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Alex Rodriguez: A Superstar in Decline?

The New York Yankees celebrate their 27th World Series win after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 of the 2009 Major League Baseball World Series. (Reuters/Bill Kostrun)

He’s a three-time MVP. He’s been invited to the All-Star game 14 times, including this season. In 2010, he became the youngest player ever to reach the 600 home run milestone. He is a future Hall of Famer.

Yet, for the last few years, and especially this season, fans and media have begun to question Alex Rodriguez’ superstar status. This is understandable, given his declining numbers, his age (36) and his recent injuries. There is no doubt that he is not the same player who the Yankees signed in 2004 (and then again in 2007), three years after he had agreed to the most lucrative contract in major league history with Texas. However, A-Rod remains an integral part of the Yankees; in fact, what he has lacked in offensive production, he has made up for in other, subtler ways.

His Decline

From 2001 through 2007, A-Rod played in an average of 159 games per season. From 2008 through 2010, he played in an average of 133 games per season, suffering various injuries each year, including a quad strain in  2008, a torn hip labrum in 2009 (for which he had surgery), and a calf strain in 2010.

Rodriguez is on track to play just 95 to 100 games this season; he was on the disabled list for 60 days this summer after having surgery to repair torn meniscus in his knee. Before his stint on the DL, the injury reduced his power at the plate. Following his return to the team, A-Rod has played in just 10 games as a result of a sprained thumb.

With this decrease in playing time over the last few years has come a decline in offensive production; however, I suspect that even A-Rod himself would not blame his decline entirely on his injuries. A-Rod has not hit above .300 since 2008. His slugging percentage has decreased steadily every year since 2007, when it was .645; it is currently .475. His OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) has seen a parallel decline.  So far this year, he his hitting .284 in 90 games with 56 RBI and 15 home runs. This is the fist time since 1997 that he will end the regular season with less than 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

Certain statistics have decreased markedly. For example, in 2007, A-Rod stole 24 bases. In 2009 and 2010, he stole four each year. I realize that A-Rod is not necessarily known for speed or base stealing, but this is a noticeable change that speaks to A-Rod’s age and injuries.

Considering A-Rod is playing less, we would expect his number of hits, runs, RBIs and home runs to decrease, but the fact is that his production is decreasing at a greater rate than his playing time. This is not to say that A-Rod’s number’s are poor; generally, they are above league average in almost every field. However, the question must be asked: is he still a superstar worth $32 million per year?

His Future

Despite the fact that A-Rod’s numbers have declined, he was 8th in MVP votes in 2008, 10th in 2009, and 15th in 2010. He may no longer be the A-Rod of five years ago, but he’s no slouch.

And who’s to say that he won’t rebound in 2012? Look at Derek Jeter’s post-3K run. He has been vintage, and the Captain is 37 years old. I wouldn’t count Alex out, especially considering the following: he is extremely athletic and he takes great pride in working hard, in terms of both fitness and baseball activities. He is also a true student of baseball. During the broadcast of the Yankees-Mariners game on September 14th, Michael Kay pointed out, as he does often, that Rodriguez watches film of his at bats after every single game.

A-Rod has six more years left on his contract, and he continues to be the Yankees’ best option at 3rd base by far. Throughout the last 10 years, his fielding percentage and error rate have been consistently strong. He has the ability to make difficult, accurate and quick throws across the diamond (If you’ve ever seen him warming up, you know that he actually has the ability to throw across the entire field). If, at some point in the next six years, he is unable to continue to post strong defensive numbers because of injury or age, or if someone better comes along, Rodriguez could conceivably become a DH in the vein of Jim Thome or David Ortiz.

His Superstar Status

People age. Players age. With age, their skill set can change. The Yankees knew that when they signed Rodriguez. Frankly, the Yankees’ roster is so crowded with All-Stars and MVP candidates, that losing A-Rod  at the plate has not been a serious disadvantage this season. He is no longer the most feared bat of the Yankee lineup; he will likely never occupy that position again.  However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is no longer a superstar; it means that his role on the team is changing.

As a young player, A-Rod won countless individual awards and he had a cocky, selfish reputation. After he won the World Series with the Yankees, he told the New York Times: “I’ve never experienced such an amazing feeling.” He realized that team accomplishments were much sweeter, more fulfilling, and more important than individual accolades and milestones. Being “one of the guys” became more important than being a star.

After Rodriguez hit home run No. 600, his teammate Curtis Granderson wrote, “there is no doubt that Alex Rodriguez is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.” Granderson described how A-Rod called him immediately after Grandy was traded to the Yankees and flew to NYC from Florida to welcome him to the team.

As a veteran player, A-Rod often serves as a welcomed source of knowledge and wisdom for the younger guys. In Wednesday’s game against Seattle, the camera fixed on A-Rod as he spoke to rookie call-up Greg Golson, pointing and gesturing toward the field. This is not a rare sight.

In the end of June, YES broadcaster Jack Curry reported that A-Rod approached pitcher Boone Logan in the locker room following a set of particularly difficult outings. According to Rodriguez, the two discussed game preparation, with Alex stressing the importance of studying a hitter and developing a plan before taking the mound. They also discussed Logan’s mechanics.

According to Curry, A-Rod regularly mentors hitters such as Robinson Cano. But Alex is not a pitcher; he’s not even a coach. So what possessed him to offer guidance to Logan? First of all, he cares about his teammates and their success. Secondly, he cares about his team and its success. Logan was, and continues to be, a key element of the Yankees bullpen, and his conversation with A-Rod clearly improved his game.

It is impossible to know when or if A-Rod’s offensive numbers will rebound. I think, at the very least, he’ll return to form in 2012 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.  At this point, with Cano, Curtis Granderson,  Mark Teixeira and the rest of the Yankee offense, perhaps A-Rod the teacher is just as important as A-Rod the slugger.

When a Yankee hits a walk-off (which, admittedly, we haven’t seen for a while), A-Rod has a unique superstition. As the player touches home and tosses his batting helmet into the air, A-Rod must be the one to pick it up. I realize that A-Rod has faced his share of scandal with regard to performance-enhancing drugs, gambling, contract negotiations and poor sportsmanship. It is not my intention to present him through a rose-colored lens. That said, A-Rod has become a guy who picks up his teammates helmets, a guy who helps younger players and welcomes new ones. He is clearly not the same guy who the Yankees signed…in more ways than one.

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One comment for “Alex Rodriguez: A Superstar in Decline?”

  1. New Post: Alex Rodriguez: A Superstar in Decline? http://t.co/Ce3zoH7c

    Posted by Sports of New York | September 17, 2011, 4:38 am

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