Friday, October 19, 2012

Time Gets Us All, Even A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez will go down as one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. I repeat, Alex Rodriguez is one of the greatest baseball players EVER, in the history of the game. I realize most people understand that, but it seems to have been forgotten over the past few days.

Donald Trump, for example, the king of idiots, has tweeted several things about A-Rod. First he suggested the Yankees should renegotiate A-Rod's contract because he hasn't earned his money, clearly ignoring the fact that MLB contracts are fully guaranteed, and the last time A-Rod tried to renegotiate a contract to take less money the Players Association denied it. (Before getting traded to the Yankees, A-Rod was headed to Boston, pending a contract restructuring. The MLBPA told A-Rod forfeiting money for no real reason was a dangerous precedent, and a month later A-Rod was a Yankee)

Trump also suggested A-Rod was only good because of his steroid use, which is completely false. At a time when the majority of the league was taking steroids, A-Rod was emerging as the league's best player. Yes, he was on them too, but it's not like he was a small guy. Even without steroid use, it's hard to imagine A-Rod not being a superstar. But again, Trump and logic fail to meet.

A-Rod's OPS since September 3, when he came off the DL, is an absolutely atrocious .478, so a benching certainly seemed fair based on production. However, the Yankees didn't bench A-Rod and start a solid player, they started Eric Chavez. Chavez's 2012 season was his best in almost 5 years, and giving him a chance in games against right handers seemed logical with all of A-Rod's struggles. But Chavez finished the ALCS 0-16.

Unfortunately, the whole Yankees lineup had trouble hitting the ball, so Girardi singling out A-Rod seems to suggest there's more to the story than just this season. As has been mentioned in other places, the Marlins and Yankees likely will discuss an Alex Rodriguez trade this off-season. That hardly guarantees that he'll be traded, but if the Yankees are willing to pay a portion of his contract to unload him, his hometown of Miami seems like his one of his only possible destinations thanks to his no-trade clause.

It's worth noting that Alex Rodriguez seems like an odd man. He seems to care what people think a great deal, but despite being in the public eye for almost 20 years, he doesn't seem to have any people skills. Kissing himself in the mirror, always looking like he's going to cry, allegedly hitting on women behind the dugout while sitting on the bench... the list could be much much longer with all of A-Rod's strange instances. However, his off-field personality is of no interest to me. He's not marrying my sister. 

Drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners in 1993, Rodriguez made his Major League Debut in August of 1994 when he was just 18-years-old. He played in 17 games before the strike ended the season, and then in 1995 he spent time bouncing between AAA and the big leagues. 

But in 1996, the greatness of A-Rod was born. Playing in 146 games, Rodriguez hit .358/.414/.631, while adding 36 home runs, 123 RBI and 15 stolen bases. He was 20-years-old, playing shortstop, a historically weak offensive position, and putting up numbers nobody had ever seen before. For comparison's sake, Bryce Harper hit .270/.340/.477 as a 19-year-old this season, and as impressive as his season was, it'd be surprising if Harper came anywhere close to A-Rod's 1996 season next year. Harper is widely considered the best hitting prospect to come into the league in a long, long time, and there's no doubting that. But A-Rod was Bryce Harper before Bryce Harper.

From 1997-2000, he wasn't quite as good as he was in 1996, but he was still unbelievable. He hit .304/.372/.560 with 148 home runs over that time. He averaged 37 home runs and 28 steals a season during that stretch. He was 21, 22, 23 and 24-years-old.  Now, the offensive numbers seem inflated by the rampant steroid use* but thankfully we have statistics to see if that's actually true. In 1997, the average American League team hit .271/.340/.428. In comparison, the average AL team in 2012 hit .255/.320/.411, which means offense in 2012 was about 5% worse overall.  So, if A-Rod's numbers were to be adjusted for a "steroid free (or as steroid free as it can be)" era, such as today, over that same time frame he still would have hit .289/.353/.532. 

*A-Rod's admission to using Steroids was that he took them between 2001 and 2003 while in Texas. That seems completely untrue, considering A-Rod grew up in both the Dominican Republic and Miami. Two places where finding steroids are not difficult; and as I said, it's not like he was unknown in high school. He was the greatest high school baseball player most people had ever seen. It's likely he started taking them in high school.

Almost everyone understands how good A-Rod was in Seattle, or at least has some idea. But to put it in perspective, A-Rod's OPS+ from the time he was 20 until he was 24 was 143. Only a handful of players have posted an OPS+ over 140 between their 20th and 24th birthdays. A-Rod, Miguel Cabrera, Ken Griffey Jr, John Olerud, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Matthews and Willie Mays. That's some pretty remarkable company, especially if you're named John Olerud.

Other players have done it up to their 24th birthday, although they didn't get their big league start at 20. Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, Don Mattingly, Daryl Strawberry, Reggie Jackson, Dick Allen and Rocky Colavito all posted OPS+ above 140 from 21-24. 

Now, many players have had great five year stretches. Most of them don't start careers that way, though, which was the point. After the 2000 season Rodriguez left Seattle and signed, at that point the richest contract in baseball history. 10 years, $252MM to play for the division rival Texas Rangers.

Despite the general consensus being that A-Rod wasn't quite as good in Texas as he had been in Seattle, mainly because the Rangers were never in playoff contention, he was in fact even better. The Rangers gave up on their A-Rod experiment after just three seasons, but over those three years Rodriguez hit .305/.395/.615, played in all but 1 game, and he averaged 52 home runs and 131 RBI a season. His OPS+ was 155.** Texas couldn't win even with A-Rod putting up those numbers, so on February 15, 2004, just weeks after Aaron Boone suffered a season-ending knee injury playing pickup basketball, the Yankees and Rangers agreed on a trade. Rodriguez was going to New York along with $67MM in cash (although not all of that money ended up being owed to New York, because A-Rod opted out of his original deal in 2007) for Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later. The Rangers would later choose Joaquin Arias as the PTBNL, who was a solid prospect at the time. Unfortunately, the Rangers also reportedly could've chosen a different young middle infield prospect at the time. His name was Robinson Cano.

**Rodriguez's numbers spiking in Texas would, at first glance, appear to prove A-Rod's assertion that he did in fact take Steroids during his time in Texas. The problem, however, is that A-Rod was entering the prime of his career, so his power numbers were likely going to increase considerably regardless, even if he'd been on steroids for years. The Rangers home ball park also helped his power numbers, but his OPS+, which adjusts for ballparks, was still considerably higher in Texas. He was, of course, 25, 26 and 27, which is among the prime of your career.

From 2004-2007, before Rodriguez chose to opt out of his contract, he played in 629 out of a possible 648 games, he hit .303/.403/.573 and averaged 43 home runs a season. His OPS+ was 153. At the time he chose to opt out of his contract, he was 32 years old and was passing on 3-years and about $80MM. But his numbers were so remarkable, even at 32 years old, that there seemed little doubt the Yankees would give him a monster contract. After Scott Boras almost fumbled the situation, Rodriguez went directly to the Yankees and eventually re-signed with the team for $275MM over 10 years. The contract was rightfully mocked at the time. 

Rodriguez was worth $252MM with his prime still to come when he signed with Texas. Now, on the back end of his prime, the Yankees felt the need to pay him $27.5MM a season, on average, for 10 years? Until he was 42? Didn't they know players don't play nearly as long as they did with steroids? There would not be a Barry Bonds type season from A-Rod at 39 or 40. This was going to end badly, everyone said.

Everyone was right. From 2008-2012, Rodriguez hit .282/.370/.503, but he played in just an average of 124 games a season. His age and steroid use seemed to be catching up to him, one injury at a time. As is often the case with great players, they don't know when to quit. For Rodriguez, he's got a lot of money to make still, so his decline might become one of the worst we've seen. Rodriguez has been steadily declining each season since signing his new 10-year-deal, and that slide should continue next season. But even as he begins to look like a shell of his former self, it's important to remember just how great Alex Rodriguez the baseball player really was. He's truly a once in a generation talent. An offensive juggernaut at shortstop? It was rare in 1996, and sadly, Alex Rodriguez as an offensive juggernaut is even rarer today.



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