July 28, 2016
The Superstar as Washed-Up Hack
Alex Rodriguez celebrated his 41st birthday yesterday by sitting on the Yankees’ bench for the fifth consecutive game.
Last year, in his age-39 season and after missing the entire previous campaign while suspended, the three-time MVP hit .250/.356/.486 with his highest TAv (.292) since 2009, most homers (33) since 2008, and most walks (84) since 2007. This year, in his age-40 season, he’s been a mess. Rodriguez has hit .206/.256/.364 in 58 games, failing to top a .260 TAv (he's at .220) for the first time since he was a 19-year-old midseason Mariners call-up in 1995. He’s batted below .200 in three out of four months, with his “big” month being a .629 OPS in June.
Rodriguez’s strikeout rate is a career-high 26 percent and his walk rate, which was 14 percent in 2015 and at least 10 percent every season from 2000-2015, is a career-low 6 percent. His batting average on balls in play is a career-low .238, nearly 40 points below his second-worst mark. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 25 percent from 2007-2015. His swinging strike rate is a career-high 13 percent. His isolated power is a career-low .158. Even his Win Probability Added is negative for the first time. Rodriguez is shedding hitting ability.
Things have gotten so bad that general manager Brian Cashman, who has stuck with and been stuck with Rodriguez through assorted on- and off-field problems over the years, is being asked on a daily basis if the Yankees will release the 14-time All-Star. Cashman has perfected a reply, which usually involves saying some version of “that’s not being considered right now” while also noting “it’s always something that can be discussed down the line.” You may recognize that line of reasoning from things such as “we can always leave the party if you’re having a bad time.”
What’s keeping the Yankees from leaving the party and releasing Rodriguez is the same thing that’s kept them from doing so before: Money. He’s making $21 million this season and is owed another $21 million next year. Plenty of big-name, big-money players fall into sunk-cost territory late in long-term contracts, but Rodriguez is the biggest name and the biggest money. Plus, the Yankees didn’t release him in 2014, when he was coming off a mediocre, injury-wrecked season and suspended for 162 games. And then they got a productive 2015 from Rodriguez.
Expecting a similar bounce back in 2017 is beyond wishful thinking at this point. Last year was the death rattle of a formerly amazing player, as Rodriguez maintained decent offensive value despite being a shell of his old self. This season is more like the Yankees lugging his decaying bat around, “Weekend At Bernie’s”-style. And the way Cashman has been talking, there might even be a sequel next year in which Rodriguez goes from being an awful starting designated hitter to being an awful part-time designated hitter.
Here are the lowest OPS+ totals by players with at least 50 starts at DH since 2000:
Woof. Vidro and Everett never played again. White and Hart were even worse the next year and then never played again. Hafner bounced back enough to have a few more productive years, but was constantly injured and relegated to part-time work. Dunn is the success story of the group by default because he went on to have three reasonably productive full-time years, but certainly no one would describe his post-2011 career as good and he retired at 34. This is the washed-up DH company Rodriguez is now keeping.
There’s also no precedent for anyone being as bad as Rodriguez at age 40 and coming back to be anything but bad at age 41. Here are the lowest OPS+ totals by 40-year-olds since 1950:
That list is full of once-great players, but six of the nine before Rodriguez never played again and a seventh, Gaetti, retired after 10 hitless at-bats the next season. Finley played two more years, hitting .235/.307/.367. Vizquel played five more years, but he hit just .252/.305/.307 and obviously wasn’t around for his bat anyway. Vizquel and most of those 40-year-olds stuck around that long at least in part because they still had perceived defensive value or at the very least still played a key position. Rodriguez has yet to play an inning in the field this season.
Time is the great equalizer. It can make Alex Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel hitting equals at the same age following careers in which one had 700 homers with a .930 OPS and the other had 80 homers with a .690 OPS. And unfortunately for Rodriguez and the Yankees, the past 70 years of baseball history show that once a hitter is as old as he is and falls as far as he has there’s really no getting back up. Rodriguez is a $21 million sunk cost relegated to part-time DH duties at the end of an inner-circle Hall of Fame career and my guess is Cashman will admit it before 2017.