Derek Jeter is overrated. If you're a Yankee fan, you've heard this refrain more times than you can count. It's likely you've exchanged words, and perhaps even punches, with those who have dared to suggest the Captain's skills on the ballfield aren't all they're cracked up to be. Consider that Jeter, who is number one or two on every Yankee list that counts, has never won an MVP award. How overrated can he be? Well, in one season (1999) Jeter, despite posting career numbers and leading the Yankees to their third World Series in four years, was possibly the most underrated player in baseball.
Think back. It was 15 seasons ago, when Jeter was just 25 years old. Statistically speaking, it was his best season in the big leagues. He topped the American League with 219 hits, and his .349 batting average, 24 home runs and 102 RBIs were all career highs. And while no one was talking about wins above replacement in 1999, his 8.0 WAR was the highest of any position player in baseball and also his personal high-water mark.
But can you, Jeter-lovers, remember exactly what made him so special that season? Can you think of a particular home run or stellar play that stands out as the exclamation point on an amazing year? Probably not. Don't feel badly, though. Neither can those who were closest to him.
"It's tough to narrow my thoughts on Derek to a particular year because he was always the same player for me," says then Yankees manager Joe Torre.
Former Yankees slugger Paul O'Neill, who drove Jeter in on 32 of the 134 runs he scored that year (another career high), couldn't pinpoint a single play that stood out in his mind. Nor could catcher Jorge Posada or first baseman Tino Martinez.
Which is probably why, despite existing in the most heavily saturated media market in the baseball word, Jeter finished sixth in the MVP voting in the year he probably should have won.
In 1999, home runs were king. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit 65 and 63, respectively. But the narrative of that season and the race to American League MVP became Pedro versus Pudge.
Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez delivered one of the best pitching seasons of all time, finishing with a 23-4 record, a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts. He unanimously won his second Cy Young award and reignited the never-ending debate about whether or not a pitcher should be an MVP.
Ivan Rodriguez of the Rangers, who won the MVP award, set a new American League record for home runs in a season by a catcher with 35. He was the first catcher in history to have more than 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. He also, however, led the league with 31 double plays grounded into, and Jeter topped him in runs, hits, batting average and on-base percentage.
Cleveland's Manny Ramirez, who had 44 home runs, and another Ranger, Rafael Palmeiro, who had 37, also finished ahead of Jeter in MVP voting. So did another Indian, second baseman Roberto Alomar, whose numbers were remarkably similar to Jeter's.
To hear Posada tell it, Jeter's squeaky-clean reputation did him a disservice when it comes to MVP voting. Writers like players who are accessible, who open their lives to them and become their pals. But Jeter has stayed above the fray by keeping to himself.
"The media can't get to him," Posada says. "He's so good at avoiding everything. That whole year, he was the best player on a winning team, and he finishes sixth."
But in 1999, one baseball legend was of a different opinion. Jeter carried a .371 batting average, .454 on-base percentage and .611 slugging percentage into the All-Star Game at Fenway Park. Though he struck out in his only at-bat in the AL's 4-1 win, Jeter had what he refers to as one of the best moments he's ever had on a baseball field during the pregame ceremony, when Major League Baseball honored its All-Century Team.
"All the great players were there, and I get a tap on my shoulder," Jeter has said. "It was Hank Aaron, and he said, 'I wanted to meet you.' I was like, 'What? You want to meet me?' He said he appreciated how I played the game. It was surreal, so that's something that stands out."
Within the long list of Jeter's exceptional stats in 1999, there are two that also stand out: He hit a mind-boggling .371 on 0-2 pitches and hit .455 when facing an opposing pitcher for the third time in a game.
First, let's talk about that .371. "That just makes no sense, because you're in panic mode at 0-2," says O'Neill. "But obviously, he felt good enough where he wasn't." For some context, the league average on 0-2 counts in 1999 was .167.
Gary Denbo is a long-time hitting coach in the Yankees' system who has worked with Jeter since he was in rookie league in 1992 has his own theory.
"Derek has always been a tough guy to get with two strikes because his swing covers so much ground through the hitting zone," says Denbo. "With two strikes, Derek's approach is to hit the inside part of the baseball and he's not afraid to go the other way. But what makes him so good with two strikes is his bat gets into the hitting zone quickly and stays there, so even if the ball gets deep on him or he's fooled, he's still able to get the good part of the bat on the ball and go to the opposite field."
Jeter's balance, timing, flexibility and body control also contribute.
"If you look from overhead, he hits balls that are two or three ball-widths inside of the plate," Denbo says. "Not many people can get into position to get the barrel of the bat on those pitches and drive them, especially with two strikes."
The same factors apply to Jeter's high average when facing a pitcher the third time through the line-up; He's an intelligent, quick learner whose swing is just that adaptable, so it doesn't take him long to figure a pitcher out.
In 1999, Jeter faced Tigers pitcher Dave Mlicki 10 times, and came away with a .667 average, leaving an indelible mark on the crafty right-hander's memory.
"The Bonds and McGuires, you knew they could hit a home run and really hurt you, but Derek would always do the little things," Mlicki says. "He'd move the runner over and make you work really hard on the mound. He had that inside out swing and he'd hit a little flare over the second baseman and frustrate the crap out of you. He wouldn't necessarily hit it hard, but he had a knack for getting the bat on the ball."
Case in point: In 1999, Jeter led the American League with 151 singles. And while he rather shockingly had just one four-hit game that season, he had 67 multi-hit games, which was the most in baseball that year.
The numbers make it difficult to believe Jeter finished so low in the MVP voting in 1999. He would come closer in years when his numbers were not nearly as stellar. He finished third in 1998, behind Texas' Juan Gonzalez and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra, and again in 2009, behind Minnesota's Joe Mauer and Yankees teammate Mark Texiera. In 2006, he came in second behind Minnesota's Justin Morneau.
So while Jeter has been a World Series and All-Star Game MVP, he has never added a season MVP award to his collection. And he seems OK with it.
"I want to win, that's it," Jeter says. "It doesn't get any more complicated than that."
Jeter has certainly won; he has five World Series rings to prove it.
And there's nothing overrated about that.