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February 23, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies

Chasing Bonds

by Nate Silver

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We're less than two full years removed from Barry Bonds' somber, strange, and soulless quest to break Henry Aaron's lifetime home-run record. It was a spectacle that most sports fans-even the few like me who were relatively sympathetic towards Bonds' plight-would go to great lengths to avoid having to experience again.

Unfortunately, it appears that history may be preparing to repeat itself. Alex Rodriguez has already hit 553 home runs, by far the most ever for a player having just completed his age-32 season. He needs only 203 more to surpass Aaron, and 210 to best Bonds. Rodriguez has hit an average of 42 home runs per season since joining the New York Yankees in 2003, and if he maintains that pace, he'll overtake Bonds' mark on the last day of the 2013 season. Being under contract with the Yankees through 2017, he seems to have plenty of time to spare.

But player-haters can rejoice: Rodriguez breaking the career home-run record is nowhere near a foregone conclusion. It boils down to that fine print that you ignored when you invested your daughter's college fund in Citibank stock a few years ago: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Rodriguez has certainly been among the best players in baseball over the past couple of years. And chemically enhanced or not, there are a number of indicators that would ordinarily be favorable toward his continuing to perform well. Among them:

  • All-around Athleticism: Rodriguez is far from a one-dimensional player. At an age when most guys refrain from challenging themselves on the basepaths, he still averages about 20 stolen bases per year. He plays a fairly difficult defensive position, and he plays it well. He's a complete hitter, able to draw walks and hit for average as well as aim for the fences. Generally speaking, multi-dimensional players age better than uni-dimensional players.

  • The Benjamin Button Principle: This is the concept that the beginning of a player's life sometimes resembles the end: guys who begin their careers with a bang tend to end it that way. Rodriguez, who by the age of 20 was already arguably the best player in baseball, started his career as did few others in history, and he has a better-than-usual chance of finishing it that way.

  • Perverse Incentives, Part I: Rodriguez stands to earn a $30 million bonus if he can break the home-run record. As he gets closer, those are 30 million reasons for him to extend his career until he does, rather than considering early retirement.

On the other hand, another set of indicators imply uncertainty in Rodriguez' future:

  • The Aging Curve: The steepest part of the aging curve-when a hitter experiences the most manifest decline in his abilities-tends to come between ages 32 and 34. Rodriguez, who turned 33 last July, is now about half-way through that period, and he hasn't come away completely unscathed: A-Rod hit 30 home runs in the first half of the 2007 season and 24 in the second half, and then 19 home runs in the first half of '08 and only 16 after the break. That could just be a fluke-or it could mean that he's already begun a fairly steep downward trajectory.

  • Injury Risk: Although Rodriguez has generally been the picture of health, that trend somewhat reversed itself in 2008 when he missed 24 games, the most in any season since 1999. Injury problems can sometimes be compounding, especially when a player reaches his mid-30s. There is also some anecdotal evidence that players who have experimented with steroids are more inclined to have chronic injury problems.

  • Perverse Incentives, Part II: Unless he was investing with Bernie Madoff, Rodriguez already has all the money that he'll need for life, and it's highly unlikely that he'll ever be on the market again. Most of us, given a guaranteed salary for the next nine years that requires us to do nothing other than show up and put on a uniform, might become somewhat lackadaisical in our work habits. Many professional athletes are different-but others aren't.

The favorable and unfavorable indicators are each reflected to some degree in Rodriguez' series of PECOTA comparables. His list includes many Hall of Famers, such as Dave Winfield, George Brett, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Tony Perez, and Hank Aaron himself, who were all elite athletes late into their 30s or early 40s.

However, it also includes some other players whose careers did not end all that gracefully. First are the guys who succumbed to injury, like Jeff Bagwell and Albert Belle. Next are a few players who, like Rodriguez, were known or suspected to have used performance-enhancing drugs: Sammy Sosa is A-Rod's top comparable, for instance, and Ken Caminiti is his fourth. Finally, there are players like Ryne Sandberg, whose skills simply atrophied sooner or more suddenly than expected.

I took Rodriguez' top 20 PECOTA comparable players and averaged their performances over each remaining season of their careers. Actually, the process is a little more complicated than that (each comparable's performance was adjusted for his park and league context, as well as his previous track record, and we had to make an accommodation for guys like Manny Ramirez, who made A-Rod's comparables list but have yet to conclude their own careers). The basic idea though, is simple: comparables like Frank Robinson, who aged well, have a favorable impact on Rodriguez' forecast, and players like Caminiti have the opposite effect.

Alex Rodriguez' PECOTA-Projected Home Run Totals:

Year     HR
2009     33
2010     30
2011     27
2012     25
2013     18
2014     16
2015     12
2016      8
2017      4
2018      3
2019      1
Total   177
Career  730

PECOTA's best guess is that Rodriguez will run out of steam after the next three or four seasons and finish with 730 lifetime home runs, leaving him just shy of the marks established by Aaron and Bonds. Of course, there is a great deal of uncertainty in this estimate: if Rodriguez follows the path charted by Aaron or Frank Robinson, he could finish with well in excess of 800 home runs (and possibly as many as 900). On the other hand, if he draws Albert Belle's ping-pong ball, he might not even top 600. Overall, the system puts Rodriguez' chances of surpassing Aaron at only about 40 percent, and of passing Bonds closer to 30 percent.

One needs to remember that the way that Aaron and Bonds finished out their careers was far from typical. At least as common are folks like Jimmie Foxx (before Rodriguez, the fastest player to 500 home runs), who hit just 34 home runs after turning 33. Only about a dozen players have hit 200 or more home runs from their age-33 seasons onward; Bonds and Aaron are the only two to have hit at least 300.

In other words, Rodriguez still has his work cut out for him if he intends to catch them. Say what you will about his past performance, but for him to make it across this finish line would still represent a remarkable accomplishment.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

Related Content:  Alex Rodriguez,  The Who,  Henry Rodriguez

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