A Bust? A Has-Been?  A-Rod.

There are benefits to getting older.  When you turn 18 you can vote.  When you turn 21 you can drink.  When you turn 25 you can rent a car and your insurance goes down.  When you turn 35 you can run for President of the United States. 

In business, the older you get, the more experience you gain and you can further your career.  Usually you can't be promoted to CEO of a major corporation without having been around the block a time or two.  Few buck the trend and they are exception to the rule that as we get older we get wiser and are ready to handle more responsibilities.

Maybe we have these norms in part because getting old sucks physically.  You can legally drink at age 21, but by the time you're in your thirties you may not want to as often.  The hangovers are worse.  The aches and pains set in.  As you get older, you make more groans as you move and run out of energy quicker than you used to. 

So you can see where age benefits most of us, and hampers athletes.  Their physicality is their strength.  It's their skill and it's what they make a living on mostly.  It's a good thing they get paid a lot, because most of them will be out of the game and without work before their 40th birthday. 

Babe Ruth slowly and steadily declined beginning at age 35. 

Willie Mays averaged 31 HR, 100 RBI, .312/.387/.591 into his age 35 season and .272/.374/.478, 17 HR, 57 RBI in the 7 seasons after, never eclipsing 30 HR or 30 doubles or 100 RBI again.

Stan Musial last topped 20 HR at age 36. 

Injuries took a toll on Frank Thomas beginning at age 30 and though he would have 3-4 more good seasons, he missed the majority of time in the other seasons.

There are exceptions to this rule as well.  Barry Bonds, no matter how he was aided, had his best seasons after age 34. 

Whether or not Alex Rodriguez is declining at age 35 because of steroids or lack thereof is not irrelevant, but it is also not my place (or your place) to pretend like we know what affects it had on him before, now, or what it will hold for his future.  The appropriate and responsible thing to do is to look at the numbers and see what they tell us, because we have a question for the numbers.

Is Alex Rodriguez finished?

"Finished at what exactly?"  The numbers may reply. 

Well numbers, first of all, thank you for speaking to me.  I must say that I would normally be shocked that I am speaking to numbers but people in film and television rarely seem shocked when they speak to animals and inanimate objects.  So either this is normal, or the jokesters at work dropped LSD in my coffee.

Is A-Rod finished in Major League Baseball?  No.  Clearly not.  Not only does he have 174 million reasons to play out what's owed to him on the rest of his contract, but he won't decline steeply enough to consider him a replacement level major league player.  He should be able to get by on the natural talent that he has for at least a few more years.

But is he finished as a star hitter?  As an All-Star third baseman?  As a top fantasy contributer?  The numbers' reply may not please Rodriguez admirers.  (I'm assuming that these people are secret admirers, because what appeal has Rodriguez had in the public eye since he signed a $250 million contract and come off as a total jackass?)

Rodriguez currently finds himself 299 hits shy of 3000 for his career.  29 doubles short of 500.  619 career home runs and 301 career stolen bases.  For all intents and purposes he will join Willie Mays as the only two players in history to accomplish that feat.  But it may take him longer to get there than we may have earlier anticipated.  Even the idea that he will pass Barry Bonds for the career home run record seems in doubt at this point. 

Mays himself hit 118 home runs after age 35.  That would put Rodriguez at 737 career home runs, just third on the all-time list and 25 short of Bonds.  (Of course, if he hits 25 the rest of the year, and matched Mays post-35 total, he'd be there.) 

Many questioned whether or not A-Rods numbers would fall after his steroid admission and the tougher drug testing brought on by the commissioner and MLB.  We'll probably never know just how much steroids have affected Rodriguez during that time, but the decline beginning at age 31 is very real.

His OPS has dropped for the fourth consecutive season.  From 1.067 in 2007, to .838 so far this season.  His slugging percentage has dropped in each consecutive season.  His batting average has too.  His runs total, his stolen bases, his home runs.  All dropped during that time.  And frankly its happening much sooner than expected.

Willie Mays averages from age 32-34: .309/.387/.611, 46 HR, 109 RBI, 121 R, 25 2B, 12 SB

Alex's averages during those ages: .286/.378/.537, 32 HR, 109 RBI, 85 R, 26 2B, 12 SB

Put in a situation in New York, where run driving opportunities have been plentiful, A-Rod can boast the same RBI totals.  But the power difference is clear and significant.  A-Rod averaged 43 HR before that and 47 HR in the previous 7 seasons before age 31.

In 2007, A-Rod was 2nd in the majors in ISO at .331.  (Second to... Carlos Pena!)

In 2008, that number fell to .271 and 6th in the majors.

in 2009, it was .245 and 19th in the majors and last season it was .236.

This year that number is at .223.  Almost impressive considering how bad the rest of his game has gotten. 

His current line is .259/.356/.482, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 7 doubles.  All of which came in an early season surge.  In his last 17 games he's hitting .182/.250/.242, 1 HR, 1 double, 6 RBI, 15 strikeouts.  The home run came just yesterday.

So, what's causing this?  Is Rodriguez, like Derek Jeter, hitting everything into the dirt?  Not at all.  His groundball rate is at 40.9%, the lowest its been since 2003.  He's actually hitting more balls into the air (47.3%) than the data, which goes back to 2002, shows he ever has. 

The problem is that almost none of those flyballs are leaving the park.  His 13.6% HR/FB ratio is also as low as the data tells us as its ever been.  But is that a coincidence or a trend? 

Sadly for Rodriguez owners, it may be a trend.  Between 2002-2009 his HR/FB ratio sat between 19.3% and 27.3%.  If he got a ball into the air, it left the park nearly a quarter of the time, sometimes more.  Last season that number dipped to 17.1%.  Is it a cause of the new Yankee stadium?  Who knows.  However, according to StatCorner, this seasons park factors show that RHBs HR trend is 111 (100 being average)  He shouldn't have as much of a problem hitting home runs at home as he would in many other stadiums.

It would be one thing if he was now hitting more line drives, but that also is not the case.  His LD% has dropped from 20% in 2009, to 13.8% last season, and 11.8% this season.  The balls are going into the air more often than they ever have, a skill that normally would give A-Rod a ridiculous amount of home runs in his prime, but instead his home run power has dropped into warning track power at best.

Rodriguez has dealt with injuries, and he's tried changing his stance, his step, and his swing, but thus far the results have been what they have been.  If something was working when he was hot to start the year, then stopped working, we can assume that it was never the cause of his successful results before.  But rather, just a coincidence.

Bad luck?  Rodriguez does have a .264 BABIP, but that BABIP would be higher if his flyballs left the park like they used to do.  Less flyouts, more home runs, equals less balls that count against BABIPS as out instead of home runs (which don't count against BABIP at all)  I think his lowering BABIP, which was .274 last season, is partially a reaction to a home run hitter that doesn't hit home runs anymore.

Conclusion:

I think based on the evidence that Alex Rodriguez is not in a slump, but rather he has just aged.  It's an unfortunate reality that every athlete and every human (excluding Ichiro) must deal with.  Sadly, these declines seemed to have occured earlier than we expected and alongside rampant steroid admissions and speculations and whether or not A-Rod stopped using at the exact moments his power seemed to vanish. 

Because of natural ability, and a desire to stay in shape and prove doubters wrong, Rodriguez can probably muster 20-30 home run power, some extended hot streaks, and stay off of the waiver wires for at least a couple years longer.  The sad truth for Brian Cashman and Yankees fans is that he's your property at a not-so-cheap cost until 2017.  He will probably start to decline to a replacement level status 3-5 years before that. 

 

Editors Note: Sometimes you write so much you forget some stuff you wanted to mention:

A-Rod is swinging less than he has since the data goes back to 2002: 41.5%.  His swings at pitches in the strike zone is less than its ever been during that time: 63.7%.  Though he's making more zone contact than the data shows he ever has: 88.2%.  And he's swinging and missing less than he ever has: 8.3%. 

However, although he is striking out less than he has in the past, and making more contact when he swings, it hasn't resulted in positive results.  The conclusion still stands that the power stroke is fading.  Fast.

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