In recent weeks, the “Derek Jeter for MVP” movement has exploded. While Jeter is certainly having a spectacular season, his case for AL MVP is dubious at best; Mike Trout is absolutely tearing the cover off the ball, as well as playing spectacular defense and showing unbelievable speed. Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton, less surprisingly, are also putting up strong cases for MVP votes. Consequently, though many Yankees fans are calling for Jeter to win MVP, his case is just too weak to be argued here.
However, the race for Yankees MVP is much closer, and there are arguments to be made for both Jeter and Robinson Cano. During the middle of the season, Cano exploded offensively, but he has tapered off quite a bit recently. Jeter, on the other hand, was excellent in April, slumped in the early summer, but has taken off recently, hitting .346, .350, and .344 in July, August, and September respectively. Cano’s defense is superior, but Jeter has continuously provided clutch hits while Cano has disappointed in high leverage situations.
So who has been more valuable for the Yankees this year? I say Cano, and I’ll argue his case here, but tomorrow Andrew Corselli will explain why he thinks Jeter has been more valuable to the Yankees. Then you can decide who you think has a stronger case. Without further ado, here’s the case for Cano:
1. Wins Above Replacement
I’ll start with the big, all-encompassing metric, and get more specific from there. Take a look at the WAR totals, as calculated on Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus:
As you can see, no matter which way you look at it, Cano has been much more valuable than Jeter, at least as far as WAR is concerned. Cano is a better overall hitter and a better fielder in each of these metrics, and his WAR total compared to Jeter reflects that.
But WAR isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t reflect every part of a player’s game. One of the notable aspects of baseball that all three of these calculations ignore is timing – that is, did the player get hits when it mattered, and how much did they increase their team’s chances of winning?
Luckily, Fangraphs has a handy stat called WPA, or Win Probability Added. This measures how much a player increased their team’s chances of winning over a season. So if the Yankees had a 50% chance of winning a game before Cano came up to bat, and after his at-bat they had a 60% chance of winning, Cano’s WPA would increase by .1.
This season, Cano has a 1.30 WPA and Jeter has a 1.15 WPA. So Cano has actually increased the Yankees’ chances of winning more than Jeter, despite the appearance that he has been less clutch (as a side note, the Yankees leader in WPA is actually Mark Teixeira, who has a WPA of 2.21).
However, WPA doesn’t account for the average leverage index (LI), or importance, of the plays in which the players were involved. If Cano had been in higher leverage situations than Jeter over the course of the season, his WPA would be higher just because his hits meant more. What we really want to know about is how well the players did relative to how important their at-bats were. To do this, we look at WPA/LI, which normalizes for the importance of the at-bats.
By WPA/LI, Cano actually leads the Yankees and is ahead of Derek Jeter by a significant margin (2.51 versus 1.14. Also note that this is above average, not above replacement). This is pretty interesting. While the two are pretty close in overall win probability added, it seems that Jeter has been involved in more important at-bats than Cano, which means that Cano has done more with the opportunities that he’s been provided.
This may seem unintuitive – the common narrative is that Jeter has come through in the clutch, while Cano can’t get the big hit. This is true in a sense, as Jeter has in fact hit better in high leverage situations and with men in scoring position than Cano, and has even had less of these opportunities than Cano. The difference comes in the medium leverage at-bats, and the at-bats with men on base, but not necessarily in scoring position.
In medium leverage situations, Cano outhits Jeter .338 to .315 with 14 homers versus Jeter’s 8. Similarly, with men on base, though Jeter outhits Cano .323 to .297, Jeter only has 3 home runs whereas Cano has 14.
So yes, Cano isn’t getting hits in those really big moments that fans remember, but he is getting important hits and home runs in somewhat important situations, which come much more often than the big ones. Because of his success in medium leverage and men-on-base scenarios, Cano has actually helped the team more than Jeter offensively, even when including timing/clutchness.
The last, and possibly most significant, factor that puts Cano ahead of Jeter is defense. According to UZR, Cano has saved 6.1 runs above the average 2nd-baseman, while Jeter has cost the Yankees -13.4 runs. That comes out to close to a 20 run difference between Cano and Jeter, which translates to two full wins. Even if Cano and Jeter were even offensively, this would put Cano ahead of Jeter by 2 wins.
However, both of these fielding numbers are pretty extreme relative to the players’ usual numbers. Jeter has always been rated very poorly in the advanced defensive metrics, but usually it’s closer to -6 UZR. Cano has generally had slightly below average UZR ratings as well, but much closer to average than Jeter. By the eye test, most fans would probably agree that Cano is a better fielder than Jeter, but not by the margin that UZR suggests.
Even if we are very pro-Jeter defensively, Jeter ends up with about -5 runs saved and Cano ends up with 0 or -1 runs saved. It would be pushing it to say that they are even defensively, and ridiculous to say that Jeter is better.
In the end, though Jeter has been spectacular, especially recently, Cano has been the more valuable player for the Yankees overall. Context-neutral, Cano outperforms Jeter in all aspects of the game aside from batting average – they get on base at about the same rate, but Cano has much more power than Jeter, leading to a much stronger offensive performance.
Taking context into account, though the general impression is that Jeter has hit in the clutch while Cano has not, they have actually just about equally (though Cano slightly moreso) improved the Yankees’ chance of winning. However, Cano has done so while receiving less important at-bats overall. It will be hard to shake the impression that Cano has choked while Jeter has come through in the clutch, but when you look at the numbers, it’s hard to make a case for Jeter, even taking context into account.
Even if we assume that Jeter and Cano are equal offensively, the defensive numbers are strongly in Cano’s favor. Jeter doesn’t make many errors, but his range is very poor, so he doesn’t get to nearly as many balls as Cano. At best, Jeter is slightly worse defensively, but at worst, he is far far inferior.
All in all, every aspect of their performances seems to favor Cano over Jeter. Though Jeter is leading the league in hits and close in batting average, that is pretty much his only advantage over Cano. Robbie is better offensively, even when considering the clutch factor, and better defensively too. But Andrew Corselli will give his case for Jeter tomorrow, and then you can decide who you think is right.
Stats taken from Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and BaseballProspectus.com.