In just the span of a few months, Alex Rodriguez has gone from being the owner of the worst contract in sports to the best hitter on a likely playoff team. With the New York Yankees set to officially make the postseason for the first time since 2012 any day now, the most hated player in baseball has produced a season that no one could have predicted.
Rodriguez returned to the Yankees this season after he was suspended for all of 2014 because of evidence that suggested he violated MLB’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. Once one of the best players the league had ever seen, Rodriguez looked like a shell of his old self the last time he played, hitting just .244 in 2013. But at 40 years old, Rodriguez seems to have discovered the fountain of youth, and he might be the leading candidate to be named MLB’s Comeback Player of the Year.
"I've said all along, I thought Alex was going to help us," New York manager Joe Girardi said at the end of spring training. "But until you get into it, I mean, it's two years since he's played. I wasn't 100 percent sure. I mean, if I were a betting man, I would have bet on him playing well. But there's still that ... you gotta see it after two years of not playing and being 39 1/2 years old."
With just five games left on the regular-season schedule, Rodriguez’s .839 OPS is his best mark in five years. His 32 home runs are his most since 2008, and he leads the team while ranking 10th in the American League. Only three AL players have more than Rodriguez’s 79 walks.
A-Rod isn’t performing at a Hall-of-Fame level like he did in his prime, but what he’s done this year is unprecedented. Pitchers routinely miss entire seasons and return at an All-Star caliber level, as New York Mets' pitcher Matt Harvey proved this season. But position players almost never do what Rodriguez has done, especially at his age.
Secrets To Success
The 2013 season was Rodriguez’s worst since he became an everyday player 17 years prior. After returning from his second hip surgery in four years, the second more serious than the first, it looked like Rodriguez’s injuries might prevent him from being a productive MLB player going forward. And spending an entire season away from baseball is not ideal for a player with declining skills.
But it turns out that a year of rest might have been exactly what Rodriguez needed.
Taking an entire year off from the game seems to have rejuvenated Rodriguez, helping him recover from what could’ve been a career-ending injury. In order to keep Rodriguez fresh this season, Girardi has played his star power-hitter almost strictly at designated hitter and given him regular days off.
"I believe Joe [Girardi] has a plan that hopefully takes us through November," Rodriguez said on July 26, via Newsday. "I believe in Joe. I believe in the plan and I never question it."
Rodriguez has been exponentially better when playing after he’s received rest. He's started 29 games after having not been in the starting lineup on the previous day. In those contests, the Yankees DH has registered a .303 batting average and a .415 on-base percentage, while slugging .523. Maintaining that .938 OPS over the course of the entire season would rank him eighth in all of MLB, and his on-base percentage would only trail Miguel Cabrera for tops in the AL.
When he doesn’t have a day of rest, Rodriguez isn’t nearly the same hitter, posting splits of .236/.323/.476. Rodriguez has a .799 OPS when starting on back-to-back days, and 46 other major leaguers that qualify have an OPS of at least .800.
Staying out of the field has also allowed Rodriguez to remain healthy. He’s played three games at third base and one game at first base, going just 1-13 in those four games.
"I think just DH-ing him has really lessened the toll on his body, the time that he is on his feet," Girardi said, following Rodriguez's three home-run game in late July.
Coming Up Big In The Clutch
Even before Rodriguez was first linked to performance-enhancing drugs in 2009, his Hall-of-Fame numbers weren’t good enough for many Yankees fans. Despite winning the AL MVP award with New York in 2005 and 2007, Rodriguez was often criticized for not coming through in the clutch. The Yankees were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in both seasons, as Rodriguez hit a combined .200 with 1 RBI in those playoff series.
But as Rodriguez continues to get booed in 29 MLB stadiums, the Yankees fans have embraced him, largely because of how he’s performed when the Yankees have needed him most.
It started in the second week of the season when Rodriguez hit two home runs against Tampa Bay, including one in the eighth inning that gave New York the lead, catapulting them to their fourth win of the season. The victory came after the Yankees had started out the year with six losses in their first nine games, and the team went on to win 13 of their next 16 contests.
Before this season, 41.5 percent of Rodriguez’s home runs had given his team the lead or tied the game. In 2015, half of his 32 home runs have done just that. His most memorable hit this year might have come at Fenway Park on May 1, when a ninth-inning, pinch-hit home run gave the Yankees a 3-2 win, leading them to an eventual sweep of their rivals.
Rodriguez hasn’t just gotten it done with the long ball. He’s tied for seventh in the Majors with 15 game-winning RBI, and 17.65 percent of his runs batted in have given New York the lead for good. That percentage ranks him fourth among players that are in the top 50 in total RBI. The second-highest Yankee on the list is Carlos Beltran with nine game-winning RBI.
Rodriguez has often looked uncomfortable in big situations throughout his Yankee career, but he could be feeding off the controversy that surrounds him. The only other time he’s performed this well under pressure in New York was in 2009, after it was revealed that he took steroids with the Texas Rangers. That season, Rodriguez hit .365 with a 1.308 OPS in the playoffs, leading the Yankees to their first World Series championship in nine years.
Beyond The Regular Season
Rodriguez has started or pinch hit in 146 of the Yankees’ 157 games, and the long season appears to be taking its toll on the slugger. He had his worst month of the year in August with splits of .153/.273/.259, hitting just two home runs in 85 at-bats. He got off to a hot start in September, but he's come back to earth with just five hits in his last 34 at-bats.
More than ever, the Yankees are relying on Rodriguez to provide power in the lineup. Mark Teixeira was the team’s best hitter for the first four and a half months of the season, but he’s out for the year with a leg injury. Brett Gardner, New York’s other All-Star position player, hasn’t been the same in the second half, hitting just .208 since the break.
The Yankees have a good chance to clinch home-field advantage in the wild-card game before the weekend, giving them an opportunity to give Rodriguez a few days rest before the playoffs begin. He’ll also be aided by the postseason schedule, never having to play more than a few games in a row in October.