AL MVP race heats up between Jeter, Mauer


As the 2009 Major League Baseball season races towards October and the playoff picture begins to clear, the candidates for the MVP award have begun to narrow down.

This season, two players in particular appear to be the strongest of those candidates: Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

The Twins’ 26-year-old star has quickly become the face of the franchise since making his debut with the team in 2004.

The Yankees’ 35-year-old veteran, whose almost supernatural consistency at the plate and in the field have led him to be the face of baseball in general, has been with the Yankees since 1995. Both players are absolutely pivotal to their teams’ respective success both offensively and defensively, making this year’s MVP race especially intriguing.

While Jeter’s consistency is probably the most noteworthy aspect of his career, this season (his 15th in a Yankee uniform) has certainly been one of his best. At the conclusion of last week, he amassed a .329 batting average and .398 on base percentage at the leadoff position of the Yankees’ lineup, doing a stellar job of setting the table for his team’s offense. His 17 home runs and 64 RBIs are also impressive statistics, considering his place in the order is known neither for power nor for RBI production. His season hit count, meanwhile, which was at 196 at week’s end, has him on pace to easily surpass the 200 hit mark for the seventh time in his career. His hits this season have been more special than usual, however, as he eclipsed Yankee great Lou Gehrig’s 2,721 career hits by knocking a single to right field on Sept. 11. The feat cemented Jeter in Yankees’ history forever, as he surpassed a record that stood since 1937.

At the same time, Jeter’s play in the field is providing him with a shot to have the best defensive season of his career. His eight errors at week’s end, giving him a .985 fielding percentage, could be the fewest in any season of his career if he can remain perfect through the final 13 games of the year (one better than his nine error, .986 fielding percentage season in 1998).

Finally, Jeter’s case for MVP is supported by the success that the Yankees have experienced as a team this season. His spectacular performance all season long has helped his club not only open up a six-game lead over the Boston Red Sox in the AL East at week’s end, but also over any other team in the MLB. The fact that his team owns the best record in baseball certainly provides a boost to his MVP candidacy.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Mauer is having an offensive season that has already surpassed his previous personal records in nearly every category. His .373 batting average, which is significantly higher than that of any other player in either league, is nearly 50 points higher than his career average. The most shocking addition to his game this year, however, has been his power. His 28 home runs are more than double his total of any other year.

This combination of power and hitting for average has Mauer’s slugging percentage nearly 50 points higher than any other player in the American League, asserting himself as one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the game this year – even as a catcher.

The fact that he has been able to provide the Twins with such offensive production while playing the physically grueling position of catcher is perhaps Mauer’s most impressive characteristic. Catchers are traditionally known for their game management and defensive skills as opposed to their offense, but Mauer has shattered that mold by combining excellence in both. Therefore, his value to the team is difficult to compare to other players.

While Mauer’s defensive statistics this year are actually slightly worse than in years past, the pitching staff he works with can certainly be said to have affected that drop. The pitchers he has caught for this season are not exactly aces like former Twin Johan Santana, so the fact that his defensive numbers have dropped only slightly is more of a testament to his skill than anything else. Furthermore, the fact that he plays on a much less star-studded team than Jeter’s Yankees and has still brought his team within two games of the Detroit Tigers and a playoff berth in the AL Central, provides a great addition to his MVP résumé.

Clearly, both Jeter and Mauer have had extraordinary seasons that more than qualify them for this year’s AL MVP award. Mauer’s offensive explosion and success at playing such a critical role in his team’s defense have kept the Twins’ chances for a postseason berth alive this season. On the other hand, Jeter’s historic year on top of his consistently excellent career, during which he has never won an MVP award, creates a sense that he is due to finally win. Mauer’s offensive numbers in most categories are better than Jeter’s, though the Yankees have had a more successful season than the Twins. If Minnesota can overtake the Tigers to win their division, Mauer may have the edge. If not, the voters will have to decide how much of a role team success plays in judging the value of a player – a very debatable topic that makes each year’s race so exciting.