Yesterday, David Ortiz hit two homers. That’s a good day for anyone, and especially for someone 39 years old. I’m 39, too, and I’m writing this article and also my hip hurts, so advantage Ortiz! But! Two days ago Ortiz was preemptively one-upped by Alex Rodriguez. Saturday, Rodriguez hit three homers while he continued his 39-year-plus-long streak of being almost four months older than Ortiz. Rodriguez’s three homers were more impressive than Ortiz’s two in both the binary way that three is better than two, and in the way that, to date, this is just more of the same from a guy who spent the better part of last season at the beach because baseball didn’t allow him to play. Then there was the whole thing about whether or not the Yankees would even let him play for them again. As it turns out they’re quite the magnanimous bunch, and Rodriguez got to attend spring training and everything. Had George Steinbrenner been alive, Rodriguez would have been traded to the Marlins for Mat Latos’s cat, Cat Latos, and yes, this whole article is an excuse to mention Cat Latos.
But Steinbrenner is as dead as Napoleon so Rodriguez returned to the Yankees unmolested and has somewhat bizarrely arrested his career slide and reverted to his late-aughts MVP-candidate self. As I write this, Rodriguez has an wRC+ of 151, a mark he last bested in 2008, when he finished with a 152 wRC+. This is late peak-era A-Rod so far this season minus the defense of course. At this rate, it won’t be too difficult for him to finish with a higher wOBA than he’s reached in any season since 2009, more homers than he’s hit since 2008, and a higher wRC+ than any season since 2007.
Rodriguez has missed considerable time over the last few seasons, so nothing over the remaining 65 games is assured, especially so when you consider he hasn’t played 150 games in a season since 2007. So extrapolating his season numbers is perhaps a foolish (though fun) exercise. The prudent thing to do is to not look a gift centaur in the mouth (or in any other orifice) and take what he’s given us so far this season. In that sense, I want to look back at his three-homer day on Saturday to see what it can tell us about the hitter Alex Rodriguez is right now.
Home Run 1
88 mph Four-seam fastball
If there’s one thing we know about Rodriguez based on his season to date it’s that he can hit a 88 mph fastball. We know that because reasons, but we really don’t even need to into those beyond the numbers listed above. Put simply, anyone with a wRC+ nearly twice the speed on the fastball likely won’t have a problem with that specific pitch. As often as not, though, it’s the location that is the killer, and that’s what makes this first home run so interesting. Tommy Milone starts Rodriguez out with a low changeup. Rodriguez lets it go for a ball, then takes a fastball inside for a ball. At this point Milone, up 5-0 in the fourth inning, decides not to mess around with offspeed stuff, and throws Rodriguez another fastball. Milone has never had the velocity to get it past someone without locating the pitch, as well, so the fact that this one was on the inside corner at the knees boded well for him. From a location perspective it was actually a pretty good pitch, right at the bottom corner of the zone. Here’s where MLB Gameday put the pitch’s location:
That’s a pitcher’s pitch in the sense that it was a strike and yet gobbling up the black on the plate like Pac-Man. That’s supposed to be a pitch that gets the announcers talking about what a great pitch it was. Except announcers are prone to talking about what’s in front of their face and since Rodriguez hit the heck out of it that’s what they talked about. That ball traveled an estimated 450 feet, the second-farthest homer he’s hit this season behind a 453-foot shot off Kevin Gausman of the Orioles. Off the bat the ball was traveling 110 mph. The fastest a ball has traveled off Rodriguez’s bat this season is 112 mph, so 110 is about as well as Rodriguez is capable of hitting one. It’s also not incredibly far off from Giancarlo Stanton’s league leading 120 mph. None of those figures is particularly relevant other than how they place Rodriguez towards the top in those categories. We don’t know much about what that means in regards to future production, but the numbers themselves are neat.
Home Run 2
87 mph Four-seam fastball
Unlike the first homer, here Milone missed his spot with the pitch. The fastball is supposed to be low and outside, to either induce a swing and miss or, more likely after two straight changeups, to mess with Rodriguez’s timing and eye level. Instead, the pitch caught the outside corner just below the belt and Rodriguez hit it 420 feet into the bullpens.
The significance here is the location of both the pitch and the home run. The first pitch was low and inside and ended up in deep left center. This one was up by the belt and outside and ended up in about the same location if a bit more towards center. The lesson here is an 88 mph fastball is not going to fool Alex Rodriguez, regardless of where you put it in the zone. He’s not going to hit every one he sees 430 feet, but with every one he sees that’s a possibility — which is something for a 39-year-old.
Home Run 3
94 mph Four-seam fastball
The big difference here, aside from the game situation, was the velocity of the pitch. Milone’s fastballs were in the mid-to-high 80s. Glen Perkins threw Rodriguez a 94 mph fastball inside at the knees. The pitch location is very similar to where Milone’s first mistake crossed the plate, and now you’re thinking “so I guess Rodriguez crushes all his homers low and inside.” That’s, to me, perhaps the most interesting thing about Rodriguez’s season to date: he’s actuall hitting everything everywhere for power. His home runs have come on four-seam fastballs, sinkers, changeups, sliders, curveballs, and split fingers. He’s hit homers on pitches down-and-in and up-and-away, on pitches inside and pitches outside, on pitches down-and-in and on pitches up-and-away. He’s homered off left-handers and off right-handers. In short, he’s doing what you do if you’re very good at what you do.
Regardless of what you think of Alex Rodriguez the person or of what you believe about his usage of performance-enhancing drugs, it must be acknowledged that Rodriguez is one of the most talented hitters to play the game in the last 50 years. It’s maybe not so surprising, then, that at 39, an age where some of us have a hard time jogging a few miles without some random part of the body shouting “Hey, will you sit down and eat a Ding-Dong or something? SHEESH!”, Rodriguez is putting on a power show reminiscent of, if not his best days, then the days just next to those.
Like Ortiz, though, and indeed like all of us, Rodriguez’s time is increasingly limited. Days like Saturday are a reminder though of what the man still is as much as what he once was. And like Rodriguez himself, that’s pretty good.