The Historical Significance Of A Potential A-Rod Resurgence

The Hunt for Alex Rodriguez began early in spring training, and the feel one got from most of the reporting was almost akin to that of a death watch. Expectations were, to put it mildly, quite low, and the potential for theater was very high; the perfect combination for a media firestorm. Well, something very interesting has happened on Rodriguez’ way to the boneyard; he has looked quite useful, maybe even well above average in the season’s early going. There’s a long way to go, with many chapters yet to be written, but exactly how unusual and historically significant might a full-blown A-Rod Renaissance be?

In all of the uproar surrounding Rodriguez in the past decade-plus, from his departure from Seattle to Texas for the game’s first true mega-contract, to his trade to the Bronx and his subsequent opt-out, to the recent steroid frenzy, we tend to forget how truly great a baseball player he was in his prime. If you were to pile every player taken in every major league draft into one crop, and had one big selection party, chances are pretty good that Rodriguez would be the very first name called.

He absolutely had it all, and already had it as a 17-year-old high school senior at Miami’s Westminster Christian. There have been many top-of-the-draft high schoolers that you could easily project into major league stardom, but this guy didn’t much projection. Each year, going back to 1993, I have compiled my own minor league position player prospect rankings, based on production relative to league and level, adjusted for age. A-Rod topped my list in both of his minor league seasons, the only prospect ever to do so.

He batted .318-.384-.587 in his minor league career, which wrapped up at the ripe old age of 19. No projection needed; he was the entire package, exploding onto the major league scene with a .358-.414-.631 season at age 20. All of this while playing the game’s most demanding position. His period of dominance extended throughout his tenure with the Mariners, Rangers, and into the beginning of his stint with the Yankees. There was a position change along the way, a move to third base to accommodate Derek Jeter.

Oh, and there’s this small matter of performance-enhancing drugs hovering over his career. No one knows exactly when he began using them, and how much they affected his performance, but this topic, for many, has called into question the relevance of anything he has accomplished on a baseball field, which I would submit simply is not fair. By any measure he was a truly historic player, notwithstanding the steroid issue. In fact, his current performance is calling into question whether I should have used the present rather than past tense in the immediately preceding sentence.

A-Rod accumulated exactly 181 plate appearances in the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined, but despite that relative inactivity, is off to a powerful start in 2015. Now, half of a good April does not a season make, but this might be a good time to take stock and see how unique such a comeback might be in the game’s annals. How many of the game’s all-time greats have been enable to endure a two-year near total absence from the game and return to star level?

Below is a rather large and admittedly busy table that lists the 50 major league hitters with the largest number of career combined standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG. While I understand that summing standard deviations is far from statistically pure, I have found this to be a very sound way to compare the very best major league hitters. It not only does a good job of comparing these players’ overall offensive contributions, it also separates the on-base and slugging components of individual superstars’ games. Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs, to name two, piled up their offensive value in a much different manner than, say, Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell:

1 Bonds 21 86-07 54.26 48.93 103.19
2 T.Williams 17 39-60 51.31 49.95 101.26
3 Ruth 17 18-34 43.07 55.36 98.42
4 Cobb 22 06-28 47.02 46.03 93.05
5 Musial 21 42-63 38.29 38.61 76.89
6 Hornsby 15 16-31 35.10 38.60 73.70
7 Speaker 19 09-27 36.08 32.77 68.85
8 Mantle 17 51-68 34.55 33.27 67.82
9 Aaron 22 54-75 23.75 40.91 64.67
10 Ott 18 28-45 31.91 31.86 63.77
11 F.Robinson 19 56-74 30.40 33.17 63.57
12 Mays 19 51-71 25.85 35.19 61.03
13 M.Ramirez 16 94-09 28.25 31.77 60.02
14 Gehrig 14 25-38 26.75 32.30 59.05
15 Foxx 14 28-41 24.56 32.13 56.69
16 Thome 16 94-10 26.08 27.67 53.75
17 H.Wagner 16 01-16 22.93 30.72 53.66
18 Pujols 14 01-14 23.54 28.62 52.17
19 F.Thomas 14 91-07 27.60 23.78 51.38
20 Schmidt 16 73-88 20.59 29.97 50.57
21 Yastrzemski 23 61-83 30.16 19.97 50.13
22 A.Rodriguez 17 96-12 20.55 28.94 49.49
23 E.Collins 19 08-26 32.90 15.08 47.98
24 G.Brett 20 74-93 20.35 25.32 45.67
25 Kaline 21 54-74 23.13 22.30 45.43
26 C.Jones 18 95-12 26.04 19.06 45.11
27 D.Ortiz 16 98-14 18.17 26.19 44.36
28 S.Crawford 16 01-16 15.18 28.78 43.97
29 E.Martinez 14 90-04 27.56 15.72 43.29
30 Killebrew 16 59-75 19.13 24.01 43.14
31 Mize 12 36-51 16.22 26.66 42.88
32 Lajoie 15 01-16 19.01 23.57 42.57
33 L.Walker 14 90-05 19.89 22.35 42.24
34 Helton 15 98-13 25.97 15.92 41.88
35 M.Cabrera 12 03-14 19.34 22.32 41.66
36 Bagwell 14 91-04 22.83 18.72 41.55
37 R.Henderson 23 79-01 39.09 1.36 40.45
38 McCovey 16 61-79 17.51 22.73 40.24
39 Boggs 18 82-99 34.71 5.01 39.73
40 McGwire 12 87-01 14.00 24.82 38.81
41 Sheffield 17 90-08 20.85 17.55 38.40
42 Heilmann 15 16-30 16.89 21.24 38.14
43 R.Jackson 20 68-87 12.22 25.78 38.01
44 Stargell 15 64-79 11.21 26.73 37.94
45 Carew 18 67-85 29.82 7.10 36.91
46 McGriff 16 87-02 16.81 20.05 36.85
47 Griffey 19 89-09 11.39 25.16 36.54
48 Berkman 12 00-11 20.28 15.99 36.27
49 D.Allen 11 64-75 14.79 21.36 36.16
50 J.Jackson 9 11-20 16.39 19.65 36.04

For each player, in addition to the cumulative OBP and SLG data, their number of qualifying seasons and the time span covering them is listed. A qualifying season is a year in which they ranked among the top (# of teams * 8, or 9 for a DH league) plate appearance accumulators in their league.

26 of the 50 players listed above had an uninterrupted run of qualifying seasons from the beginning to the end of their career; no catastrophic injuries, they came, they dominated, they declined, they left. Let’s briefly talk about 23 of the other 24; the ones not named Alex Rodriguez, and examine the reasons for their career interruptions:

– Barry Bonds – Was injured and limited to 52 PA in his age 40 season. Came back to post two more very productive seasons as a regular.

– Ted Williams – Gave 5 prime years of his career to his country in World War II and the Korean Conflict.

– Ty Cobb – Was injured and limited to 273 PA in his age 39 season. Then had two more reasonably productive seasons as a regular.

– Stan Musial – One year of war service in World War II.

– Rogers Hornsby – Limited to 120 PA by injury in his age 34 season. Had one more productive season as a regular afterward.

– Mickey Mantle – Limited to 213 extremely productive PA by injury in his age 31 season. Still really good, but never quite the same guy in five subsequent qualifying seasons.

– Willie Mays – Two years of war service at age 21-22.

– Jim Thome – Limited to 242 PA by injury in his age 34 season. Then had five more reasonably productive seasons as a regular, all as a DH, with a declining workload.

– Frank Thomas – Had three injury-shortened years at ages 33, 36 and 37, accumulating 79, 311 and 124 plate appearances, respectively. Had two more productive seasons as a regular DH after his last major injury.

– David Ortiz – Spent his age 23 season in the minors after making his debut as a MLB regular the prior season.

– Edgar Martinez – Limited to 165 PA by injury in his age 30 season. Then resumed being Edgar Martinez for the next 11 seasons.

– Harmon Killebrew – Limited to 290 PA by injury in his age 37 season. Had two more years as a regular immediately afterward, but was a shell of his former self.

– Johnny Mize – Three years of war service at ages 30-32, limited to 305 PA by injury in his age 37 season. Had one relatively poor season as a regular afterward.

– Nap Lajoie – Limited to 271 plate appearances by injury at age 30. Then resumed being Nap Lajoie for the next eight of his 11 remaining qualifying seasons.

– Larry Walker – Limited to 304 PA at age 29, and 316 PA at age 37 by injury. Had one reasonably productive season as a regular afterward.

– Todd Helton – Limited to 283 PA by injury in his age 38 season. Had one relatively poor season as a regular afterward.

– Willie McCovey – Had three injury-shortened years at ages 24, 34 and 38, accumulating 262, 304 and 231 plate appearances, respectively. Had little left afterward, accumulating three more years a regular, with even nominal production in only the first one.

– Mark McGwire – Had three injury-shortened years at ages 29, 30 and 36, accumulating 197, 172 and 321 plate appearances, respectively. Had only one poor season as a regular remaining afterward.

– Gary Sheffield – Limited to 203 PA at age 22 and 274 PA at age 26 by injury. Then resumed being Gary Sheffield through age 37 before tailing off his final two seasons.

– Willie Stargell – Limited to 222 PA by injury at age 37. Then finished up with two strong seasons as a light-duty regular.

– Rod Carew – Limited to 204 PA by injury at age 24. Then resumed being Rod Carew through age 37, before fading his final two seasons.

– Ken Griffey, Jr. – Limited to 232 PA at age 32 and 201 PA at age 33 by injury. Remained a regular through age 39, but was never really Junior again.

– Dick Allen – Limited to 273 PA at age 31. Had two more seasons as a regular, but only the first was vintage Dick Allen.

– Joe Jackson – Worked in a shipyard to support the war effort in his age 30 season, coming to the plate only 78 times. Had two more exceptional seasons as a regular before his he was banished for his role in the Black Sox scandal.

So what’s the point of this entire exercise? Well, in the crowd that A-Rod runs in, the 50 most productive hitters of all time, regardless of position, none of them ever missed as much time as he did at his advanced age and came back to again be productive.

The closest comp? Perhaps Frank Thomas. He was limited to 435 PA in his age 36-37 seasons combined, and then came back to post 140 and 125 OPS+ marks as a regular DH in his age 38-39 seasons. Even then, A-Rod was a year older in his two year inactivity period, during which he came to the plate 254 fewer times. While Rodriguez will primarily be a DH this season, he will, and already has been called upon to play in the field from time to time.

Then there’s that matter of his full-year absence in 2014. He wasn’t allowed to be around the team in any capacity, while an injured player like Thomas and many others on the list are consistently under the care of team doctors, and their baseball-related actions are closely monitored. Last year, Rodriguez was 38, essentially in exile, physically broken down; a player whom the Yankees really didn’t want around for the future for many reasons, including his exorbitant salary. For a player in that situation to come back and actually be productive and wanted so soon afterward is quite remarkable.

The words “Alex Rodriguez” and “steroids” will forever be linked, for better or for worse. Ironically, however, if there is one player in major league baseball we can assume to be 100% clean this year, it’s A-Rod. Unless there’s a full-on HGH epidemic in the sport, the numbers this guy puts up at age 39 in 2015 should be seen as untainted.

There’s another irony at work here, as well. Steroids actually may have hindered, rather than helped Rodriguez’ career. While we will never know the specifics, the what’s, the when’s, the why’s, of his usage, we do have the historical record. Rodriguez became much less durable beginning in his age 32 season, and the speed/athleticism component of his game was basically absent by age 34. By 2010, he looked like any aging power hitter, and it spiraled downhill from there. The Mayses, the Aarons, and many other inner-circle greats kept their core skill package together until a more advanced age.

If 2012, his age 36 season, turned out to be his last season as a regular, the productive phase of his career would have ended earlier than just about any of his relatively modern contemporaries on the above list. In the last 40 years, the only players listed whose last season as a regular occurred at age 36 or earlier were Lance Berkman (35) and Jeff Bagwell (36). I feel very comfortable in saying that any power gain realized by Rodriguez’ use of performance enhancers was at least significantly mitigated by the shortening of the productive phase of his career. Players as good as A-Rod don’t peter out naturally by age 36.

Who knows where his great April might lead? He could hit a physical wall tomorrow, or he could hit 40 bombs. With Rodriguez, as with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the other inner-circle greats who would have been great with or without performance enhancers, I tend to choose to focus on the positive. This is a player whose talent we will tell our grandchildren about, who warts and all, we were fortunate to watch play.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 years ago

On the present v. past tense issue in the fifth paragraph, you might want to think about adjusting the second sentence as well. It’s just impossible to give this guy any benefit of the doubt. We have no idea if steroids are now affecting his performance. Arod has gotten a lot of shit over the years. Lots of it deserved and lots of it not. But I think it would be fair to make the guy piss in a cup every damn day until the end of his career.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

You’re kidding, right? I’m pretty sure Bud Selig retired specifically so that he could take a full-time job collecting and testing every drop of Rodriguez’s urine. Given how closely he’s being watched, I’m more confident he isn’t using than I am about basically any other player in the game.

9 years ago
Reply to  Catoblepas

Well as the old saying goes: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times, when the fuck are you going to stop fooling me?”

We know that guys beat the testing in a variety of ways. Arod has still never tested positive, but it’s hard to believe the whole Miami scandal was the only time we was using, and even that went on for a long period of time, again, with no positive tests.

Some Dude
9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

He did test positive in 2003 during the anonymous testing period.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Okay, he hasn’t tested positive sense he knew that testing positive would actually mean something.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

From what I have read, and it could be wrong, the testing in 2003 wasn’t as much of a test for steroids as it was for “something” abnormal. So they could have found something that wasn’t a steroid.

But even if he were caught using steroids in the 2003 testing, he was never caught testing positive for anything after, meaning that even if he did get caught in 2003 with steroids, he has since then figured out how not to get caught. He was suspended last year, but not for a positive test. So theoretically speaking, there’s a chance he never stopped juicing.

It wouldn’t be surprising to me if he is still juicing, which i think he is.

Some Dude
9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Unlike David Ortiz, we actually know specifically that he tested positive for two anabolic steroids, testosterone, and Primobolan.

Bread N Mustard
9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

The guy even admitted using PEDs and there is people still bringing up that he never tested positive. Baseball fans have got to be the most delusional.

Some Dude
9 years ago
Reply to  Catoblepas

Uh, no. The only time he was caught doping was in 2003, during the anonymous testing period. He was obviously using stuff from Biogenesis for years and never got caught. He could easily find the next wave of stuff that can’t be found in testing if he wanted to, and he had a year he wasn’t getting tested he could’ve been using and then got it out of his system. it’s childish to think he wouldn’t be using if he wanted to. He arguably needs it now more than ever.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

It is silly to vilify a player like this. To presume that MLB is not full of “cheaters” is silly as well. You are in good company though, there are many like you that consume way too much sports media. He is one of the all-time greats, like it or not. He didn’t need PEDs for a hall of fame career. They simply helped him to throw his name in the hat for one of the best of all time. Many of the all-time great did as well. I am sure that some of them just didn’t get caught.. which is A-Rods real crime.

He played in an era where the commissioner was on a witch-hunt. The government was even involved!? I can’t imagine what previous generations would have looked like if they had a commissioner like Selig.

9 years ago
Reply to  Vince

I’m glad that Vince is here to set things straight. I thought Arod was a lying, cheating, arrogant jerk. But I guess that’s just because I consume way to much sports media. In reality, as Vince knows, Arod is just a hapless victim of circumstance. He’s an honest, charitable, kindhearted good Christian man who only sleeps with his wife in the missionary position. Consuming too much sports media has just warped my (and all the other plebes) simple mind.

However, I didn’t vilify him. I don’t think the stance that a habitual cheater should get tested all the time is close to vilifying him. You are right that on the field Arod is one of the best of all time. But you have no idea how much of that was only because of steroids. Jose Canseco (who is laughably one of the most credible people in the steroid era) claimed Arod juiced all the way back to high school. It’s improbable that he would not have at least been very good without steroids, but honestly nobody knows.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

It’s hard for me to read your first paragraph, and not think you’re prone to over-reaction.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

the over-reaction was sarcasm. it shocks me that people plus arod’s only crime being getting caught. yep, he did nothing wrong.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

in other words, Vince executed an incredibly effective strawman. well done!

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Canseco lost his credibility when he claimed to run a three second flat 40 yard dash. No matter how many steroids you take, that is impossible.

Bread N Mustard
9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

It doesn’t matter whether ARod would’ve been good without PEDs or not. He chose to dishonor the game and his name and therefore deserves no credit for his accomplishments.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

I think maybe the point is that the MLB Commissioner should not be an relenting quest to turn some of the game’s greatest starts into villains and literally – criminals.

Selig did a lot of damage that will probably never be repaired.

9 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

this is a huge problem with the stat community. believing in stats and reason doesn’t mean you have to ignore reality if it is mainstream. down vote all you want, the idea that you have to praise Arod in any way just because Selig and old school people hate him (way to hit the buzz words) is ridiculous. otherwise, please someone point out one incorrect point in my post.