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Friday, October 12, 2012
Is Alex Rodriguez a playoff choker?

By David Schoenfield

Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez has had the look of frustration through much of his career in the postseason.
Some postseason averages through the first four games for some Yankees hitters:

Alex Rodriguez: .125, 16 AB, 9 SO
Ichiro Suzuki: .200, 20 AB, 3 SO
Nick Swisher: .133, 15 AB, 3 SO
Robinson Cano: .111, 18 AB, 1 SO
Curtis Granderson: .063, 16 AB, 9 SO
Eric Chavez: .000, 5 AB, 2 SO

Obviously, Rodriguez isn't the only Yankee struggling at the plate. He is, however, the only one getting benched in Game 5, in favor of Chavez. To be fair to manager Joe Girardi, A-Rod is the only player who could be benched. As bad as Granderson has looked, as little as Swisher and Ichiro have produced, the Yankees don't really have another option for the outfield. You don't want Raul Ibanez and his statuesque defense in left field in a sudden-death game (or any game, for that matter), and Brett Gardner is on the roster only as a pinch-runner. So that leaves Chavez replacing A-Rod.

It's also true that Rodriguez's struggles extend to before the playoffs. Since coming off the DL on Sept. 3 after his fractured left hand, Rodriguez has hit .228 (23 for 101), with just one home run and one double, a .267 slugging percentage. He's looked particularly awful against right-handers, striking out in 30 of his 74 at-bats (with nine strikeouts in 13 plate appearances against right-handers in this series). So, yes, from a strategic standpoint, benching A-Rod against the right-handed Jason Hammel is justifiable.

Buster Olney nailed it perfect after Ibanez hit for Rodriguez in Game 3:
Rodriguez is 37 years old, and he will never be the same preeminent player he once was. He has not been able to hit fastballs he used to crush, and against some right-handers he has looked helpless, unable to drive the ball unless he correctly guesses what the pitcher is going to throw. The days of Rodriguez having such bat speed that he could wait and wait and wait and still drive the ball 450 feet are over.

Hitting for Rodriguez gave Girardi freedom. Of course, having done it once, I have no idea why he didn't do it in Game 4, when Rodriguez faced Darren O'Day with runners at second and third and one out in the eighth inning. Why not hit Ibanez or Chavez there, when all you needed was a fly ball or a groundball through a drawn-in infield? It's possible that failure to hit for Rodriguez could cost the Yankees the series.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter is a hero to Yankees fans for his postseason work. But his overall October numbers are similar to the maligned Alex Rodriguez.
There's an underlying issue here, of course, of what I've seen referred to on Twitter as the Alex Rodriguez Narrative: That is, that he's a postseason choker. Dave Cameron on Fangraphs addressed this a couple days ago (before the Ibanez game) and pointed out that A-Rod's career postseason numbers at the time were similar to Derek Jeter's: A-Rod was hitting .271/.380/.484 (127 RC+) while Jeter was hitting .309/.374/.465 (122 RC+). Of course, Rodriguez has been the better hitter in the regular season, so it's fair to say that Jeter has come closer to replicating his regular-season numbers. Dave also pointed out, for all of Jeter's recognition as a clutch hitter, A-Rod had a higher Win Probability Added than Jeter -- WPA calculates when a player produces; in essence, it figures a player's clutch score.

Of course, Dave was cheating a little bit. He was including Rodriguez's playoff time with the Mariners. In 15 games with the Mariners, he hit .340/.375/.566. Fair or not, the Alex Rodriguez Narrative does not include those games. It only includes the games with the Yankees. To the New York media (and Yankees fans), those games with Seattle have nothing to do with evaluating Rodriguez's October performance. With the Yankees, now including the past two games, A-Rod has hit .250/.377/.453, with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 57 games. Per 162 games, that's an average of 29 home runs, 94 RBIs, 102 walks and 160 strikeouts, compared to 162-game averages of 40 home runs, 127 RBIs, 86 walks and 135 strikeouts since joining the Yankees. So in the postseason, he has hit for less power while striking out a little more often.

Most of that damage was done in four series: the 2004 Division Series against the Twins (.421), and all three series in 2009 (six home runs, 18 RBIs). People remember the bad series, of course. The time in 2006 when Joe Torre moved A-Rod down to eighth in the order. The .190 average against the Rangers in the 2010 ALCS. The .111 average last year against the Tigers. Of course, Jeter has had bad series as well: .148 in the 2001 World Series (his only RBI was that game-winning home run), .176 against Cleveland in 2007, .231 with one RBI against the Rangers in 2010. A-Rod gets criticized for going 2-for-17 (three walks, two RBIs) in those final four losses against the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS; well, Jeter went 4-for-19 with one walk and five RBIs (three in Game 4).

In the end, I think it comes down to this: A-Rod is perceived as a loser, Jeter as a winner. Many (most?) Yankees fans ultimately would put things like that as well. After all, Jeter was part of four World Series winners in five years. A-Rod has been part of one World Series champion in eight years (so far). In some ways, Torre started this back in 2006, that day he moved A-Rod down in the lineup, and Girardi is just following that line of thinking. Personally, I think it’s unfair and absurd, considering A-Rod has delivered some big postseason hits for the Yankees. Compare that to some others. Cano has hit .243 in the postseason entering Game 5. Swisher .157 with the Yankees. Teixeira has hit .190 with the Yankees.

But there’s no narrative with those guys.