No. 600 is just a mile marker on Rodriguez's road past Bonds
A 600th home run simply isn't as special as it was even 10 years ago
Still only 35, Rodriguez is expected to shatter the all-time home-run record
In fact, Rodriguez figures to finish strong and push the mark into the 800s
|A-Rod's Worst Seasons By True Average|
Alex Rodriguez's interminable run to his 600th career home run wasn't greeted with the kind of breathless anticipation that we associate with round-number baseball milestones. While many are quick to point to Rodriguez's confessed steroid use and the general impression that all hitting statistics from the late 20th and early-21st centuries are tainted, something more banal is in play. Whereas 600 home runs was a historic barrier as recently as 2001, with just three players having ever reached that number, three more hit their 600th homers over the next seven seasons. Rodriguez's accomplishment means that more players have hit their 600th homer in the last decade than did in the first 125 years of baseball history. A 600th home run simply isn't as special as it was just 10 years ago.
Moreover, 600 homers, which A-Rod finally reached on Wednesday against the Blue Jays after a drought of almost two weeks, isn't seen as an achievement for Rodriguez so much as a mile marker. An All-Star at 20, a quarter-billionaire at 25, a member of the 400-homer and 500-homer clubs at a younger age than anyone else, and still a very good player at 35, Rodriguez is expected to shatter the all-time home-run record, currently held by Barry Bonds with 762. There's such an inevitability to this that $12 million of Rodriguez's compensation under his 10-year contract with the Yankees is tied to his hitting the record-tying and record-setting longballs.
It is inevitable. Rodriguez is still relatively young for an all-time great, having turned 35 last Tuesday, and his skills remain largely intact even after hip surgery in 2009. He may never run the bases or rack up steals -- he currently has 299 with an 81 percent success rate -- the way he did before the injury, and his lateral range at third base has been significantly diminished. At the plate, though, he's still a force, even in one of the worst seasons of his career. (Note: All advanced stats are entering Wednesday's game against the Blue Jays.) The chart at right shows Rodriguez's worst full seasons by True Average (TAv is a Baseball Prospectus statistic that measures overall offensive performance, including base-stealing, and adjusts for park effects and league offensive levels).
Rodriguez's brutal slump as he chased homer No. 600 has left him with the worst stats of his career. As you can see from his True Average, it isn't that much worse than his previous lows, and we are measuring him at a low point in his season.
Looking deeper, we find that Rodriguez has been a somewhat different hitter this season, swinging at more pitches, making more contact, but less solid contact. Rodriguez has his highest rates of chasing pitches out of the zone and hitting them since 2002, which is the extent to which we have data. This weaker contact has driven down his line-drive rate (15.5 percent, tied for his lowest since 2002) and with that his batting average on balls in play (.278, a career low). (All data courtesy Fangraphs.) The increased amount of contact has lowered his walk and strikeout rates, which is one reason why his RBI count (currently 85) is so high even in an off-year. The biggest difference, however, is in his HR/FB rate. For his career, Rodriguez hits a homer on 23 percent of his fly balls. In 2010 that number is off by nearly half, to 12.6 percent. This number is a skill for batters (it tends to be a constant for pitchers, around 10 percent), and given that the biggest difference between Rodriguez in 2010 and in previous years is in his home-run rate, it seems to hold the key to his apparent "off-year."
Putting it all together, it seems that Rodriguez has made a conscious decision to move away from a take-and-rake style, to be more aggressive at the plate. The tradeoff has cost him solid contact, as shown by the loss of line drives, and possibly some power, as shown by what's happening to his fly balls. What's strange is that this is the opposite pattern shown by hitters as they age; usually, aging hitters will swing less, walk more and trade contact for power. As is always the case, Alex Rodriguez confounds expectations.
Of course, we're dancing around the real issue here, which has nothing to do with 600 or even 700 home runs. Will Rodriguez break Bonds' record? He needs another 163 homers. Over the past three seasons, he has hit a home run every 19.3 plate appearances, with a big falloff this season (one every 27 plate appearances). If that three-year number were to rise slightly every season, to 19.5, then 20.5, etc., reflecting a slow decline, Rodriguez would need about another 3,700 plate appearances, seven seasons at his current pace, to break the record at the age of 42 early in 2018. His contract runs through 2017, so barring catastrophe or a massive performance decline, he'll have a job through then. Even after hip surgery last year, even having an off-year this season, even working on the fly to change his approach at the plate, Rodriguez has such a head start on the field thanks to being an all-time great at the age of 20 that he can face some loss of skills at a relatively early age and still be a favorite to break the all-time home-run record using a fairly conservative projection of his performance from ages 35-41.
|A-Rod's Projected Numbers|
Rodriguez's early start leaves him plenty of room to decline, as well as to suffer the minor injuries that often chip away at an older player's at-bats, and still chase down Bonds with room to spare. The chart at right offers one very conservative estimate of the remainder of his career, beginning with the rest of 2010:
If this path were to hold, Rodriguez would hit his 763rd home run early in the the 2018 season. I'll take April 14th, 2018, off the Orioles' Jamie Moyer.
As you look at the all-time home-run list, you see possible paths for Rodriguez. Bonds, controversially, hit 317 homers after 34. Babe Ruth, not remembered for his longevity, roped 198 homers after 34. At the other end of the spectrum, Willie Mays had his last big year at 34 and hit just 155 more homers. Ken Griffey Jr., once considered a challenger to Aaron's mark, hit just 129 homers after 34. Sammy Sosa finished eighth in the NL MVP voting at 34 and was out of the league two years later (he came back after a missed season before retiring for good).
The model for Rodriguez, however, isn't any of those players. If you look at Baseball-Reference.com, you find that through age 33 -- through last season -- the player Rodriguez most resembles statistically is Hank Aaron. Aaron hit 245 of his homers after 34, admittedly becoming an extreme version of the all-or-nothing hitter discussed earlier. (Aaron had just 54 doubles and three triples in a four-year span starting in 1972, while hitting 106 homers in those seasons.) Rodriguez is a right-handed batter with power to all fields, good plate discipline without being a high-walks guy, and a track record of consistency. It is Aaron whose path he will most likely take over the next decade, continuing to hit for power as some of his other skills deteriorate, doing so well enough to be an asset to a good team even as more of his value becomes tied to his home-run hitting. Rodriguez, like Aaron, will finish his career strong, breaking Bonds' record and eventually pushing the career home-run mark into the 800s.
Roberto Luongo, Panthers get best of Cory Schneider, Devils
Ducks score six goals in the 2nd period to beat Avs in wild game