think at this moment Jeter might be my MVP, non-Mauer division.

Look: He's hitting .330 through Tuesday and has a .394 on-base percentage -- tied with A-Rod for best on the Yankees. He's on pace for 218 hits, 109 runs, 21 homers. 27 stolen bases. He's having a great offensive season, quite similar to the season last year's MVP, Boston's Dustin Pedroia, had.

And -- this is weird -- those advanced statistics that have so universally mocked his defense now show him to be, well, darned good defensively. The Dewan Plus/Minus system -- a video system where they plot every ball hit in play -- had long shown him to consistently be the worst shortstop in baseball. Now, it has him as a plus-7 shortstop, a top-10 shortstop. Ultimate Zone Rating -- UZR -- which had shown him to be costing his team runs defensively every single year since 2002 now calculates that he has saved the Yankees almost six runs this year. Jeter has made it clear he doesn't care about such statistics so it probably gives him no satisfaction.

Still, the numbers suggest that he's playing shortstop better than he has in years. Two baseball insiders concur, saying that he positions himself better now than he ever did before and his already quick release has gotten even quicker. Plainly, not as many grounders are getting past a diving Jeter.

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