A-Rod is not nearly as unclutch as most fans think. Let's hope he proves that this year. (Image: Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE)

Is A-Rod a Choker?


If I polled 1,000 Yankees fans right now and asked if they thought Alex Rodriguez has choked in the playoffs during his time with the Yankees, upwards of 90% of them would probably respond with a resounding YES. But has he? I don’t think so. Here’s why:

(I fully admit that this post is inspired by Dave Cameron’s recent article over on FanGraphs, but I’ll try to give a more traditional-stat-friendly and Yankee-focused argument here. I am also sorry for adding yet another A-Rod article to the Yanks Go Yard queue – great minds think alike, I suppose.)

First consider A-Rod’s playoff numbers in his career and with the Yankees:

Rodriguez performed slightly better with the Mariners (albeit in a much shorter sample), but still, his overall numbers with the Yankees in the playoffs aren’t too shabby. They’re not quite what we’re used to based on his career numbers, but an .844 OPS isn’t something to complain too much about. Just for fun, let’s look at a shortened version of both of these lines and extend them over 162 games:

Now I don’t know about you, but that looks pretty damn good. Yeah, the average is a little low with the Yankees, but the on-base percentage is very impressive, with about 30 home runs and 100 runs and RBI either way you look at it. Not to mention that this performance was all done against some the best teams in baseball and by extension some of the better pitching in baseball – or, at the very least, above average pitching.

So why, given A-Rod’s strong performance in the playoffs –  performance that is on par with, or even superior to, his regular season performance – do we perceive him to be “unclutch”?

The answer probably lies in the timing of his postseason performance. Consider A-Rod’s OPS per postseason since he’s been on the Yankees:

As you can see, A-Rod basically had only two good postseasons. 2009, the year in which the Yankees won the World Series, was by far A-Rod’s most impressive postseason, which should be no surprise to those who watched the Yankees plow through the playoffs that year. 2004 was also strong as well, but I won’t remind you all of what happened that year. The rest were either average or well below.

Based solely on this graph, it doesn’t look good for A-Rod, but when we consider the number of games played during each of these postseasons, the story changes. A-Rod has played in 55 overall postseason games for the Yankees, but 26 – almost half – of those were in 2004 and 2009, his two best offensive postseason performances.

Of course, A-Rod’s poor performance in those bad years was part of the reason that he played so few games, because the Yankees didn’t advance past the ALDS in ’05-’07 and ’11, and didn’t get past the ALCS in ’10. In 2004, the Yankees didn’t get to the World Series, but played only one fewer than the maximum games (11). And of course, they won it all in 2009. A-Rod’s offensive performance has been very strong correlated with how well the Yankees play, and by extension how many games he plays.

But is that such a bad thing? Do we really want consistency in the playoffs? I’m not so sure. See, as we all know, and as all Yankees players, managers, GMs, and owners constantly reiterate, the end goal is to win the World Series, and anything less than that is failure. Most people would probably agree that winning the World Series once in five years, but losing in the ALDS the rest of the time, is better than making the World Series and losing every year.

With that assumption in mind, it is arguably more valuable for A-Rod to tear the cover off the ball every few years and play badly the rest of the time than to be consistently good every year. You could argue that A-Rod carried the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009, and who knows what would have happened if he had only been slightly above-average?

This isn’t a foolproof argument by any means. I’m sure someone could make a very reasonable argument that being consistent is better in the postseason. But given the importance of winning it all in the postseason, compared to the goal of just making the playoffs in the regular season, I would argue that dominant performances are even more valuable in the playoffs.

Yes, A-Rod has struck out to end a postseason game more times than anyone in history (hat tip to Jimmy Kraft for that one). Yes, he’s performed very poorly in more than a couple postseasons for the Yankees, which has hurt their chances to win it all in those years. But he also hit extremely well in 2004, a year when they were just inches away from making the World Series, and basically carried the team to a championship in 2009. That has tremendous value, and we can’t forget that.

If A-Rod has another weak postseason and the Yankees get eliminated early yet again, my argument will not hold as much weight, of course. If he can turn it on and carry the Yankees to the World Series again, or at least contribute at a normal level, he should be hailed as a postseason hero, not a goat.

Stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

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