AL All-Star Report: The Decline Of Alex Rodriguez

The New York Yankees may be flying high right now, even with last night’s loss to Atlanta, as they’ve won 10 of 11 and are atop the American League East. But it’s not because of anything they’re getting from Alex Rodriguez at third base. You might say that’s a good thing—because what happens then when A-Rod heats up? But is A-Rod going to heat up? A look at the numbers and the recent trajectory of the 36-year-old third baseman who’s only halfway through his lucrative 10-year deal at roughly $30 million a year—hefty even by Yankee standards—suggest reason for concern.

Rodriguez’s slugging percentage, the core measurement of consistently driving the ball has declined five straight years, including the partial numbers from this season where he’s at a mediocre .412. And please note that .412 is not just mediocre by his standards, its mediocre period. This is happening in park that’s extremely friendly to a hitter and in a lineup where no one can really pitch around you. If you look at the overall decline, I can go with shortening it to a four-year timespan. The first year of the decline was coming off his epic 2007 MVP year when he slugged an inhuman .645 and anyone would come down from that, and his “slippage” was to .573 with 35 home runs. But the numbers then went to 30 home runs and .532 in 2009, followed by .506 and 30 dingers in 2010. Last year he had nagging injuries and hit only 16 home runs at a .461 clip. That’s still pretty good, even if not his standards, nor worth the money. But this year’s performance has just been flat.

What I think is most striking is that while the home runs have come down a bit, it’s nothing all that alarming for a 36-year-old and likely more due to reduced at-bats from injuries than loss of performance. What has to concern the Yanks is that the batting average is now sitting in the .260 to .270 range for three straight seasons, including this one. On the positive side, there’s plenty of reason to think he can turn the average around. On the negative side, it suggests that if Yankee Stadium’s friendly dimensions weren’t bailing him out, he would look downright awful.

It’s impossible to separate A-Rod’s declining power from the steroid allegations of 2009. If David Ortiz, also implicated that same year, can bounce back and hit home runs at an advanced age, why can’t A-Rod? Does this mean Rodriguez was guilty while Ortiz was not? Or does it mean that A-Rod was just less able to adjust to playing without the PEDs? Given his athletic ability I find that hard to believe, and even though I’m a Red Sox fan I have a hard time noting Ortiz’s increased bulk from his Minnesota Twins’ days in 2002 and let him off the hook. In short, I don’t know why A-Rod’s ability to hit seems in such steady decline at a rate out of proportion to his age.

So on a week where one Yankee was acquitted in a court of law—Roger Clemens walking free on perjury charges over steroids was all but preordained after Andy Pettite turned in a recantation effort on the witness stand worthy of Frank Pentangeli in Godfather II. But another one is being daily indicted in an area fans care more about and that’s on the field of play. With 5 ½ seasons left on his $30 million deal, A-Rod has to get his hitting figured out.

Rodriguez’s play isn’t putting New York at a competitive disadvantage at the position vis-à-vis other AL East teams. Evan Longoria is still on the disabled list in Tampa Bay and he removed himself from a rehab game earlier this week, suggesting his return is no longer imminent. The Red Sox are trying to manage a transition between Kevin Youkilis and Will Middlebrooks and looking to deal the former this summer. Toronto’s young Brett Lawrie is respectable, with a ..336/.424 stat line for on-base percentage & slugging percentage, but it still needs improvement. And Baltimore has a hole at the spot with Wilson Betemit not hitting and Mark Reynolds having taken over at first.

Around the rest of the American League we can add four more teams with third base problems, either expected or through disappointing play—Los Angeles’ Alberto Callaspo is only hitting .240 and the Angels will surely look to make a deal here between now and the end of July. After a hot start, Jack Hannahan in Cleveland first cooled off, then got hurt and now is slowly on his way back. Brandon Inge had a power burst when he first was picked up by Oakland, but the bat Inge made all-too-familiar in Detroit has resurfaced and he’s hitting .209 without much in the way of walks. And no one in the American League is worse than Chicago’s Brent Morel, who’s batting .177 and managed just two extra-base hits in 113 at-bats. His current status on the DL can’t be troubling too many White Sox fans.

So is there any good news? Sure, let’s start with three young kids who have taken advantage of their opportunity. Mike Moustakas is having a nice year in Kansas City, at .341/.468 and Trevor Plouffe has been a revelation in Minnesota, having come up and bashed 14 home runs. Though Plouffe only hits in the .250 neighborhood he’s a patient hitter and with a .341 on-base percentage doesn’t need a high average to help the team. And Seattle’s Kyle Seagar is slugging .456. He needs work in terms of plate discipline, but if nothing else he’s called a merciful end to the Chone Figgins era in the Pacific Northwest, a case where a once-excellent player needs a scenery change as badly as the team needed a fresh body at the position.

If you want a consistent veteran, how about Adrian Beltre in Texas, who’s hitting .312 and popped 12 home runs. The problem with Beltre, as usual, is that he treats a walk like a contagious disease, so his OBP is not nearly as productive as it could be. But at this stage of his career he is what he is, and that’s still pretty good.

Miguel Cabrera in Detroit is more than pretty good, so we save the best for last. He’s handled the transition to third base to make room for Prince Fielder with grace off the field and done a manageable job defensively, grading out respectable in the defensive metrics. He won’t remind anyone of Brooks Robinson or even Inge in the field, but the Tigers just wanted him to survive on defense and let his bat do the talking. And it’s talking pretty loudly, to the tune of a .313 average, 14 home runs and 55 RBIs in a lineup where Fielder is the only other hitter who’s stayed productive and healthy. Cabrera deserves the All-Star vote for the American League at third base.