JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Alex Rodriguez

© Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2022 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

More so than Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez is the poster child for the era of performance-enhancing drugs within baseball. Considered “an almost perfect prospect” given his combination of power, speed, defense, and work ethic, the 6-foot-3 shortstop was chosen by the Mariners with the first pick of the 1993 draft, and reached the majors before his 19th birthday. In short order, he went on to produce unprecedented power for the position via six straight seasons of at least 40 homers, two with at least 50, and three league leads. Along the way, he signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers in January 2001, at that point the largest guaranteed contract in professional sports history.

In a major league career that spanned from 1994 to 2016, Rodriguez made 14 All-Star teams, won three MVP awards and two Gold Gloves, and became just the fifth player to reach the twin plateaus of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, after Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, and Rafael Palmeiro. Along the way, he helped his teams to 12 postseason appearances, but only one championship. Though he sparkled at times in the postseason, he also went into some notorious slumps that only furthered the drama that surrounded him.

Always with the drama! Rodriguez’s combination of youthful charisma, success, and money magnified his every move, and his insecurities and inability to read the room guaranteed further tumult the more intense things got. Because of his proximity to Derek Jeter, first as a friendly rival within a trinity of great young shortstops that also included Nomar Garciaparra, and then as a teammate once the Yankees became the only club that could afford his contract, Rodriguez became an easy target for tabloid-style sensationalism long before he dated Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. His inability to get out of his own way only intensified once he got to New York, even before his PED-related misdeeds put him in the crosshairs.

Indeed, Rodriguez could have been a contender for the title of the greatest ballplayer of all time, but how much of his success, particularly his power, owed to PEDs is a question that will forever dog him, and us. In the wake of a 2009 report by Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts and David Epstein that he was among the 104 players who failed the supposedly anonymous ’03 survey test, Rodriguez admitted that he began using anabolic steroids not as an aging ballplayer looking to hold onto an edge but as a 25-year-old in his physical prime, one under self-imposed pressure to live up to his mega-contract. Later reporting revealed that he received a therapeutic use exemption allowing him to use testosterone during his MVP-winning 2007 season. Most damningly, from 2010-12, he reportedly purchased and used PEDs from Biogenesis, a Miami anti-aging clinic, which — after much wrangling, including lawsuits against the league, the players union, and the Yankees’ team doctors — led to a 211-game suspension, later reduced to 162 games, covering the entire 2014 season.

Improbably, Rodriguez managed an impressive comeback from all of that, with an unexpectedly strong 2015 season accompanied by welcome doses of humility, humor, and candor. Injuries and age prevented him from sustaining the physical aspect of that comeback, but his August 2016 retirement was something of a lovefest.

Whatever feel-good sentiments arose at that point aren’t likely to carry over enough to elevate Rodriguez to Cooperstown. In the decade and a half since McGwire landed on the ballot, BBWAA voters have shown little mercy for PED-linked candidates, particularly those with positive tests or suspensions attached to their names. On a ballot where Bonds and Clemens fell short in their 10th and final year of eligibility, Rodriguez received 34.3%, the top showing for any player suspended under MLB’s drug policy but 1.9 points below Bonds’ debut and 3.4 points below that of Clemens. Barring an exceptional change in the composition of the electorate — or in the minds of its holdouts — he’ll face an uphill battle to get to 75%, but his presence on the ballot ensures that the subject of PEDs and the Hall of Fame will remain in the spotlight.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: Alex Rodriguez
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Alex Rodriguez 117.5 64.3 90.9
Avg. HOF SS 67.7 43.2 55.4
3,115 696 .295/.380/.550 140
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Rodriguez was born on July 27, 1975 in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the son of Dominican immigrants Victor and Lourdes Rodriguez, both of whom also had children by previous marriages. Victor ran a shoe store in Manhattan that was successful enough that he retired and took the family back to the Dominican Republic when Alex was four. After three years, the family moved to Miami so he could run another shoe store, but by the time Alex was nine, his father abandoned the family to return to New York, creating a void in Alex’s life. With three children to support, Lourdes took a job as a secretary in an immigration office and waited tables at night. Eventually, she would own an immigration office and a Latin-American restaurant.

Before leaving, Victor had taught Alex the basics of baseball. As an eight-year-old, he joined a Little League team of nine- and 10-year-olds coached by a Cuban immigrant named Juan Diego Artega, quickly demonstrating that he had the skill to play with older boys. Rodriguez became best friends with Artega’s son J.D., and the older Artega oversaw travels that would take them to Mexico and Central America to play. The two boys continued to play together until Rodriguez left for Columbus High School, where he was cut from the varsity team and played J.V. After his freshman year, Artega helped Lourdes apply for grants to afford the tuition to Westminster Christian High School, a private school whose baseball team was coached by Rich Hofman, Baseball America’s “Coach of the Decade” for the 1990s.

As a sophomore, Rodriguez was still skinny, and generally batted seventh. “I saw him as more of a defensive player then than an offensive player,” Hofman told Sports Illustrated’s Joe Lemire in 2010. In the summer before his junior year, Rodriguez added 25 pounds of muscle and tripled his bench press. Roberts, relying upon anonymous sources, alleged in her book A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez that he began using steroids in high school, a charge that Hofman refuted while noting his program’s emphasis on weight training:

“By the time he came into the school, he had never touched a weight… He did work really hard. When you’re talking August of your sophomore year to January of your junior year, you’re talking almost a year and a half. For someone who’s never been on weights but has the capacity to have great increase through hard work, it’s not unusual for somebody to put on 25, 30 pounds.”

Rodriguez hit .477 with six homers and 42 steals in his junior year while Westminster Christian went 33-2 and was ranked no. 1 in the country by a USA Today high school poll. As a senior he hit .505 with nine homers and stole 35 consecutive bases while the team went 28-5. He also quarterbacked the football team to a 9-1 record, but always wanted to hit balls afterward.

Scouts flocked to see Rodriguez. According to Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book, 68 scouts attended the first game of his senior season at Westminster Christian. From the Draft Book: “Rodriguez was almost a perfect prospect, showing power and speed, an excellent glove and a great work ethic at a premium position. Many veteran scouts called him the best position player they had ever evaluated.” One scout hailed him as the next Cal Ripken Jr., while Mariners scouting director Roger Jongewaard wrote in his final scouting report, “Similar to Jeter, only bigger and better — better at 17 now than all the superstars in baseball were when they were seniors in high school.”

The Mariners chose Rodriguez with the first pick of the 1993 draft, but were unwilling to meet the shortstop’s demands of a $2.5 million signing bonus. Set to join the younger Artega on a baseball scholarship at the University of Miami, just hours before the deadline he finally agreed to a three-year, $1.3 million major league contract that included a $1 million signing bonus.

Already ranked sixth on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list, Rodriguez began his professional career the following year, and rose like a rocket. He hit .319/.379/.605 with 14 homers and 16 steals in 65 games before being promoted to Double-A Jacksonville. After 17 games there, he was called up by the Mariners, debuting at Fenway Park on July 8, 1994. At 18 years and 346 days old, he was the youngest position player to start since the Blue Jays’ Brian Milner (18 years, 218 days) in 1978. Rodriguez went 0-for-3, but the next night collected singles off the Red Sox’s Sergio Valdez and Scott Bankhead. He went just 11-for-54 without an extra-base hit in 17 games before being sent down at the end of July; with the major league players about to strike, he finished out the season at Triple-A Calgary.

After topping Baseball America’s prospect list in 1995, Rodriguez shuttled between Triple-A Tacoma and Seattle, hitting a meager .232/.264/.408 with five homers in 48 games for the big club. On June 12, 1995, he connected for his first home run, off the Royals’ Tom Gordon.

Fueled by Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Randy Johnson, the Mariners, who were 53-53 and 12.5 games out of first place on August 20, wound up catching the front-running Angels, then beat them in a Game 163 tiebreaker. The just-turned-20-year-old Rodriguez was primarily a bystander after being called up in September, getting just eight plate appearances while Luis Sojo manned shortstop, but he came off the bench to hit an RBI triple in a September 23 win over the A’s, then added a two-run single in a 9-8 victory the next day. “I’m 20 years old and I’m maturing,” he told reporters afterwards, “And there’s nothing like maturing in front of 50,000 people.”

Manager Lou Piniella thought enough of Rodriguez to include him on the Mariners’ postseason roster. Inserted as a pinch runner for Tino Martinez in the eighth inning of Game 5 against the Yankees, he scored the tying run as the flagging David Cone walked Doug Strange on his 147th pitch, and played the rest of the game. Though he grounded out against Jack McDowell with two outs and two on in the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners won in dramatic fashion in the 11th, when Edgar Martinez doubled home Griffey and basically saved baseball in Seattle.

The Mariners took the training wheels off Rodriguez in 1996, and on Opening Day, he drove in the winning run with a 12th-inning walk-off single off the White Sox’s Bill Simas. While he collected just one hit in his next five games, and spent time on the disabled list in late April and early May due to a hamstring injury, by the time the dust had settled he had put together a season for the ages, hitting .358/.414/.631 with 36 homers and becoming the third-youngest player to win a batting title, after Al Kaline in 1955 and Ty Cobb in 1907. His 8.5 WAR, 54 doubles, and 379 total bases also led the league, while his slugging percentage placed fourth, his 161 OPS fifth and his 123 RBI eighth. He made his first All-Star team, and narrowly missed out on winning AL MVP honors; Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez beat him by three points, 290-287, and while he out-homered Rodriguez with 47, he produced just 3.8 WAR. But with Johnson limited to eight starts by back woes, the Mariners failed to return to the postseason.

Rodriguez’s 1997 season was a step down (23 homers, 120 OPS+, 5.7 WAR) as a home plate collision with Clemens on June 11, 1997 sent him to the disabled list with a chest contusion, and hampered his offense for most of the remainder of the season. The Mariners did win the AL West, but despite Rodriguez’s 5-for-16 showing, bowed to the Orioles in the Division Series.

Rodriguez spent three more years in Seattle putting up numbers that had been practically unthinkable for a shortstop to that point. He hit a combined .305/.379/.582 for a 144 OPS+ from 1998-2000 while averaging 42 homers, 122 RBI, 27 steals, and 7.9 WAR. By reaching the 40-homer plateau in each of those seasons — including 1999, when he missed five weeks due to in-season surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee — he joined Ernie Banks (who had done it five times) and Rico Petrocelli (who had done it once) as the only shortstops to do so even once; meanwhile, his 46 steals in 1998 made him just the third player to produce a 40-40 season after Jose Canseco and Bonds. Rodriguez led the AL in WAR both in 1998 (8.5) and 2000 (10.4, a high he’d never top — and the launchpad for an historic free agency), making the AL All-Star team both times.

The Mariners couldn’t surmount the Yankees in the 2000 ALCS despite Rodriguez’s .409/.480/.773 showing, and by that point, their core had begun scattering to the four winds. Johnson was traded to the Astros on July 31, 1998, and Griffey to the Reds on February 10, 2000. While some of the players they brought back in return — Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, John Halama, Mike Cameron — would help Seattle win 116 games in 2001, Rodriguez was gone by then himself. With agent Scott Boras circulating an infamous marketing binder that included quotes comparing the 25-year-old shortstop to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and a projection for a home run total that would have outdistanced Bonds, the free agency became a spectacle. While at least half a dozen teams were serious about landing Rodriguez, nobody was willing to go so far as Rangers owner Tom Hicks, who guaranteed Rodriguez 10 years and $252 million, a total that exceeded the price Hicks paid to purchase the Rangers, their ballpark and the surrounding land just three years earlier, and one that doubled NBA star Kevin Garnett’s $126 million contract, previously the largest in all of sports. The deal’s $25.2 million average annual salary topped the payrolls of three teams the previous year.

The Rangers had won the AL West three times in a four-season span from 1996-99 before dipping to 71-91 in 2000. But even with Rodriguez in tow, dreadful pitching consigned them to last place in the division three straight times, with seasons of 89, 90, and 91 losses in succession, and attendance waned after the novelty of A-Rod the Ranger wore off. With balls flying out of the park like crazy, particularly in the hitter-friendly environment of The Ballpark in Arlington, Rodriguez led the AL in homers in each of those seasons, with totals of 52, 57, and 47 while hitting a combined .305/.395/.615 (155 OPS+). The only slash-stat category via which he led the league in that span was in slugging percentage in 2003 (.600), but he did top the circuit in total bases in both ’01 (393) and ’02 (389), and led the AL in WAR in ’02 (8.8) and ’03 (8.4). After finishing second in the AL MVP voting behind Miguel Tejada in 2002, Rodriguez beat out Carlos Delgado and Jorge Posada to win in ’03, making him just the second player to win the award while toiling for a last-place team.

By this point, Hicks was looking to get out from under Rodriguez’s contract and the shortstop was frustrated by the losing and by a “chilly” relationship with new manager Buck Showalter. Two days after the Red Sox were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs by the Yankees on Aaron Boone’s pennant-clinching homer, Hicks offered Rodriguez to the Red Sox in exchange for Garciaparra, who had one more year to go before free agency and who had already turned down an extension offer from the Red Sox. Unwilling to part with Garciaparra, Boston offered up Manny Ramirez, whom the team had put on waivers at the end of the regular season in an effort to get out from under his $20 million annual salary.

Long story short, in December commissioner Bud Selig allowed the Red Sox to speak to Rodriguez even without a deal in place. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told Rodriguez that he would have to reduce the annual value of his contract by $4 million a year over the remaining seven years for the trade to work. Rodriguez was willing to restructure his contract to include opt-outs after the 2005 season and every year thereafter, not just ’07 as stipulated in the Rangers deal. The deal would have sent Rodriguez to Boston in exchange for Ramirez, prospect Jon Lester (still a month shy of his 20th birthday) and cash, with Garciaparra and reliever Scott Williamson then being traded to the White Sox in exchange for outfielder Magglio Ordonez and pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy. The deal fell apart when the players’ union rejected the proposal because it reduced the value of Rodriguez’s existing contract.

The non-trade became the stuff of legends, inspiring an ESPN 30-for-30 short film and a host of what-if articles. But while Hicks, Boras, and Rodriguez planned for the shortstop’s return to Texas for 2004, fate intervened when Boone, who was slated to be the Yankees’ starting third baseman, tore the ACL in his left knee playing basketball on January 16. Exactly a month later, the Rangers traded Rodriguez and a whopping $67 million in cash to the Yankees in exchange for Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later (Joaquin Arias).

The move required Rodriguez to shift off of shortstop despite being defensively superior to Jeter, but between desperation and deference, he was willing. Even before he’d played for the Rangers, Rodriguez had ignited a tabloid controversy by telling Esquire magazine that Jeter “never had to lead” and is “never your concern,” when facing the Yankees. After the trade, Rodriguez revealed that he’d driven from Port Charlotte to Jeter’s Tampa home to explain and apologize, and Jeter, for his part, said that the issue was behind them.

Though he hit 36 homers and stole 28 bases, Rodriguez’s 131 OPS+ (.286/.375/.512) in his inaugural season in pinstripes was his weakest during the 1998-2009 stretch, but even so, he took to third base especially well (14 DRS) en route to 7.6 WAR. He starred in the Division Series against the Twins, collecting four hits including a homer and a 12th-inning game-tying double in Game 2, and a gutsy steal of third base before scoring what proved to be the series-clinching run in the 11th inning of Game 4. He went 7-for-19 with two homers and five RBI through the first four games of the ALCS against the Red Sox, but just 1-for-12 over the final three games as Boston completed its improbable comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit. The low point came in the eighth inning of Game 6, when he slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove as the pitcher covered first base on his groundball; he was called out for interference.

Rodriguez rebounded to win his second MVP award and lead the AL in homers for the fourth time in 2005, hitting .321/.421/.610; his slugging percentage, 173 OPS+ and 9.4 WAR were all tops, but he went just 2-for-15 (albeit with six walks and two hit-by-pitches) as the Yankees were ousted by the Angels in a five-game series. After a comparatively down 2006 (35 homers, 134 OPS+, 4.5 WAR), he was dropped from fourth in the batting order (where he’d hit for most of the season, including his strong final few weeks) to sixth, and then to eighth on the basis of his previous postseason struggles by manager Joe Torre. The move backfired, inciting controversy while Rodriguez went 1-for-15 as the Yankees were swiftly eliminated.

Again Rodriguez rebounded with his best season as a Yankee, hitting .314/.422/.645 while leading the league in slugging percentage, home runs (54), RBI (156), OPS+ (176), and WAR (9.4). On August 4, he hit the 500th home run of his career, off the Royals’ Kyle Davies. At 32 years and eight days, he was the youngest player to reach the mark.

The numbers would net him his third MVP award, though in the 2014 book Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era, authors Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts reported that Rodriguez obtained a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone, quite possibly because his previous use of PEDs prevented his body from manufacturing the correct level of the hormone.

In the 2007 postseason, Rodriguez’s October struggles continued, though he snapped a 4-for-47 skid that dated back to the ’04 ALCS with a pair of two-hit games against Cleveland. It wasn’t enough to get the Yankees through the Division Series, and the loss led to Torre’s departure after 12 seasons at the helm.

Rodriguez soon opened the door to his own departure by opting out of the final three years and $72 million guaranteed of his contract, $21.3 million of which was subsidized by the Rangers. The announcement was made in gauche fashion via a Boras statement issued during the fourth and final game of the World Series as the Red Sox swept the Rockies (Boras soon apologized). Though the Yankees were reportedly preparing to offer him a four- or five-year extension worth between $25 million and $30 million annually, Rodriguez cited the uncertainty surrounding the free agencies of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada as his reason for opting out.

The Yankees appeared ready to slam the door in Rodriguez’s face, with Hank Steinbrenner, the less measured of the Yankee owner’s two sons, telling reporters, “No chance” when it came to a reunion. “Not if it’s made official.” Even general manager Brian Cashman spoke of him in the past tense, saying, “I only wish we could have raised a championship trophy together during his time here, which was the ultimate goal we all shared.”

Less than seven weeks later, Rodriguez was back in the fold via a 10-year, $275 million contract — another record — done without the involvement of Boras. Rodriguez called the opt out “a mistake that was handled extremely poorly,” and said of Boras, “Our goals were not aligned. It felt funny to me.” The deal included a $10 million signing bonus and the potential for $30 million in bonuses for achieving historic milestones, notable because the 32-year-old slugger had already banked 518 homers; he’d get $6 million apiece for tying the home run totals of Mays (660), Babe Ruth (714), Aaron (755), and Bonds (762), plus another $6 million for overtaking the latter.

The new deal got off to an inauspicious start, as Rodriguez, who had averaged 159 games for the previous seven seasons, missed 21 games early in the year due to a quad strain and slipped to 35 homers and 6.8 WAR, though his .573 SLG still led the AL, and his 150 OPS+ placed second. The Yankees, in their first season under new manager Joe Girardi and their last in their old ballpark, won 89 games but missed the playoffs for the first time in the Wild Card era.

Rodriguez’s problems were only beginning. On February 7, 2009, Sports Illustrated’s Roberts and Epstein reported that Rodriguez was among the 104 players who failed the 2003 survey test, which was conducted to determine if PED use was prevalent enough to merit a testing program. The SI pair reported that four sources independently told the reporters Rodriguez had tested positive for testosterone and an orally ingested anabolic steroid known by the brand name Primobolan. Their report also alleged that Players Association chief operating officer Gene Orza tipped Rodriguez off to an upcoming drug test, an allegation that Orza denied and one that Rodriguez refused to comment upon. Soon afterwards, Rodriguez admitted to taking PEDs during his three seasons in Texas. Via Roberts:

“When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight in the world on top of me and I needed to perform and perform at a high level every day.”

…”Back then it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all times.”

By this point, between Canseco’s book Juiced, the Mitchell Report, and MLB’s own testing program, numerous Rangers teammates including Gonzalez and Palmeiro had been identified and confirmed as PED users as well, and likewise for Yankees teammates Pettitte and Clemens. In the months that followed, Sosa, Ramirez, and David Ortiz would all be identified as having failed the survey test as well. All would receive their share of public scorn and ridicule, but none would generate nearly the negative attention as Rodriguez, particularly with the May release of Roberts’ book. Roberts’ reporting wasn’t airtight; as Craig Calcaterra noted for The Hardball Times, “[M]any of the anonymous sources themselves don’t even have the goods on Rodriguez” while pointing out several instances of third parties speculating about the possibility of Rodriguez’s drug usage. Still, she and Epstein had gotten Rodriguez to admit to using PEDs, and while Major League Baseball couldn’t discipline him for those admissions, the damage to his reputation was done.

By the time the book was released, Rodriguez had another problem, a torn labrum in his right hip that required surgery and that delayed his season debut until May 8. He announced his return with authority, clubbing a three-run homer off the Orioles’ Jeremy Guthrie in his first plate appearance and adding six more homers in his first 15 games. With two homers on the season’s final day, he reached 30 homers and 100 RBI for the season, extending a streak in both categories that dated back to 1998. Even with just 4.2 WAR, his lowest total since his age-19 season, his .286/.402/.532 (138 OPS+) line helped the Yankees — who had used the likes of Angel Berroa, Ramiro Pena, and Cody Ransom in his absence — win 103 games and the AL East.

Rodriguez went on a postseason spree, going 14-for-32 with five homers and 12 RBI in the Division Series against the Twins and the ALCS against the Angels. He hit a game-tying two-run homer off the Twins’ Joe Nathan in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the Division Series (the Yankees won in 11), a game-tying solo homer off Carl Pavano in the seventh inning of Game 3 (the Yankees won), and a game-tying solo homer off the Angels’ Brian Fuentes in the 11th inning of Game 2 (the Yankees won in 13).

In the World Series against the Phillies, Rodriguez went hitless in Games 1 and 2, but sparked a comeback from a 3-0 deficit with a two-run homer off Cole Hamels in Game 3, and drove home Johnny Damon with the go-ahead run after Damon’s ninth-inning steal of third base in Game 4. After his three RBI went for naught in a Game 5 loss, he reached base in all four plate appearances and scored twice in the clincher, finishing the postseason with an .365/.500/.808 line, six homers, and 18 RBI, one short of the record at that point. He finally had his World Series ring.

Over the next three seasons, the returns diminished, as injuries limited Rodriguez to a total of 358 games. He kept his streak alive by hitting 30 homers and driving in 125 runs in 2010, but missed time due to a left calf strain, then missed six weeks due to in-season surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee in ’11, and battled a September thumb injury as well. He missed nearly six weeks in 2012 when a Félix Hernández pitch fractured the fifth metacarpal of his left hand, and went just 3-for-25 — and 0-for-18 with 12 strikeouts against right-handers — in the postseason, even getting benched in the Division Series finale against the Orioles and the final two games of an ALCS sweep by the Tigers; Eric Chavez manned third. Though Rodriguez took the blame for his poor performance, in December he was diagnosed with a torn labrum, bone impingement, and a cyst in his left hip; he needed six weeks of rehab before he could even undergo surgery, and didn’t return to action until August 5, 2013.

By the time he did, Rodriguez was embroiled in his biggest scandal to date, which was saying something. On January 29, 2013, 13 days after he’d undergone hip surgery, the Miami New Times published a report implicating over a dozen players including Rodriguez, former MVP Ryan Braun, and Nelson Cruz as having obtained PEDs from Biogenesis, a Miami-based anti-aging clinic, and its owner, Anthony Bosch. Space cannot possibly detail every aspect of the three-ring circus that followed, but long story short, MLB paid money for the medical records of the clinic (the same New York Times report alleged Rodriguez purchased documents in order to destroy them) and secured the cooperation of Bosch. On July 22, MLB handed down a 65-game suspension for Braun, and on August 5, the league announced the suspensions of 13 additional players; a dozen of them were for 50 games, but Rodriguez’s was for 211 games — the balance of the 2013 season and all of ’14.

Rodriguez immediately appealed and played the remainder of the season, a surreal spectacle; while he may have been unpopular, so was Selig, and so his play under appeal offered a desperado-like attraction. He and his legal representatives fought the allegations to the point of filing lawsuits against Selig and the Major League Baseball Players Association for allegedly conspiring to force him from the game, and against Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmed and New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center for allegedly misdiagnosing his left hip injury in October 2012. In January, arbitrator Fredric Horowitz reduced the suspension to 162 games, or all of the 2014 season; in a strange accounting loophole, Rodriguez still made $2.87 million in salary that year, because the arbitrator ruled that he would be docked 162 days of pay over the 183-day season. During the appeal, details of Rodriguez’s regimen — which included transdermal creams, oral lozenges, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), human growth hormone, and human chorionic gonadotropin, as well as the revelation that Rodriguez passed 11 drug tests from 2010-12 while using — became public. Though Rodriguez vowed to fight the 162-game suspension in federal court, in early February he withdrew his lawsuits. Hal Steinbrenner, by this time the Yankees’ managing general partner, said that Rodriguez was “obviously an asset” when healthy but would not comment on his potential return.

Remarkably, Rodriguez made a surprisingly productive return in 2015, notable not only for his performance (.250/.356/.486, 129 OPS+) but for his public rehabilitation. Transitioning to a role as a full-time designated hitter at age 39, he clubbed a team-high 33 homers (his most since 2008), played in 151 games (his most since 2007), and surpassed Mays on the all-time home run list on May 7, with a homer off the Orioles’ Chris Tillman. On June 19, he collected his 3,000th hit via a home run off the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, which placed him in the company of Jeter and Wade Boggs as the only players to collect no. 3,000 via a homer.

Players with 500 Home Runs and 3,000 Hits
Player 500th HR Total HR 3000th Hit Total Hits
Hank Aaron 7/14/68 755 5/17/70 3771
Willie Mays 9/13/65 660 7/18/70 3283
Eddie Murray 9/6/96 504 6/30/95 3255
Rafael Palmeiro 5/11/03 569 7/15/05 3020
Alex Rodriguez 8/4/07 696 6/19/15 3115
Albert Pujols 4/22/14 681 5/4/18 3308
Miguel Cabrera 8/22/21 502 4/23/22 3002

As he worked his way back into the good graces of the team and its fans, Rodriguez summoned heretofore-unseen reserves of remorse, humility, candor and self-deprecating humor, shedding the awkwardness that had surrounded his public persona for most of his career. Having compiled superhuman numbers, he was suddenly humanized.

The on-field productivity did not carry over into 2016, however. Needing 13 homers to reach 700, and 27 to tie Ruth, Rodriguez hit just .200/.247/.351 with nine homers in 65 games while being hampered by oblique and hamstring woes. In early August, he agreed to retire and accept a position as a special advisor and instructor through the remainder of the 2017 season, the final year of his 10-year deal. Under the terms of the arrangement, he would receive the $27 million remaining on the contract. He played his final game on August 12, doubling off the Rays’ Chris Archer for his final hit.

“A lot of people are going to focus on the numbers,” Rodriguez said at his retirement press conference, which included laudatory words from Hal Steinbrenner (in a statement), Cashman and Girardi, and he in turn spoke of his commitment to the organization and his desire to mentor the next generation of Yankees. “What I’m really happy about are the relationships I’ve been able to mend,” he added, citing the commissioner’s office and the Yankees front office as well as the fans. It was an ending few could have anticipated given all that preceded it.

Even while falling short of 700 home runs, Rodriguez retired while ranked fourth all-time. He was still fourth at this time last year, but Pujols’ remarkable 24-homer season at age 42 pushed his total to 703, knocking Rodriguez down to fifth, a spot he appears likely to occupy for awhile. Thanks to his debut at age 18 and his finish at age 41, he placed himself high on several other leaderboards: fourth with 2,086 RBI, fifth with 2,287 strikeouts, seventh with 5,813 total bases, eighth with 2,021 runs scored, 16th with 12,207 plate appearances, and 22nd with 3,115 hits. Among players with at least 7,000 PA, his .550 slugging percentage ranks 21st, and his 140 OPS+ in a virtual tie for 48th with Gary Sheffield and Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett, Vladimir Guerrero, Duke Snider, and Freddie Freeman; among that group, only Sheffield is within 2,500 PA of Rodriguez’s total.

In terms of advanced statistics, Rodriguez ranks 19th in batting runs, the hitting component of bWAR, with a total of 640. He’s another 56 runs above average via his baserunning, 23 above average via his defense, and five below average via double play avoidance. His 117.6 WAR ranks 12th all-time, and second among shortstops behind only Honus Wagner (130.8); he’s classified as a shortstop not because he played more games there than third base (which he did, 1,272 to 1,194) but because he accumulated more value there; he was worth 63.6 WAR from 1994-2003, 54.0 thereafter, with 293 games as a DH during that latter stretch. Rodriguez is a much closer second to Wagner in peak WAR, 64.3 to 65.3. His 90.9 JAWS is second to Wagner’s 98.0, and well ahead of the third-ranked Ripken’s 76.1.

By the numbers, Rodriguez is eminently qualified for the Hall of Fame, but one’s decision on whether or not to vote for him has far less to do with numbers than it does one’s views about PEDs, and where one draws the line. For some voters, any allegation — or even a rumor, accompanied by the eye test — is enough to rule out a candidate; this is often accompanied by hysterically chanting, “Cheater! Cheater! Pumpkin eater!” or an equivalent sentiment and, probably, mailing in a blank ballot, as six voters did in 2022 and 14 in ’21. At the other end of the spectrum are voters who refuse to play the part of morality police. Quite reasonably, they’re unwilling to invoke a character clause that was introduced by one commissioner (Kenesaw Mountain Landis) who spent his 24-year tenure upholding the game’s color line, a clause that clearly was not applied by 2017 Today’s Game Era Committee voters with regards to another commissioner (Selig) who was elected despite his involvement in the game’s mid-1980s collusion scandal and his presiding over the worst of the PED mess.

In between those two extremes, there’s still room for multiple nuanced stances. Some voters are willing to overlook infractions that took place in the “Wild West” era before MLB introduced its policy of testing and suspensions in 2004. My own assertion that the usage from that period took place against the backdrop of a complete institutional failure involving the commissioner, the owners, the Players Association and even journalists is one that gets cited by multiple voters annually, and it’s the line I have adhered to in justifying my voting for Bonds, Clemens, Sheffield, and Sosa while withholding my support from Ramirez. Some voters draw an additional distinction, noting that based upon the reports that pinpoint when they began using, Bonds and Clemens had already assembled resumés that could have gotten them into Cooperstown; that separator doesn’t apply to Sosa, nor does it apply to Rodriguez, who had only played five full seasons plus parts of two others before arriving in Texas. Other voters are willing to elevate Bonds and Clemens for being essential to telling the story of baseball in this era, which is what the Hall purports to do — a rationale that could apply to Rodriguez as well.

But even while overlooking the pre-2004 stuff, to date the vast majority of voters has been unable to overlook actual suspensions, whether as a matter of firm principle or simply for the sake of ballot management when dealing with a crowded slate of candidates. Palmeiro, the first star suspended for a positive test, spent only four years on the ballot, topping out at 12.6% and slipping to 4.4% and thus off the ballot just two years later. Miguel Tejada, who was suspended twice, received just 1.2% in 2019, ruling him out from further consideration by the writers. Ramirez, also suspended twice, has maxed out at 28.9% through six years of eligibility.

Rodriguez, with that full year suspension plus a confession of earlier usage, was nearly certain to encounter similar resistance from a majority of voters as well, particularly on a ballot where dissenters could additionally do their part to ensure Bonds and Clemens fell off the ballot. That he received 34.4% — as noted, just a bit lower than the Gruesome Twosome’s debut in 2013 — was hardly a surprise, but the way he did it was interesting. Where Bonds received 69.8% of the 321 ballots published in the tracker (310 public, plus another 11 anonymous), he got just 49.3% from those unpublished, a pattern consistent with his previous showings. Clemens followed a similar pattern, with 68.5% on the published ballots, 50.7% on the unpublished. Rodriguez, however, got just 32.4% on the published ballots but 42.5% on the unpublished ones, making him the rare PED-linked candidate with a positive private-public differential.

I’m not sure what to make of that; we’ve seen high differentials — 19.5% last year, 24.1% the year before — for Omar Vizquel since allegations of domestic violence and sexual harassment surfaced two years ago. Ramirez had a 9.6% differential (21.3% public, 30.9% private) in 2019, but that proved fleeting. Fred McGriff, as uncontroversial as they come, had a 14.5% differential in 2017, which also proved fleeting. Maybe A-Rod’s differential is a fluke that won’t be replicated, or maybe the private voters, who tend to be older and more conservative with their votes than the published ballots, are among those who view him as an essential part of baseball history or are willing to apply their own mental discounts to his numbers. Would a shortstop with 500 homers and 2,500 hits instead of nearly 700 of the former and over 3,000 of the latter still be worthy of election? With 80 WAR instead of nearly 120? Yes, quite probably.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you know that I’m in the camp of distinguishing between pre-testing allegations and testing era penalties. As tempted as I sometimes am to stick my thumb in the eye of the whole notion of penalizing a candidate whose mere presence on the ballot indicates that he’s in good standing as far as MLB is concerned — and Rodriguez is, as his roles as a broadcast analyst underscore — I maintained my previous stance last year, voting for Bonds et al but not Rodriguez, and I anticipate doing the same this year. I strongly suspect I’ll have eight more chances to revisit that stance.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago

All time great…who would have made it first ballot if he’d stopped fucking cheating after the reveal in 2009.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago

(One of my favorite players ever, too).

1 year ago

Dude probably cheated from age 15 to 38ish

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  miltonfriedman

And if he’d stopped cheating at 34, he’d have gotten like 90% on the first ballot, haha.

1 year ago

I had a lengthy rebuttal prepared to the notion he would have gotten 90%, but your “haha” was so intellectually devastating that I was ashamed to refute you. Well done!

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  pepper69fun

David Ortiz was way worse, had the same level of pre-BioGenesis wrongdoing, and skated in on the first ballot.