Sabermetric Outlook: Alex Rodriguez
By Matt Hunter
The decline of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez has not been difficult to spot, nor has it been ignored in the mainstream media. After an illustrious 14 years or so of crushing the ball as one of the best players in baseball, time has finally caught up to A-Rod. He is getting old, plain and simple, and it shows in the numbers, both traditional and sabermetric. Today, we’ll continue the Sabermetric Outlook Series by taking a deeper look at A-Rod.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).
Previous players:Mark TeixeiraRobinson CanoDerek Jeter
I have a confession to make: I expected really big things out of A-Rod this year. After he went to Germany during the off-season for a brand-new knee prodecure, I thought A-Rod would get some of his youth back and bounce back from a rough, injury-plagued, 2011 season in which he had a career low .361 wOBA. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; in fact, any wOBA above .340 is very solid. However, compared to past years and his career wOBA of .405, 2011 and 2010 were certainly disappointments. But in 2010, A-Rod was hurt by a low BABIP, even though most other aspects of his game were just below career levels, and in 2011, it was clear that injuries were affecting his performance.
I thought A-Rod might bounce back, hitting near .300 with 30 or more home runs and his usual solid walk rate this year. But halfway through the season, Rodriguez has been even worse than last year, with less power, more strikeouts, and weaker contact. His Isolated Power (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average) is the worst of his career, as is his 22% strikeout rate and .265 batting average.
For me, the strikeout rate is the most disturbing aspect of A-Rod’s decline for two reasons. One, even in the past two years in which he’s has hit poorly, A-Rod’s K-rate has remained at or below career levels. Secondly, the additional strikeouts have not come with more walks, more home runs, or harder hit balls, as often happens when hitters swing harder or take more pitches.
Let’s take a look at Rodriguez’s plate discipline numbers to see why he is striking out more often.
The first thing that jumps out of this table is A-Rod’s O-Swing%, or the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he swings at. He has been swinging at more and more balls the past few years, and this year, he is swinging at almost 10% more balls than he has in his career. Over a whole season in which he sees upwards of 2000 pitches, that 10% makes a huge difference. That’s 200 pitches that A-Rod either swings through, leading to more strikeouts, or hits weakly, leading to less home runs and a worse batting average.
In fact, we can see how much these two outcomes happen as well. On pitches outside the zone, A-Rod is actually making much more contact than he has in his career. While this may seem like a positive at first, it’s actually a bad sign, because the more balls that he makes contact with, the weaker his batted balls will be. Of course, if he’s making more contact on balls, he should be striking out less, right? Well, not necessarily, since he is swinging at so many more balls. All in all, that means A-Rod is whiffing at about 9.5% of pitches outside the zone this year compared to 9.9% over his career.
This all doesn’t quite explain A-Rod’s high strikeout rate until we look at pitches inside the zone. While the differences aren’t as drastic here, we can still see that A-Rod is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone, leading to more called strikes, and making contact with fewer of the pitches in the zone, leading to more swinging strikes. In case it isn’t clear: More called strikes + more swinging strikes = more strikeouts.
It’s amazing how much we can take away from these plate discipline numbers. Not only is A-Rod swinging at more pitches outside the zone, which leads to weaker contact and more whiffs, but he is both taking and whiffing on more pitches inside the strike zone. This not only explains the high strikeout rate, but also the low number of home runs and bad batting average.
I can’t say for sure, but I would guess based on this data that A-Rod’s swing is slowing down significantly due to age, much like Derek Jeter. This means two things: one, he has to start his swing earlier in order to catch up to fastballs, which means he won’t have as much time to stop his swing on offspeed pitches. Even though he is able to make contact on many of these pitches, he isn’t able to hold up his swing as often.
Two, he isn’t generating as much bat speed as he used to, which means his hits aren’t going as far, which is leading to fewer home runs and weaker line drives. Although A-Rod is hitting significantly more line drives than he has in the past, they may be softer line drives than in the past.
This all seems very negative, but the good thing is that A-Rod was such a dominating hitter in his prime that even now, he is a valuable, above-average hitter. His batting average isn’t awful, he’s still on pace for 25 home runs, he’s taking plenty of walks, and his defense is still adequate (his UZR was fantastic last season, but that looks to be somewhat of a fluke).
All in all, A-Rod’s decline shouldn’t really be surprising. It is very rare for dominant hitters who aren’t taking steroids to continue their dominance past age 35 or so, and Alex is no exception. Luckily, he has still been a productive player, and as long as he can hit 20-25 home runs with a .270 batting average and a lot of walks, I can’t complain. Yeah, he’s very overpaid, and some will hate him for that, but I prefer to ignore his salary and career and just look at his performance now, which is perfectly reasonable -great, in fact – for a soon-to-be 37-year-old third baseman.