Now that Alex Rodriguez‘ career has quite possibly come to an end, it’s time to put it into some sort of historical perspective. He’s not just the player whose career is apparently ending in disgrace, with any number of emerging subplots. He’s also the Miami high school wunderkind, the Mike Trout of his time in his Seattle days, and guy who signed the biggest contract in baseball history – twice – with the Rangers and Yankees. He resides near the top of many all-time leaderboards, but at the same time his career can be seen as a disappointment.
He’s a paradoxical character who has been a consistent elite performer, but seems to be loved by no fan base, and has been derided for his postseason output though the numbers aren’t much different from those of Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson or Derek Jeter. He just might be the most universally hated superstar in US sports history. Let’s take a step back from all of it, however, and with as a critical and unbiased an eye as possible, assess his career and see where it fits within the history of the game.
Alex Rodriguez was the first player selected in the 1993 June amateur draft. For the second time in six years, the Seattle Mariners had the good fortune of being the worst and picking first at the right time, and now possessed both Ken Griffey, Jr., and Rodriguez in their organization. Within months, it was clear that the Mariners held title to the two single most valuable properties in the game at that time.
If we were to have an all-time draft that included all 49 draft classes based on each player’s overall future potential at the time they were drafted, it’s a pretty safe bet that A-Rod would be selected first overall. He had it all, present body and tools, future projection, advanced feel for the game, premium position, and he didn’t turn 18 until after the draft. At the very least, this was a regular major league shortstop, and if all went well, he would turn into something unlike that which the game had ever seen. For a very long time, all went well.
Rodriguez didn’t play his first professional game until the spring of 1994, and he didn’t waste time. He knifed through three levels, up to AAA, at age 18 in 1994, posting a stellar .312-.376-.577 line, and even made a cameo big league appearance. He then logged 54 more games at AAA Tacoma in 1995, batting .360-.411-.654 at age 19, declaring himself ready for the show. For the second straight year, he struggled in a short big league stint, but no matter – he was a blue chipper’s blue chipper. I’ve been ranking minor league prospects using a formula that measure production and age relative to minor league level since 1993, and A-Rod is the only position player to rank 1st overall in back-to-back seasons. He also posted the highest single season score of any prospect over that time.
The minor leagues were historically loaded in the mid-90’s, but Rodriguez was in a class by himself, far outdistancing the Andruw Joneses, Vladimir Guerreros, Derek Jeters, Scott Rolens, Todd Heltons and Nomar Garciaparras of the time. Since that era, Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton were the only two prospects even on his wavelength – and have I mentioned that A-Rod was a shortstop?
After his limited at-bat struggles in the 1994 and 1995 strike years, Rodriguez hit the ground sprinting from Day One in 1996. The big leagues had a sparkling new superstar on their hands. To put his age 20 1996 season in perspective, well……his .358-.414-.631 line earned him a Mike Trout-ish 2nd place finish in the MVP voting. There are eight age 20 seasons that stand out above the rest – Ty Cobb 1907, Mike Trout 2012, Mel Ott 1929, Ted Williams 1939, Rogers Hornsby 1916, Alex Rodriguez 1996, Mickey Mantle 1952, and Al Kaline 1955. Jimmie Foxx 1928 and Frank Robinson 1956 would be next, and Ken Griffey, Jr., 1990 isn’t too far behind. No flukes there. This obviously marked him as an emerging inner circle superstar, and unlike all of the others, Rodriguez was a shortstop.
And a shortstop he remained, throughout his five full seasons in Seattle and three more in Texas. His OPS+ ranged from 120 to 163 over that period, he scored 100 or more runs for the first eight of what would become 13 consecutive seasons, and had as many as 54 doubles, 57 homers, 142 RBI, 100 walks and 46 steals in a season over that span. His batting average was as high as .358, his OBP as high as .420, and his SLG as high as .631. Even more impressive than the height of his peaks, however, was the incredible height of his valleys. No off years here. Still only 27 years old, through eight seasons as a regular shortstop, A-Rod had clearly marked himself as the greatest player at his position through that age in the modern history of the game. In fact, he was on the short list of the greatest offensive players at any position through roughly that age, with that level of experience in the game’s history.
|LAST||FIRST||Age||Yrs.||+ OBP 8Y||+ SLG 8Y||OPS+ 8Y|
Above is a list of players with eight years experience as a regular, and within two years of A-Rod’s age, who compiled the highest number of combined standard deviations above league average in OBP and SLG over those eight seasons. Each player’s OPS+ through eight full-time seasons is listed. A-Rod ranks 17th on this list, among all players whose 1st eight seasons as a regular occurred before they turned 30. Arky Vaughan is the only other shortstop listed, and his career hit the wall in his early thirties. For the record, A-Rod’s OBP component is second lowest among the group to Sam Crawford, another player who was much better in his twenties than his thirties. At this stage, Rodriguez clearly appeared on track to be a unique all-time great, at least by the numbers.
Some interesting other aspects of his career had begun to emerge, however. He was clearly no longer the likeable ingénue that emerged onto the scene at age 20 in 1996. First, he had left Seattle after the 2000 season as a free agent at the tender age of 25, thanks in part to service time accrued during the 1994-95 work stoppage. The Mariners promptly won 116 games in 2001. He went to Texas, hogged up a huge chunk of the team’s payroll, and never reached the postseason there before reopening his contract and moving onto the Yankees after the 2003 season. This also marked the end of his days as a regular shortstop. Oh, and by the way, as good of an offensive player as he was in Seattle and Texas, he had yet to reach his offensive peak. That would happen between 2005 and 2007, as a Yankee.
As superstar offensive peaks go, it wasn’t particularly overpowering, but with A-Rod, the amazing thing is the number of years one has to choose from to select a three-year peak. WAR-wise, his shortstop years are going to win out, but looking at the bat alone, he posted seven years with an OPS+ over 150, five over 160, and two over 170, both of them in the same three-year period. Again, looking at cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG, here are the ten most comparable three-year peaks. (A-Rod’s ranks 40th best in MLB history.)
|LAST||FIRST||Age||Seasons||+ OBP 3Y||+ SLG 3Y||OPS+ 3Y|
At the end of his peak period, after the 2007 season, A-Rod was a freight train. He had just completed his age 31 season, already had 518 career homers, and had played 154 or more games in each of his seven previous seasons. He had won the AL MVP Award over a loaded field in three of the previous five seasons. Looking at the above table listing comparable peaks, almost half of his contemporaries peaked later than he did, so it could very reasonably have been said that even better days lied ahead for Rodriguez after the 2007 season. Who was to know that A) he would never play as many as 140 games in a season again; B) only one of his 13 consecutive years with 100 runs scored was ahead of him; C) he would never again hit 40 HR in a season, and D) his OPS+ would decline each of the next six seasons.
This is where the irony sets in. Steroids are going to be a huge part of Rodriguez’ legacy, no matter the nature of the factual details. Circumstantially, most likely believe that he started using during his Texas years, though some might argue that it began well before. Did he “need” steroids? How much better could he actually get beyond the reality of his Seattle years? If steroids brought him to his ultimate peak, that peak was just a sliver higher than his previous best, if it was higher at all.
Also, did the steroids help bring about his premature, gradual decline from 2008 onward? From his age 32 season forward, Willie Mays hit 292 homers, Hank Aaron an amazing 357. A-Rod has hit a mere 136. If he took steroids to aid in reaching his supposed ultimate goal of 800 home runs, the sad irony is that it is much more likely that they prevented him from doing just that.
So what are we left with as a body of work? A .299-.384-.558 career line, with an OPS+ of 143. 654 career homers, six short of Mays, 2939 hits, 1919 runs. He falls just short of a whole lot of round counting numbers, the sure sign of a career ending in unexpected fashion. These are the most comparable players of all time in terms of the number of cumulative standard deviations above league average in OBP and SLG, a list upon which Rodriguez ranks 22nd. Only one player who logged much time at shortstop, Honus Wagner, ranks above him.
|LAST||FIRST||Pos||Qual Yrs||+ OBP Car||+ SLG Car||OPS+ Car|
Pretty solid company – Hall of Famers all around. Interesting critical mass of elite third basemen in that range – guys who once appeared to be destined to reside a tier or two behind the great Alex Rodriguez. Like much of the rest of his legacy, such a ranking might actually be a letdown. A decade ago, if someone told you that he would be the 22nd best offensive player in baseball history, one might have said, “what the heck happened? Why so low?” A-Rod’s legacy will obviously be a contorted, conflicted one. He just might be the one current or former major league player who would lose a popularity contest to Barry Bonds.
He played more years for the Yankees than any other club, in an era where they experienced massive success – and he got to the World Series once with them. People tend to forget, but he excelled in that one shot, and was one of the foremost reasons for their victory. In the final judgment, however, this is one player who reads better by the numbers than he did by any other measure. The teams he played tended to be much better just before or after he came to town. Part of that again might be cruel irony and little to no fault of his own, but those facts are unassailable. Warts and all, however, the talent and production was very real, and to this day we still haven’t seen another shortstop quite like him. He’s the ultimate Goliath figure – gifted beyond belief, seemingly indestructible, loved by no one outside his own clubhouse. Love him or – more likely – hate him, we may never again see someone like him.
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