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:
|RANK||PLAYER||# QUAL||SPAN||REL OBP||REL SLG||TOT|
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.