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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 for 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.
The word was born of my own frustration—one shared by many people who are not in love with the Yankees—that Jeter (because of his looks, his charm, his charisma, his natural ability to lead, his pinstripes) receives 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 and three Gold Gloves for his defense, though observation and various defensive statistics suggest 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 statistically, for instance, he can be a spotty base runner. (In 2008 Bill James's analysis showed Jeter to be -14 bases as a runner, near the worst in the majors.) Over his career Captain Clutch, who has a career batting average of .317, does not hit as well with runners in scoring position (.308), in late and close situations (.295) and in the postseason (.313).
So, yes, I will admit that in the past Derek Jeter has inspired some weariness. 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 get to the point of this story. I think that in many ways Jeter in 2009 added another distinction. He, against all odds, became underrated. And that was a wicked turn. I think Jeter, at 35, had one of his greatest seasons. I think he played defense better than he ever had, he got on base and slugged like he did in his prime, and in my view he was the Yankees' MVP. And, it's funny, for once I didn'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 was Minnesota's Joe Mauer, and nobody else was even close. But I think Jeter was the MVP, non-Mauer division.
Jeter hit .334 and had a .406 on-base percentage, which was the best on the Yankees. He had 212 hits, 107 runs, 18 homers and 30 stolen bases. He had a great offensive season, quite similar to the year that Boston's Dustin Pedroia had in his MVP season of 2008.
And—this is weird—those advanced statistics that have so universally mocked his defense showed him to be, well, darned good defensively. John Dewan's Plus/Minus System—a video system that plots every ball hit into play—had long shown him to be the worst shortstop in baseball. In 2009 it had him as a +5 shortstop, ranking in the top 10. Ultimate Zone Rating, which had shown him to be costing his team runs defensively every single year since '02, calculates that he saved the Yankees 6.4 runs in '09. Jeter has made it clear he doesn't care about such statistics, so that probably gives him no satisfaction.
Still, the numbers suggest that he played shortstop better than he has in years. Two baseball insiders concurred, saying that he positioned himself better than he ever has before and his already quick release got even quicker. Plainly, not as many grounders got past a diving Jeter.