In 2007, Alex Rodriguez posted a wOBA of .449 (which is practically unfair) and hit 54 homers. In 2008 he posted a wOBA of .413 and slugged 35 homers in an injury shortened season. In 2009, A-Rod missed even more time, but managed an excellent .405 wOBA when he played, and hit 30 homers on the nose, the last two coming in dramatic fashion in the same inning against the Rays. Each of those seasons was excellent. As a result, it was easy not to notice that for three consecutive seasons Rodriguez’s production was declining. The downward trend continued in 2010, only this time fans and the media noticed.
Last season was A-Rod’s worst professional season since his 1997 sophomore campaign. He posted a career low wOBA of .363. His slash line of .270/.341/.506 represented career lows as an everyday player in BA and OBP, and nearly a career low in SLG. Rodriguez once again managed to hit 30 homers and an impressive 125 RBI, but unlike in 2009 or 2008 his performance was not strong enough to conceal his decline. A-Rod has now gotten progressively worse in each of the past four seasons. Fortunately for the Yankees and their fans, there is evidence to suggest that Rodriguez can return to being a .400+ wOBA hitter in 2011.
For his entire career, A-Rod has murdered fastballs. In his best seasons he’s been worth as many as 52.7 (2005) and 46.8 (2007) runs above replacement level against the fastball. Even in his less spectacular seasons he’s typically been worth 20 or so runs above replacement level against the fastball. Thankfully, 2010 was no different. While the 17.2 runs A-Rod generated against the fastball were his lowest total since Fangraphs began tracking this performance, it is far from the performance one would expect to see out of a player in danger of immediate decline. While it is true that the fastball data point once again to a player who is slowly losing his abilities, the numbers are not a cause for alarm. Quite the opposite, in fact. The numbers suggest Rodriguez is still a middle-of-the-order bat, even if he has to be a little smarter about picking the pitches he’s going to swing at.
Surprisingly, A-Rod wasn’t all that smart a hitter in 2010, at least not as smart as he’s usually been. For his career Rodriguez has swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 20.9% of the time. Obviously that rate has been working for him, but in 2010 it jumped up to 25.3%. A-Rod connected when he swung at these pitches as well. For his career Rodriguez has made contact on 52.1% of the pitches outside of the zone that he’s swung at. In 2010 that number jumped up to 65.6%. Chasing pitches outside of the zone is bad enough, but making contact on them — often weakly — is worse.
In light of this, it is safe to bet that Rodriguez will bounce back in 2011. If all the other variables were to remain constant, and A-Rod had swung at fewer pitches outside of the zone than he did in 2010, then his numbers would improve across the board. He wouldn’t return to his 2007 performance heights, but he would remain an excellent hitter, one capable of hitting 30-plus homers.
All the other variables, however, are not going to remain constant. There is also qualitative data to suggest that A-Rod is due for a bounce back. It is now two full seasons since Rodriguez had surgery on his right hip. This past offseason was the first time since going under the knife that Rodriguez was capable of engaging in his typical offseason exercise routine. The results have been noticeable. Reports are that Rodriguez is visibly slimmer, while Kevin Long says that A-Rod’s lower half has the most flexibility he’s seen from it in many seasons. A healthy, leaner A-Rod figures to be a better A-Rod. For his part Rodriguez is saying all the right things. He’s described his past few seasons as unacceptable. While that is hardly true, they were slightly disappointing. A-Rod will be a year older in 2011, but he will also be a year healthier and hopefully more patient, making it difficult to imagine another season of .363 wOBA hitting.
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