Challenging Alex Rodriguez

Remember Alex Rodriguez? He’s playing baseball again. He’s also just six home runs from passing Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time home run list. Now that we’ve left the frenzied Bonds record-breaking era behind, not many people are paying attention to who’s climbing the leaderboard, or even generally what’s going on with A-Rod. It feels like a saga that has run its course, and we’re left in the post-scandal haze when everyone is bored and has moved onto something else. The people that are talking about him either do so ostensibly to bash him, or love him in an ironically redemptive, friend of the anti-hero sort of way.

That’s understandable given the circumstances surrounding him, but he’s popped up a few times in this young season, like when he did this on Wednesday night:

ARod_Homer_4_15

I’ve watched this home run about 20 times. A few of those occasions were because I was making this GIF, but there’s also something else about it. This is one of those shots that opposing players stand and watch; one that you remember a year later with your friends if you were there at the park. It was hit harder than all but 8% of home runs last year. And, finally, it was hit by a guy who’s been out of the game for a year and is going to turn 40 in July.

This home run greatly interests me, is what I’m getting at. Lost in that aftermath of broken records and asterisks is the fact that A-Rod can still swing a bat, and often to great effect. He was one of the best players on the planet not all that long ago. Given how long he’s been out of the game, I wondered: how are pitchers attacking him now that he’s back?

Yes, it’s very early in the season. A-Rod is almost certainly not going to hit 40 home runs this season, and the way pitchers approach him is sure to change. However, there are already some patterns that have surfaced, so let’s compare them to how A-Rod has been pitched throughout his career. First, here are his pitches seen before his suspension vs. this year:

Alex_Rodriguez_Pitches_Seen

Like most power hitters, the book on A-Rod used to be inside off the plate and low and away, where he was least likely to hurt you. Most of us are probably aware of the holes in his swing, given his popularity — down and in, down and away, and the high and tight fastball. That’s exhibited in his whiffs per swing before his suspension:

Alex_Rodriguez_Whiffs_Per_Swing

Fast forward to this year, and it seems like a lot of pitches that used to be off the plate inside have crept back onto the inner third. Employing our friend Baseball Savant, we can filter for only those zones on the inner third of the plate for the whole league to see where Rodriguez ranks among right-handed hitters. You might be able to guess where this is going:

Pitches, Inner 3rd of the Strike Zone
Pitch Type League Rate A-Rod Rate Rank
All 10.9% 19.3% 1st
Hard 7.5% 13.8% T-1st

If you include the zones off the plate inside, Mike Trout ranks first in the majors by a mile. Alex Rodriguez is not Mike Trout, however, at least not anymore, and pitchers have been challenging him over the plate because of it. Out of those inner-third pitches he’s seen, he’s swung and missed 14% of the time, fouled off and taken called strikes 32% of the time each, put two balls in play for outs, and had three hits, including one double and a home run.

Pitchers are primarily using hard inside stuff to get ahead of Rodriguez quickly, as almost a third of the inner-third pitches he’s seen this year have been first-pitch fastballs. We shouldn’t be surprised to see his first pitch strike percentage continue to be above his career norm if he doesn’t start hitting them effectively – currently it is at 66.7%, almost 7% over his previous career high.

After getting to two strikes, pitchers are putting Rodriguez away in time-honored fashion by exploiting his propensity to swing and miss at off-speed and breaking stuff out of the zone, or at high and tight fastballs. Here’s a look at where the pitches were located for his strikeouts so far (strike zone is approximate):

Alex_Rodriguez_Strikeouts

A-Rod has struck out 36.4% of the time in 2015, a mark that seems just a little untenable moving forward. With a 5% drop in overall contact rate (he is 14th-worst in the majors so far in that respect), the possibility of a high strikeout campaign would continue a trend that started in earnest during 2012. It’s very early, so there is a lot of noise to go along with our signal. However, it’s fair to say we’ve seen both the good and the bad from A-Rod in the opening week and a half.

Opposing pitchers are going to keep challenging Rodriguez inside. It’s clear from the two mammoth home runs he’s hit this year that the bat speed is still there; it’s the contact skills that are now in question. They’ve been testing him, and so far he’s passed by way of the luck dragon (.429 BABIP), his eye at the plate, and a few exclamation mark homers. We know the contact part of a hitter’s game does not age well, so maybe he’s more of a true outcomes power/walk/strikeout guy moving forward — we’ll just have to wait and see, especially given his long layoff from the game. It’s hard not to watch that home run from Wednesday night and think that the talent and skills are still there: they just come in flashes now. The question is how often we’ll get to see them.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU

It’s clear from the two mammoth home runs he’s hit this year that the bat speed is still there; it’s the contact skills that are now in question.

I would say that is an indicator that the bat speed is not still there. Without any concrete evidence whatsoever, I say that the most likely cause is that he is cheating on fastballs and committing to his swing early, hence the drop in contact rate.

DNA+
Guest
DNA+

I think you might be confusing bat speed with reaction time.

JT
Guest
JT

Reaction time in professional athletes has been proven to be equal to the general public. In fact, Albert Pujols when tested had below average reaction time compared to the general public. What separates pro ball players and everyone else is freakishly above average eye sight (which helps pick up the ball more quickly out of the pitcher’s hand) and extreme bat speed. Although, to hit a ball that far and hard you need to generate a lot of bat speed. So my eyebrows are certainly raised with his early season performance.

DNA+
Guest
DNA+

Do you know where this is published? I am a bit sceptical since at least a few excellent hitters have had bad eyesight (e.g. Bernie Williams).

In any case, assuming you are correct, it is still very likely that players lose reaction time as they age, even if they keep their eyesight and bat speed.

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes

link please

Pro Scout
Guest
Pro Scout

A couple things here. Reaction time of athletes tests normal in activities outside there norm. For instance, Barry Bonds got owned trying to hit a softball pitcher. His reaction time dropped because he wasn’t used to seeing the pitch from that angle. Also, MLB hitters on average have better-than-average vision, but many don’t. Mark McGuire for one had horrible vision. Bryce Harper wears contacts. A lot do.
Bat speed also varies quite a bit over pro guys (visit Zepp to see their data). Point is a lot pieces in the puzzle of hitting.

Andy
Guest
Andy

The Sports Gene, by David Epstein. Very interesting book. His conclusion that vision is far more important than reaction time explains why softball pitcher Jenny Finch was reportedly able to strike out several MLB players, including Bonds and Pujols. His view is that batters learn to hit from cues picked up when the pitcher releases the ball, and since a softball is thrown entirely different, they’re completely…well, clueless against Finch.

Hee-Seop Choi
Guest
Hee-Seop Choi

Can’t even go one comment without someone mentioning that A-Rod is cheating