For so many, Alex Rodriguez is providing something close to their worst-case scenario.
There is zero doubt many fans, media members and even those within Major League Baseball—uniformed or not—wanted A-Rod to fall flat on his face in 2015, to resemble the broken-down, washed-up player he was in 2012 and 2013. Only worse.
Ideally for those people irate at the performance-enhancing-drug scandals he has been named in, Rodriguez would have come off his yearlong suspension handed down by former commissioner Bud Selig and been a disaster for the New York Yankees. That would have appeased the masses.
Except A-Rod isn’t playing along. Instead, he’s doing all that his soon-to-be-40-year-old body is capable of to turn back the clock to his glory days. The effort continued Friday night when Rodriguez thumped a go-ahead home run in the seventh inning to push the Yankees to a 4-3 win over the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium.
That home run was Rodriguez’s 19th of the season, the most he’s had in a year since 2010 when he hit 30 and drove in 125. And aside from being an all-around offensive producer for the Bombers, he has also contributed with the timeliness of his hits.
He has three home runs in his last four games and has had hits in each of those four that gave the Yankees a lead.
Entering Friday’s game, A-Rod had hit two of his homers in high-leverage situations and had a .969 OPS in 34 plate appearances. Those numbers went up Friday, again putting him front and center in the Comeback Player of the Year discussion. Sportswriter Katie Sharp noted this stat:
A-Rod is the only Yankee this season to hit 2 go-ahead homers in the 7th inning or later (also May 1 vs Red Sox)— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) July 18, 2015
There are logical reasons for Rodriguez’s uptick since the last time we saw him in uniform. He is healthy, first and foremost. His hips are as mobile and pain-free as they can be at this point in his career, and that is allowing him to get to balls he was unable to in 2013 when his strikeout rate was nearly 24 percent, the highest it had been since his rookie season with the Mariners in 1995.
Considering Rodriguez is one of the greatest offensive players the sport has ever seen—doped up or not—you had to figure he had not forgotten how to hit an inside fastball. His body just wasn’t letting him. It was a case of health.
Where many believed, understandably, that at his age the imposed year off due to his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal would be too difficult to come back from, it ended up being a very long and beneficial rehab process.
“I think for me the time off benefited me, and I feel good, healthy, ready to go," Rodriguez said, via Bob Nightengale of USA Today, during spring training. "It was the first time I had a chance to rest a full year in my career, and get a chance to train, versus rehab, so feeling good.”
With health now on his side, Rodriguez is producing at an elite level, making his exclusion from the American League All-Star roster ridiculous but predictable given his past transgressions and the disdain from a certain faction of his peers.
Rodriguez came out of the All-Star break with the seventh-highest wRC+ (148) in the league, according to FanGraphs. He also had a 147 adjusted OPS, which would be his highest mark since 2008 when it was 150 and he led the league with a .573 slugging percentage.
This current resurgence also makes it reasonable to expect Rodriguez to keep this up beyond this year.
That would be a massive boost for the Yankees, a team that had to wonder whether Rodriguez’s sliding production and negative PR was worth keeping around at $61 million over the final three years of his contract (they're on the hook for $40 million after this season). They pretty much neglected to promote his passing of Willie Mays on the all-time home run list, as well as his 3,000th hit this year.
But they cannot deny his worth at a time when the franchise no longer dominates the AL East like it did a decade ago. Rodriguez is one of the best players on the roster, and the way he has performed makes it realistic that he can be one of the league’s best designated hitters for the duration of his contract.
Rodriguez turns 40 in 10 days. That is an age when hitters who rely on power should morph into empty shells of their past selves. A-Rod seemed headed for that fate a couple of seasons ago.
Now, however, he is defying natural decline, and we can assume he is doing it clean, as it would surprise exactly nobody if it ever came out that Rodriguez was the most tested player in the game. Maybe he backslides in 2016 and looks every bit of his age in 2017.
But as of now, one of the best players the sport has ever witnessed is showing why that moniker is real. He has not forgotten how to hit. And the Yankees need every last drop of whatever he has left for as long as he can give it to them.
All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.