- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Alex Rodriguez and the Easily Justifiable Decision

It began when Alex Rodriguez was pinch-hit for by Raul Ibanez, with Ibanez instantly turning into a hero. Then Rodriguez was left out of the lineup. Then Rodriguez allegedly flirted with female fans in the middle of a game, then Rodriguez was left out of the lineup again. Then people started talking about Alex Rodriguez getting traded to the Marlins and Bob Nightengale went so far as to say:

This will be the last time you’ll ever see Alex Rodriguez in a New York Yankees uniform.

In a series in which the Yankees trail the Tigers three games to zero, somehow it’s still Rodriguez who’s the story, it’s Rodriguez who seems to be getting the lion’s share of the blame. It was a big deal when Rodriguez was benched for Wednesday’s Game 4 against Max Scherzer. After the game was rained out, it was again a big deal when Rodriguez was benched for Thursday’s Game 4 against Max Scherzer, as if anything had changed, or ought to have changed. It is, without question, an unusual thing to see a player like Alex Rodriguez on the bench.

Brian Cashman’s been saying the right things, and the same goes for Joe Girardi. Neither individual is interested in throwing Rodriguez under the bus or criticizing him to the media. The fact of Rodriguez’s benchings has been explained as a baseball decision, and nothing more than that. The Yankees figure Rodriguez has been struggling against righties, and all of the Tigers’ starters are righties. The Yankees figure Eric Chavez gives them a better chance, at present.

It is obviously not an easy decision to sit Alex Rodriguez is a must-win playoff game. If you can imagine yourself as a manager, you can imagine what it might feel like to leave a name like Rodriguez’s out of the lineup. And that doesn’t even take into consideration issues regarding your personal relationship with Rodriguez, who certainly isn’t thrilled to be sitting out. But while it’s not an easy decision, it is an easily justifiable decision. It doesn’t require a lot of statistical gymnastics to show that, right now, Chavez is probably the better play.

Chavez is a lefty, as you know, and for his career he’s been atrocious against lefties and productive against righties. This season, he slugged .543 against righties over nearly 300 plate appearances. That has to be regressed some, because current Eric Chavez presumably isn’t that good, but Chavez has the platoon advantage and Chavez has always been a lot better with the platoon advantage.

With Rodriguez, the Yankees have talked about his struggles against righties all season long. It’s true that Rodriguez has been more productive against southpaws, but it’s even more true when you split Rodriguez’s season by his DL stint. Toward the end of July, Rodriguez got his hand broken by Felix Hernandez, and we’ve talked about his struggles to make consistent contact since returning to the team. I present to you some splits:

Table 1: Alex Rodriguez, pre-DL

vs. PA BA OBP SLG K%
LHP 131 0.277 0.382 0.500 19%
RHP 269 0.275 0.346 0.425 22%

Table 2: Alex Rodriguez, post-DL

vs. PA BA OBP SLG K%
LHP 48 0.436 0.521 0.564 17%
RHP 106 0.158 0.226 0.232 34%

I don’t suggest reading much into Rodriguez’s recent success against lefties, because the sample size is so small it’s almost embarrassing. But this much is clear — Rodriguez has unquestionably been in a slump, and it’s not because he hasn’t been hitting southpaws. He’s been a complete disaster against righties — basically a decent-hitting pitcher — and his elevated strikeout rate suggests it isn’t just noise. Some of it is noise, sure, but Rodriguez has had real problems against righties since coming back to the lineup and that has to be weighed against Rodriguez’s modest success against righties earlier in the year. We can’t ignore that Rodriguez hit righties some earlier in 2012, or that he was far better against righties in 2011, or that he has an even career platoon split. We also can’t ignore Rodriguez’s last 106 plate appearances against righties, since they followed a significant injury. Even given everything you know about sample sizes and baseball statistics, if you stripped away the player names, would you really want to start the guy with Rodriguez’s numbers over the guy with Chavez’s numbers, when facing a right-handed pitcher?

As long as Chavez is healthy, Rodriguez should be sitting against righty starters, for however long the Yankees remain alive. If it’s true today, it’s true all days. It’s uncomfortable and unfamiliar, given who Alex Rodriguez is, but this is the time of year that it’s most important to make good baseball decisions, and this is a good baseball decision. As for Rodriguez’s future, I don’t know if he’ll stay with the Yankees or end up somewhere else, but the fact that these struggles have followed an injury gives hope that an offseason of rest and recovery could return Rodriguez to a more productive level in 2013. He had an .806 OPS when he got hurt. By wRC+, he was more or less the hitter he was in 2010 and 2011. Alex Rodriguez is declining, but he might not actually be declining that swiftly.

It’s possible the injury isn’t a good excuse for anything. I don’t know how Rodriguez feels, and I don’t know if his swing has been affected. It’s more convenient than it is provable. That’s a factor when it comes to considering what and where Rodriguez will be down the road. But for now, while Joe Girardi has had to make some difficult calls, starting Eric Chavez over Alex Rodriguez isn’t that tough, relatively speaking. It’s a difficult decision given the people involved, but given the players involved, it’s perfectly sensible.