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Could Fully Rested A-Rod Be an Impact Player Again in 2015?

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Could Fully Rested A-Rod Be an Impact Player Again in 2015?
USA Today

Alex Rodriguez is facing the reality of his situation, and he's doing so with an optimistic outlook that, given the circumstances, also passes well enough for a realistic outlook.

Less than a week after A-Rod's 211-game ban resulting from MLB's investigation into Biogenesis was reduced to 162 games and the postseason in 2014 by arbitrator Fredric Horowitz, the New York Yankees third baseman has spoken.

What he said may surprise you. Via ESPN New York, here's Rodriguez speaking at a promotional appearance in Mexico:

I think that in the year 2014, the league could have done me a favor because I've played 20 years without a timeout. I think 2014 will be a year to rest mentally and physically prepare myself for the future and begin a new chapter of my life.

He added: "I have 3 years left on my contract starting in 2015 and I hope to play very well and finish my career in New York."

Here's a reminder that A-Rod initially reacted to his suspension with a statement on his Facebook page that claimed he was innocent of using performance-enhancing drugs and that he would take his case to federal court to get the decision overturned.

But now you wonder if Rodriguez understands the slim odds he has of actually getting a judge to rule in his favor. If so, well, you can't blame him for thinking a year off won't be so bad.

And maybe it won't be. There are reasons to believe that will be the case, anyway, starting with what history can tell us about players who have taken a year off from baseball.

That's a topic I discussed at length in a separate article earlier this week. I won't regurgitate the whole thing here, but suffice it to say that you can look back and see that guys like Ryne Sandberg, Eric Davis, Sammy Sosa, Gabe Kapler and Jim Edmonds all came back strong after spending a year in retirement. Players like Bo Jackson, Moises Alou, Andres Galarraga, Rocco Baldelli, Kendrys Morales and Victor Martinez have come back strong after missing a year with health issues.

A-Rod will belong partially in both camps if he takes 2014 off. Since it's unlikely he'll be able to play anywhere else, it will essentially be a mini-retirement. But since he'll also have a chance to rest two surgically repaired knees and two surgically repaired hips, it will also be a year off to heal up. A mental and physical break, indeed.

It's a shame A-Rod won't be able to get younger during his year off. Assuming he does play, 2015 will still be his age-39 season. The odds of him being his, uh, old self are slim.

But let's not kid ourselves about that. A-Rod hasn't been close to his old self since 2010, his last 30-homer season. He is what he is at this point: a slightly above-average hitter.

That's the tale told by A-Rod's OPS+ over the last two seasons. In 2012, his OPS+ was 111. In a small sample size in 2013, it was, you guessed it, 111.

That's a far cry from the 153 OPS+ monster Rodriguez was in his first five seasons in New York, but a 111 OPS+ is still above average. He need not be his old self in order to be an impact player. If the Yankees or any other team were to get a full-season 111 OPS+ from a 39-year-old, they'd take it. 

Such a season is not unprecedented. A search on Baseball-Reference for 39-year-olds who managed at least a 110 OPS+ while qualifying for the batting title revealed:

Qualified 39-Year-Olds with a OPS+ > 110
Player Year G PA OPS+
Barry Bonds 2004 147 617 263
Ted Williams 1958 129 517 179
Babe Ruth 1934 125 471 160
Willie Mays 1970 139 566 140
Eddie Collins 1926 106 455 138
Joe Kuhel 1945 142 615 135
Cy Williams 1927 131 569 134
Willie McCovey 1977 141 548 132
Reggie Jackson 1985 143 541 130
Jimmy Ryan 1902 120 540 130
Eddie Murray 1995 113 480 129
Dummy Hoy 1901 132 641 126
Frank Thomas 2007 155 624 125
Bob Johnson 1945 143 593 125
Jeff Kent 2007 136 562 123
Andres Galarraga 2000 141 548 123
Chipper Jones 2011 126 512 121
Dave Winfield 1991 150 633 120
Tris Speaker 1927 141 596 119
Dave Parker 1990 157 669 118
Luke Appling 1946 149 659 117
Paul Molitor 1996 161 729 116
Darrell Evans 1986 151 601 116
Joe Morgan 1983 123 504 116
Honus Wagner 1913 114 454 113

Baseball-Reference.com

A collection of 25 previous cases will do for encouraging, and it's not like we're looking at a bunch of guys who were loaded with PEDs. The only guy who really fits that description is the guy at the top.

So whether we're talking hitters who came back strong after a year off or hitters who were above-average producers at the age of 39, there's historical precedent for what A-Rod will be looking to do in 2015. That's one reason to think he can come back strong.

Beyond that, it comes down to whether A-Rod has anything left in the tank. Based on what happened in his 2013 cameo, I believe he might.

A-Rod did look done as a productive player at the end of 2012. In 156 plate appearances between the end of the regular season and the postseason, he hit .235/.314/.324 with 44 strikeouts (a 28.2 K%). It was ugly.

But no wonder. Rodriguez was trying to come back from a broken hand, a tough injury for a hitter to come back from. On top of that, he was battling a bad left hip that would eventually need surgery.

It took A-Rod a while to get healthy. But once he did return in 2013, he certainly looked healthier than the last time we saw him. Here's a quick statistical comparison:

Unhealthy A-Rod vs. Healthy A-Rod
Split G PA K% BB% AVG OBP SLUG HR
Unhealthy, 2012 35 156 28.2 9.7 .235 .314 .324 3
Healthy, 2013 44 181 23.8 12.7 .244 .348 .423 7

Baseball-Reference.com

The numbers Rodriguez put up in his return aren't mind-blowing. A .244 average is nothing to brag about. But a .348 OBP is solid, and that .423 slugging percentage looks better if you take the singles out. Do that, and you get a .179 isolated power, a 21-point improvement on his 2012 ISO.

I'd also wager that A-Rod's production should have been better. There was one thing he was doing better in 2013 than he was doing in 2012 without being rewarded for it: hitting fastballs.

Here's a look at some figures from Brooks Baseball:

Alex Rodriguez vs. Four-Seam Fastballs
Split % of Total Pitches Seen Whiff/Swing AVG ISO BABIP
Unhealthy, 2012 36.5 35.14 .273 .205 .409
Healthy, 2013 42.9 23.40 .257 .200 .278

Brooks Baseball

The whiff/swing figure for 2012 should sound about right if you were watching A-Rod in the fall months. He just couldn't catch up to a good fastball, especially by the time October rolled around.

It would seem that pitchers were banking on that continuing when Rodriguez returned in 2013, as they fed him a more steady diet of four-seamers. But it didn't, as the healthy A-Rod's whiff/swing against four-seamers went way down.

Then you notice that Rodriguez had an absurd .409 BABIP against four-seamers in his unhealthy period in 2012. By all rights, that number belongs in the row below. If it was there, Rodriguez's production against four-seamers in 2013 would trump his production against four-seamers down the stretch in 2012.

Is A-Rod finished as a productive player even if he does return in 2015?

Submit Vote vote to see results

This is the long way around the barn of saying that Rodriguez fixed the biggest weakness of his unhealthy days of 2012 when he returned in 2013 and deserved to be rewarded accordingly. Maybe he'll get the luck owed to him if he's able to keep it up in 2015.

Now, I should grant that my colleague, Adam Wells, was right to point out that Rodriguez is starting to cheat on fastballs to make up for his lack of explosive bat speed. That can get the job done against heat, but cheating against heat leaves one vulnerable to slow stuff.

Still, I'd rather have a guy who can hit hard stuff than a guy who can hit slow stuff. No matter how much offspeed stuff pitchers take to throwing a given hitter, said hitter will still be seeing hard stuff the majority of the time. That would be the case with A-Rod in 2015, and he'll still have the good eye to avoid having his production totally wrecked by an inability to adjust to slow stuff on the fly.

Before we go our separate ways, I should finally acknowledge that this entire conversation could be moot in the long run. As of now, the odds are solid that A-Rod will never play again. If the Yankees choose to swallow the last three years of his contract and just release him, other teams could shun Rodriguez into retirement, a la Barry Bonds.

But if A-Rod does return to the diamond in 2015, don't be too quick to assume that he's going to have nothing to give. Him turning out to be a capable and productive player really wouldn't be the hugest surprise.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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