This Might Be the End for Alex Rodriguez

Two opposing things can be true, I believe. Superstar players are probably the last to know when they’ve come to the end of the line. Declines can be so gradual they’re tough to detect if you’re just taking things day by day. If you listen to the players, they’ll insist they remain capable, even after they’re probably not. On the other side of the coin, no one loves to bury good players too early more than writers. We’ve all probably done it at some point. I did it way too early to Raul Ibanez. Countless people did it way too early to David Ortiz. We start looking for any signs of age-related decline, and then when one or two show up, we tend to assume that’s it. Good players know how to make adjustments. That’s what allows them to be good players.

So with Alex Rodriguez, right now, we’re…somewhere. Rodriguez says he’ll be okay, and he says he loves to prove doubters wrong. Not that Alex Rodriguez has much of a history of being doubted, but, anyway. Rodriguez has his pride, and he also has terrible numbers. He’s 40 years old! But then, the Yankees’ best hitter is 39 years old. It would be very easy to conclude that Rodriguez is finished. The Yankees have started to put him on the bench. We should probably be more patient — this is still Alex Rodriguez we’re talking about. The talent is in there. It’s just, the numbers paint a picture, and it’s a picture of a changed and worse ballplayer. That much cannot be argued.

There’s something fascinating that’s happened here. I don’t know how fascinated you can be by Alex Rodriguez at this point, but he’s performed like a very different hitter. And I don’t just mean that he’s been worse. He’s obviously been worse, but he hasn’t gone up to the plate with his ordinary approach. Players are constantly making minor tweaks, but Rodriguez has gone from patient to aggressive almost overnight. Look at his plate-discipline numbers in the PITCHf/x era:

Alex Rodriguez Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Difference
2008 26% 65% 39%
2009 24% 62% 39%
2010 25% 65% 40%
2011 26% 64% 38%
2012 29% 65% 36%
2013 25% 61% 37%
2015 25% 67% 42%
2016 37% 62% 25%

It’s all pretty steady, until this season. He’d swing at about a quarter of would-be balls. He’d go after almost two-thirds of would-be strikes. The latter has basically held up, but now Rodriguez is chasing, such that the difference between the two rates has collapsed. With rounding, the difference has gone down 17 percentage points. With less rounding, it’s gone down 16.4 percentage points, and that’s the second-biggest drop over the last two years in baseball, behind only Michael Bourn’s 16.5. Bourn, incidentally, might also be toast. Out of the whole player pool, it’s Bourn and Rodriguez, and then a sizable gap before third place.

It’s never a good thing to swing at more balls, without swinging at more strikes. It’s odd to see from a player who’s always had good discipline. It’s not hard to figure out why Rodriguez’s walks are down, while his strikeouts are up. His approach just hasn’t been good. And using Brooks Baseball, we can see where Rodriguez has been making the most use of his swings:

rodriguez-swings

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.

There’s something else I think is related to this. This time, I’ll borrow from Baseball Savant. Here is how Rodriguez swung, from 2008 through 2015:

rodriguez-2008-2015

Similarly, here is how Rodriguez swung, in 2015 only:

rodriguez-2015

Pretty good eye, right? And a preference for pitches over the middle, or slightly away. You know what the classic Rodriguez homer swing looks like. Now look at how he’s swung this season:

rodriguez-2016

That’s not ordinary Alex Rodriguez. That’s a whole lot of swings down and in, as opposed to middle-away. This isn’t where Rodriguez has had his success, and I wonder if he might be especially preparing himself for inside heat. Pitchers would come in if they figure Rodriguez can’t catch up. Rodriguez then could cheat in to try to catch up. Again, that’s my guess. Whatever’s been going on, pitchers have mostly emerged successful. They have Rodriguez on the defensive, swinging in atypical areas, and you can count it as a victory if you get Alex Rodriguez to adjust to you, instead of the other way around.

About the cheating — it hasn’t really worked. You can tell just from Rodriguez’s overall numbers, but you can also tell when you look at what he’s done against better velocity. Against pitches at least 93 miles per hour, Rodriguez’s average batted-ball speed is down more than six miles per hour. Another way of saying that is he’s dropped from the 96th percentile to the 28th. Good contact hasn’t been there, and pulled balls in the air haven’t been there. Rodriguez against that heat in 2015:

rodriguez-2015-heat

And, the same plot, but for this season instead:

rodriguez-2016-heat

A lot of air balls being pushed. It feels like reduced bat speed. Or if it’s not bat speed, perhaps it’s bat control, where Rodriguez isn’t quite so good at squaring the pitch up. There are so many ways that age can make you worse. It’s not that Rodriguez can’t hit a good fastball, but it appears that he’s worse at hitting good fastballs, and if he’s cheating for them, that also makes him more vulnerable against other stuff. He used to get ahead in the count. Now he’s behind as often as Yasmany Tomas.

A perfectly valid question: why would this happen now, so suddenly? Last season, the man posted a 129 wRC+, which is phenomenal. Because of that, I’m not totally convinced that Rodriguez’s career as a productive bat is over. Everyone with that kind of track record deserves the benefit of the doubt. But there are admittedly limits to said benefit, and if anything, last year was the weird one, not this year. This is what I think people expected of an older Alex Rodriguez. Something like this, anyway. Most everyone is ready to bury him. The Yankees are beginning to bury him.

It’s on Rodriguez to make one last push. I honestly don’t know if he can, but that’s another way of saying I don’t know if he can’t. Rodriguez has always been gifted. Hasn’t had to face many skeptics. Everyone’s a skeptic these days, and you can understand why. This could be the end for one of the best there was. An end is the one thing every player has in common.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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“Cheating can work”

hehe