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Tuesday, October 16, 2012
The decline of Alex Rodriguez

By David Schoenfield

Alex Rodriguez
It seems unlikely that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will ever regain his MVP form.

It's always been a soap opera with Alex Rodriguez during his tenure with the New York Yankees: From the brawl with Jason Varitek in 2004 to slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove in the playoffs to the time Joe Torre hit him eighth in the 2006 playoffs to admitting PED usage to Kate Hudson to the Popcorn Incident.

Call it "As the Alex Turns" or "Days of Our A-Rod."

This time, it's strictly about baseball, and his apparent inability to hit one. He's 3-for-23 in the postseason, including 0-for-18 with 12 strikeouts against right-handers. He's hardly the only Yankee struggling, but when you're the highest-paid player in the sport, the focus goes to you.

Ian O'Connor writes that this is an opportunity for Rodriguez to step up in Derek Jeter's absence:
Rodriguez? He's been demoted in the lineup, pinch-hit for, and benched for a clinching division series game. How's that for a Triple Crown?

But despite his pathetic at-bats this month, Rodriguez happens to be the Yankees' only position player whose career measures up to the magnitude of Jeter's. It's hard to ask the likes of Raul Ibanez to fill the Jeter void, never mind the likes of Jayson Nix.

Meanwhile, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski writes that we shouldn't be surprised by Rodriguez's declining productivity:
Projected after his age 24 season, his final one in Seattle, ZiPS projected A-Rod to have a .779 OPS in 2012, given knowledge of the Yankee Stadium factors and the level of offense in 2012, compared with his actual OPS of .783. After his last year in Texas, ZiPS projects a 2012 OPS of .766. ZiPS projected an .824 OPS for A-Rod coming into this season, but that was a function of actual league offense and Yankee Stadium park factors being lower than expected, the reconfigured A-Rod projected 2012 OPS being only .799.

In other words, A-Rod's decline in recent years, culminating in his career-worst 2012 season, is in no way anything unusual or unexpected.

Not surprisingly, Dan's projections aren't kind to Rodriguez in upcoming seasons. Rodriguez debuted with the Mariners when he was 18 and played his first full season at age 20 (turning 21 in July). He's one of just 13 players to accumulate at least 4,000 plate appearances through his age-25 season.
Other players in the top 20 of most plate appearances through 25 include Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., Johnny Bench and Jimmie Foxx, none of whom had much value after turning 30. No. 21, however, is Hank Aaron, one of the best "old" players ever.

Now, all of this was known when the Yankees signed Rodriguez to that 10-year, $275 million extension in December 2007. He was 32 at the time, but coming off a monster MVP season in which he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs. Still, as Dan's ZiPS system indicated, even the greatest players start aging in their late 30s. At least those not named Barry Bonds. There were clear reasons to expect A-Rod's production to be significantly less in his late 30s, let alone in his 40s.

It was a ridiculous contract at the time, and now it's a horrible contract. There is no sign that Rodriguez will suddenly reverse course next season. You can see many signs of A-Rod's slowing bat speed, from pitchers no longer afraid to pitch him inside to various analysts breaking down his swing. The numbers support a player who has expanded the strike zone, which I believe suggests a player "cheating" to catch up to pitches, and is losing plate discipline in the process. Check out the percentage of A-Rod's swings on pitches outside the strike zone in recent years:

2009: 21.1 percent
2010: 25.3 percent
2011: 27.0 percent
2012: 31.3 percent

In 2007, Rodriguez had 120 strikeouts and 95 walks. In 2012, those figures were 116 and 51 (in nearly 200 fewer PAs).

Rodriguez has five years remaining on his deal. Ignoring the fact that he won't be a $28 million player in 2013, the bigger question: How many years does he have left as a decent player, regardless of salary? One? Two? At some point in the future, the Yankees may have to bite the bullet and eat a lot of salary -- or risk playing a guy who no longer helps them win.

I know A-Rod is a guy everyone loves to kick when he's down; he's more of a punching bag than a player like Bonds, who was vigorously reviled. Still, I find this postseason a little sad, the declining superstar as a shell of his former self. It makes me think back to 1996, when Rodriguez was a young kid with the Mariners, lashing home runs and doubles in the gap, the prodigy with a future we could only attempt to envision.