Either tonight, tomorrow, or at some point in the near future, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is going to swing his familiar swing the way he has 599 times before and become the seventh player ever to hit 600 major league home runs.
When he does so, he will join an exclusive club comprised of Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., and Sammy Sosa.
What will then follow will be a career-ending assault on the major league career home run record of 762 career home runs set by Bonds in 2007.
We've been waiting for this for years, especially since just a few years ago when it was revealed that Bonds had come by his home runs dishonestly and Rodriguez was held out as the guy who would reclaim Hank Aaron's record for the good and the just.
Of course, A-Rod has since been revealed to have used steroids himself, but that isn't the point of this article. The point of this article is the following question:
Does anybody think Alex Rodriguez has 162 home runs left in him?
We know this to be true: At 35 years of age (A-Rod will be 35 on July 27), Rodriguez will be the youngest player ever to hit his 600th home run. Of the other members of the club, Ruth was 36, Bonds and Aaron were 37, and Sosa, Mays, and Griffey were all 38.
It only stands to reason that if Bonds and Aaron could hit 150 more home runs after the age of 37, then surely A-Rod can do so after the age of 35.
I'm not so sure about that.
There are a couple of reasons to think that A-Rod is a lot closer to the end of the line than we think.
First, and most obviously, A-Rod is "older" than his age.
Remember, while A-Rod is younger than Bonds and Aaron were when they got their 600th home runs, A-Rod has been a major leaguer for much longer than either Aaron or Bonds had been at the age of 35. Before the month is out—in fact, possibly before he even hits number 600—A-Rod will become the 74th major leaguer with 10,000 plate appearances.
While A-Rod is young, he has definitely already had a full and complete career. His career total at this point already puts him ahead of Mickey Mantle, Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Harmon Killebrew, and Willie McCovey in career PAs.
Second, A-Rod appears to be slowing down. Over the last two years, A-Rod posted the lowest two-season home run total of his career since the 1997-1998 season.
More importantly, his numbers in 2010 are down across the board. A-Rod currently has a .272 batting average, a .347 on-base percentage, and a .488 slugging percentage; these would all be career lows.
He is on pace to hit fewer than 30 home runs for the first time since 1997, and even if he plays over 140 games, there is no guarantee that he is going to score 100 runs, something he has never failed to do in 140 or more games.
A-Rod is leading the league in an interesting statistic for the first time, though: He currently has seven sacrifice flies. What that tells me is that balls that would have gone out in previous years aren't going out this year.
The news is even worse when one considers his home/road splits.
A-Rod is currently sporting a .291/.370/.532/.902 line at Yankee Stadium, which means he is having trouble hitting away from his hitter-friendly home ballpark. It shows: A-Rod has posted a .257/.329/.454/.782 line on the road this season.
Is this a guy who is going to bash for five to seven more years?
Third, A-Rod is not playing a position that has historically been given to longevity. Let's look at that list of the 600 home run club again: Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey, Sosa.
Left field, right field, right field, center field, center field, right field.
For whatever reason, the game takes a greater toll on third basemen and shortstops than it does on outfielders. Of 73 players to ever cross the 10,000 plate appearance barrier, only 16 were primarily shortstops or third basemen.
Of the shortstops or third basemen who hit 300 or more home runs, the barrier has not been kind. Mike Schmidt limped across the barrier, managing only 62 more PAs. Eddie Mathews hardly did better, gaining only 101 more. Graig Nettles managed only 226 more plate appearances, while Darrell Evans had 737 more but hit only .208 with 33 home runs over those last two seasons.
Cal Ripken Jr. and George Brett exceeded the 10,000 PA barrier by 2,883 and 1,624, respectively, but neither of them did anything to write home about in their last couple of seasons.
What's the point? Even though he is only going to be 35 years old, A-Rod is entering a phase of his career from a mileage perspective where most third basemen and shortstops have tended to begin to drop off, if not disappear altogether.
Finally, there is the issue of Era. Call it what you will—the Steroid Era, the Expansion Era, the Home Run Era, the Era of Offensive Inflation—but we are no longer in it.
As we enjoy what has quickly become known as the Year of the Pitcher, bear in mind the fact that Bonds, Sosa, and Griffey all accumulated their home runs during a period in which the home run leader in each league hit 46 or more home runs every year for a decade (strike years excluded).
As a result, Bonds was able to go from 445 home runs at the end of the 1999 season to 703 home runs just five seasons later. In just five years from 1998 to 2002, Sosa was able to add 292 home runs—the number Rusty Staub hit during his entire career—to his career total. Griffey hit 200 home runs in four years from 1997 to 2000, and then hit just 192 more over the last 10 years of his career.
But Rodriguez—who, don't get me wrong, has also benefited from the era of offensive inflation—is now playing in a league in which it has been two full seasons since a player has hit 40 or more home runs.
Assuming the current trend continues, and there is no reason to think it won't, A-Rod will be playing into the late stages of his career in an environment in which home runs have become scarce. What if A-Rod only averages 20 home runs per season after 2010? He'd have to play five more years just to get to 700, and then another three years to get to 762.
Keep in mind, for every year we assume A-Rod is going to play past 2010, that is approximately 600 more plate appearances we have to assume A-Rod will be accumulating. Two more seasons after 2010 would take him into the top 30 in career PAs; three more would take him into the top 20.
He is fast approaching some rare company.
When Alex Rodriguez turns 35 years old at the end of this month, he will have over 10,000 plate appearances, 1,700-plus runs, nearly 1,800 RBI, 5,000 total bases, and, in all likelihood, 600 home runs.
These are numbers that we generally expect to see from a guy at the end of his career, not entering the final five years of his career.
Rodriguez has had a long and storied career, and I will brag about having seen him in person. For his sake, I hope he plays until his heart is content.
I think there is reason to suspect that the end of his career is approaching a lot faster than we realize.