I cannot venture to say that Alex Rodriguez is a complicated individual any more than any other person, but I can fairly easily say that Alex Rodriguez the baseball player is full of complications. He’s an all-time great who has twice signed two of the most expensive contracts in baseball history, been suspended for PED use, and is currently being shoved out of the organization he has played for the past 13 seasons despite putting up colossal numbers and leading the team to a World Series championship during the 2009 season. This post is not meant to analyze Rodriguez’s career, celebrate his accomplishments or discuss his flaws. The question here is should Alex Rodriguez retire, and like most Rodriguez-related issues, it is complicated.
On the one hand, Rodriguez should absolutely retire. In late June, Jeff Sullivan wrote an article titled, This Might be the End for Alex Rodriguez and provided the following as support:
If I had to guess, I think the key is right here. Rodriguez has been swinging at way more fastballs. He’s also swung at more offspeed pitches, and offspeed pitches are supposed to look like fastballs. He hasn’t offered at breaking balls so much, and those have telltale spin. Rodriguez still has his eye — why wouldn’t he still have his eye? But it seems like he’s cheating for fastballs. It’s like he’s looking for them, and he’s trying to pounce on them, and he has to decide whether to swing sooner because he can’t get the barrel to the zone so fast anymore. Cheating can work, but cheating can also be exploited. It hasn’t been working for Rodriguez for three months.
Sullivan did not completely write A-Rod off, but did note that is certainly seemed as though the Yankees were doing so. Since that post six weeks ago, Rodriguez has received just 39 plate appearances, so whether he was going to have one last bounce was not really up to him. His line of .203/.251/.355 for a 58 wRC+ is objectively awful. It’s quite clear that he is no longer good, although there is the possibility that he isn’t actually this awful.
Last week, I looked at players who were underperforming and overperforming their exit velocities. Rodriguez was one of those players whose numbers were much lower than would be expected given his above average (90.8 mph) exit velocity. Rodriguez’s .240 BABIP could be an indication that he is done as a useful hitter, but some bad luck could also be sprinkled in there. One way to underperform exit velocity is to have a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate, which Rodriguez certainly does have, but if he had been allowed more plate appearances, it is possible that he might have hit much closer to his 96 wRC+ ZiPS projection.
Even that 96 wRC+ would likely make Rodriguez pretty close to a replacement level player as a designated hitter, so even then, his utility to any team would be limited. The Yankees have decided his utility is now at zero, and chosen to move on, which includes paying him the $20 million owed to him for next season. The long-standing rift between Rodriguez and the Yankees organization seemed to be put on hold of late as Rodriguez produced last season and appeared to be a solid teammate this year. However, the end is not shaping up to be pretty after Joe Girardi apparently went back on his word that he would be playing Rodriguez in his final week as a Yankees player.
If Rodriguez calls it quits, he will likely end up four home runs shy of 700 — a club that includes only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — and just 18 home runs from tying Babe Ruth for third all-time. If he can find a team willing to pay him the major league minimum, the first of those marks is within reach even if catching Ruth is a bit more unrealistic. To see if there is any hope for rebound past age-40, we could look to Ichiro Suzuki, who put up a 53 wRC+ last year in his age-41 season only to have a 112 wRC+ so far this season. For a more direct comparison with a greater number of players, I looked at the 56 players with at least 200 plate appearances in their age-40 seasons, and then narrowed things down to the players with a wRC+ of 85 or under. There were 13 such seasons, and all of them have happened since 1986.
|Jeff Conine||– – –||539||10||0.268||0.325||0.399||84||-12.7||-8.3||-0.2|
|Eddie Murray||– – –||637||22||0.266||0.327||0.417||85||-12.5||-16.2||-0.4|
|Dave Parker||– – –||541||11||0.239||0.288||0.365||79||-14.1||-14||-1.2|
There’s no getting around how bad A-Rod has been this year, but he has some decent company. A weird UZR blip meant Omar Vizquel had an average WAR instead of being a likely replacement level player. Craig Biggio was above replacement level, but not really close to average. Everybody else was pretty bad. At the end of the year, Jeter, Surhoff, Ripken, Concepcion, Parker, and McGee hung it up. McRae was able to get 37 plate appearances with the Royals before being released and Gaetti had 11 hitless plate appearances with the Red Sox. Here is how the rest fared at age-41.
|Jeff Conine||– – –||292||6||.254||.317||.383||76||-7.2||-6.4||-0.4|
|Eddie Murray||– – –||185||3||.222||.281||.317||56||-10.1||-4.9||-0.8|
Biggio hung around at age-41 so he could reach 3,000 hits, and the Astros were happy to oblige. Vizquel played four more years after this one, allowing his defensive reputation to get him playing time, but he still fell more than 100 hits short of the 3,000-hit milestone. Conine had a nice first month with the Reds before finishing the season and his career with the Mets. Finley was just shy of 2,500 hits and 300 home runs in his age-41 season and he achieved both with the Giants before getting another 102 plate appearances with the Rockies the following season.
Eddie Murray is the situation likely closest to Rodriguez. Murray was already a surefire Hall of Famer at this point (not that Rodriguez won’t have issues there), as he had surpassed 500 home runs the year before and 3,000 hits two years prior. He did have a shot to move up the home run leaderboard. With 501 home runs, Murray entered his age-41 season 15th all-time. Eleven more homers would have put him 12th all-time and a 21-homer season would have put him in the top 10. All of that meant that if he replicated his age-40 season, he and Hank Aaron would be in the only players in the top 10 in both hits and home runs. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Neither Cleveland nor Baltimore wanted him back, so he took a big paycut and signed with the Angels for $750,000 for the 1997 season, but was released and got only a handful of pinch hit opportunities with the Dodgers to finish his career.
If Alex Rodriguez can find another team to play him in 2017, it would invite many hot takes about his legacy, but most of those will fade into the background as his legacy is hardly going to be defined by another season, no matter how he plays. People remember the final poor season of Willie Mays’ career, but he still gets credit for 660 home runs and not the 654 he had before the 1973 season. History has delivered unto us plenty of great players who were awful in their final seasons. Alex Rodriguez is likely to be in that group whether he retires now or next season. If he feels 700 or 714 home runs are worthwhile pursuits, and some team is willing to oblige, he should go for it. The Yankees are paying for it anyway.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.