Derek Jeter's year-by-year rankings

If you've been following along the ESPN 500 player rankings, you may have noticed that Derek Jeter popped up today at No. 115.

Too high? Too low? You can debate that, but I thought it may be fun to take a look at where Jeter ranks for each season of his career. This is just straight numbers -- no extra credit for intangibles or leadership or top-of-dugout-step fist pumps. Factor that in however you consider appropriate. I simply took Jeter's Baseball-Reference WAR for each season and list where he ranked among position players and then among all players. I also list his two-season rolling WAR total and rank among position players and all players, so 1996-97, 1997-98, 1998-99 and so on.

As you can see, Jeter peaked in 1998-99, his third and fourth seasons in the league. In 1999, he ranks as the best position player in the league (tied with Manny Ramirez, actually) and third overall, behind Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. In the 1998-99 combined total, he ranks as the best player overall. I think it's fair to say that Jeter was the best player in baseball at this point. In retrospect, it's a little surprising he didn't win the MVP award one of those seasons, considering the Yankees won two World Series titles. He finished third in 1998 behind Juan Gonzalez (a bad choice, but he drove in 157 runs) and Nomar Garciaparra (a good choice and the Red Sox did make the playoffs). In 1999, Jeter had his best season, hitting .349/.438/.552 with 134 runs and 102 RBIs. He finished sixth in balloting behind Ivan Rodriguez (who did have a good year for a playoff team), Pedro Martinez (his 23-4 season), Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro. Somehow only one voter put Jeter first.

Jeter's WAR declines after that as Baseball-Reference's valuations really sour on Jeter's defense. From 2000 to 2003 he rates minus-7.4 wins just on defense. Of course, he was then rewarded with his first Gold Glove in 2004. Anyway, Jeter did slump at the plate a bit in 2002 when he hit .297. He hit better in 2003 but suffered the only major injury of his career and played just 119 games, so that explains that 2002-03 drop-off (96th overall). Jeter's WAR spikes back up in 2006 with his best season in years -- .343/.417/.483. Even though this is considered the "post-steroids" era, it should be noted offensive levels hadn't really declined. The American League OPS in 2006 was .776, higher than 1997, 1998, 2001 or 2002, for example. Anyway, the big season vaulted Jeter back into top-10 status as he ranked seventh among all players in the 2005-06 period.

Jeter had one final year of greatness in 2009 when he hit .334, had a good defensive season according to the advanced metrics and helped the Yankees win another World Series title. He finished third in the MVP voting, although Joe Mauer was a deserved winner.

But all great players have to decline at some point and Jeter is clearly in that phase of his career. He hit .297 in 2011 -- but a pretty empty .297, mostly a bunch of singles -- and lacks the range of most shortstops. The critics keep waiting for a terrible season, but it hasn't happened yet. I don't expect to see it in 2012.