The American League MVP race appears to be a two-man showdown between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, although I suspect if neither the Angels nor the Tigers make the playoffs, we may see some scattered first-place votes for Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre or somebody from the Yankees.
I heard our ESPN colleague Jim Bowden debating this last week with his co-host Casey Stern on MLB Network Radio, with Casey arguing that Jeter has clearly been the Yankees' MVP for his great numbers, steady play, leadership and Cano's lack of clutch hitting.
There does some to be the perception that Cano has not hit well in big spots or with runners on base, since he's hitting .300 with 30 home runs and 40 doubles yet has just 77 RBIs despite hitting in the middle of the lineup that is second in the AL in runs scored. In fact, Cano has batted with the third-most runners on base of any hitter, behind only Josh Willingham and Matt Holliday.
Cano has hit poorly with runners in scoring position: .231/.366/.366, with four home runs in 134 at-bats. With two outs and RISP, his average dips to .185 in 64 plate appearances. However, his other "clutch" stats are good:
Men on base: .297/.388/.533
Late & close: .310/.388/.535
Tie game: .268/.338/.500
Within 1 run: .321/.391/.557
High leverage: .266/.355/.459
Looking at Jeter, we get .319 with runners in scoring position (one home run) and .321 with two outs and RISP (no home runs). Jeter clearly cuts down on his swing in those situations. Jeter's other numbers are also solid: .286 in late & close, .327 with the score tied, .317 when within a run and .337 in high leverage situations, although all without much power. When the game is close, Jeter tries for base hits. You can applaud that approach or note that 12 of his 15 home runs have come with the bases empty, while 14 of Cano's 30 home runs have come with runners on.
Indeed, Baseball-Reference tracks a statistic called Win Probability Added, which gives credit (or subtracts credit) to each at-bat and how it affects the odds of winning that game. A hit in a close game counts more than a hit in a blowout; a hit in a tie game in the ninth inning is worth more than a hit in a tie game in the first. Cano leads Jeter in WPA, 1.6 wins to 1.4 (Mark Teixeira actually leads Yankee hitters at 2.4 wins).
All that, of course, ignores defense. And this is where Cano moves way ahead of Jeter, both by the defensive metrics and by consensus opinion. Baseball Info Solutions credits Cano with 14 Defensive Runs Saved, Jeter with -15. Which is a big reason why B-R currently rates Cano the second-most valuable player in the AL, behind Trout, at 6.6 Wins Above Replacement, and Jeter at 2.3.
Even if you do want to subtract some value for Cano's dip in production with runners on base, it's still difficult to make the case that Jeter has been the better all-around player, despite his brilliant season at the plate.