Alex Rodriguez Proving to Be No Easy out as He Carries Yankees Early

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 18, 2015

USA Today

We all knew the script. In his return from a season-long suspension, Alex Rodriguez was supposed to be over-the-hill dead weight in the middle of the New York Yankees' lineup in 2015.

Evidently, he must have lost his copy. All of a sudden, A-Rod is clobbering the ball all over the place and, in doing so, carrying an otherwise sluggish Yankees offense on his shoulders.

What happened Friday night at Tropicana Field is a microcosm of the whole affair. The soon-to-be 40-year-old Rodriguez led the Yankees to a 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays by collecting four RBI on two home runs—Nos. 657 and 658 for his career, putting him just two behind Willie Mays on the all-time listand a go-ahead RBI single in the eighth inning.

We'll get back to that RBI hit in good time. But since you probably came here for the dingers first and foremost, let's check out the dingers.

The first was an absolute moonshot that ESPN Stats & Info measured at 477 feet, the longest in the majors so far this season. Here it is in moving pictures:

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And here's the second, which was a laser down the left field line:

Thanks largely to these two dingers, A-Rod drove in as many runs as the Rays themselves. Per Erik Boland of Newsday, that prompted Yankees skipper Joe Girardi to state the obvious:

It's not a stretch to say A-Rod has carried the Yankees offense. He's hitting .344 with a 1.214 OPS, which stands out in an offense that's hitting just .222 with a .712 OPS as a whole. According to FanGraphs, Rodriguez has a laughably large margin in park-adjusted offense over all other Yankees regulars.

Of course, A-Rod can't possibly keep this up. I know that. You know that. We all know that.

There's the reality that he's darn near 40, for one. Another reality is that he hasn't been productive for a full season since 2007. Then there's how it's beyond unlikely that he's going to continue producing at a high level as long as he's striking out more than 30 percent of the time. The BABIP gods are favoring him with a .438 average on balls in play, but that will disintegrate eventually.

However, just because we must acknowledge A-Rod's eventual slowdown doesn't mean we can't also give him his due credit. There is, after all, a lot more than just luck driving his early hot hitting.

Apr 17, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; New York Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez (13) hits a solo home run during the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At the least, you've probably noticed that A-Rod hasn't been getting by on squibbers and Texas Leaguers in the early goings. Seemingly every ball he's put in play has been hit hard.

Your eyes haven't deceived you. According to FanGraphs, A-Rod came into Friday night's game with a career-high 25 percent line-drive rate. That there's good for collecting base hits. Elsewhere, he also came in boasting a 50 percent fly-ball rate with an infield fly-ball rate of 0 percent. That there's good for power.

Going back to the eye test, it sure seems like a lot of this hard contact is coming from Rodriguez's ability to punish mistakes.

For example, you saw him hit a high fastball that was supposed to be low for his first home run on Friday night. The same thing happened when he hit his first home run of the season. When he hit his RBI single, he got a low slider that just didn't do much. And so on.

But this is not to suggest that pitchers only need to stop making mistakes and wait for the luck dragons to abandon A-Rod to slow him down. Not making mistakes is a good place to start, but he has also quietly shown that the general approach pitchers are using against him isn't going to work.

Alex Rodriguez's Fastball %s
YearFB%
201157.6
201257.2
201357.8
201560.4
FanGraphs

One thing this approach involves is more fastballs. FanGraphs put A-Rod's fastball percentage at 60.4 coming into Friday's action, which is higher than the league average of 58.5 and several ticks higher than what he was getting between 2011 and 2013.

This isn't working. Brooks Baseball had A-Rod hitting .353 with both of his homers against heaters at the start of play on Friday, and then he hit two more home runs on heaters.

As if it wasn't self-evident enough, here's ESPN.com's Buster Olney to note that A-Rod has erased a pretty big question mark with his domination of fastballs:

But the approach to A-Rod hasn't just involved a steadier diet of hard stuff. It's also involved a steadier diet of inside stuff.

Owen Watson of FanGraphs noticed as much before Friday's game, noting that Rodriguez had so far seen 8.4 percent more pitches on the inner third of the zone than the average hitter. That's an indication that pitchers don't think his aging bat is quick enough to hit anything close to him.

Well, about that...here's a plot of his batting averages, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

Once again, this was before Friday night's game. Not included here is the laser that A-Rod hit for his second homer of the night, which came on a two-seamer that drifted over the inner third of the zone.

Fortunately for opposing pitchers, Rodriguez certainly isn't unbeatable.

You can see that he's been dicey beyond the area where he's being pitched the most. And while he's crushing fastballs, he came into Friday's game hitting .100 against breaking stuff and .250 against off-speed stuff, with just one extra-base hit against both. Also, here's a chart that shows he's done a lot of swinging and missing at the slow stuff.

As such, the message actually appears to be quite simple: stop being so predictable. Pitch A-Rod not like some helpless geezer but like a perfectly capable major league hitter.

Because that's what he is, folks. Against all odds, that's what he is. 

And that's OK. If we're being honest, this new script is a lot more fun than the old one.

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

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