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July 13, 2012
The Rapid Aging of A-Rod
When Major League Baseball’s All-Stars convened in Kansas City earlier this week, one notable name was nowhere to be found: Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez has been an All-Star 14 times, more than any other active player. He leads all active players in career value, according to traditional stats (HR, R, RBI) and advanced stats (WARP) alike. Only a handful of players in history have done as much to help their teams win. But career accomplishments mean only so much. To be considered one of the best players in baseball, you have to continue to play like one. And lately, A-Rod hasn’t looked a lot like an All-Star.
Rodriguez won his third AL MVP award in 2007. Since then, his performance has declined in five straight seasons. Most players can expect to see their numbers take a tumble after an MVP season, but A-Rod’s decline goes beyond routine regression. He’s not coming back down to earth. He’s falling off the face of it.
A-Rod’s Declining Performance and Playing Time, 2008-12
Since 2007, Rodriguez has lost an average of 14 points of True Average per season. Not only is he not playing as well, he’s not playing as often: after making more than 700 plate appearances for the sixth time in ’07, he has yet to reach 600 in any season since. That combination of increasing infirmity and faltering offense culminated in a career-low 2.8 WARP in 2011.
There’s nothing unusual about the fact that A-Rod isn’t as dangerous or as durable at 36 as he was at 31. What is unusual is how fast and how far he’s fallen.
When the Yankees re-signed Rodriguez to a 10-year, $275 million deal in December 2007 that would take him through his age-41 season, they knew his play probably wouldn’t be worth an annual salary of $20 million or more toward the end of the contract. Their hope was that he’d be playable for the duration of the deal, do well enough early on to make the total expenditure tolerable, and rewrite the record books along the way. It’s still conceivable that their hope could come true. But to borrow a line from Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early for A-Rod.
The following graph shows the TAv trajectory by year for average players, Hall of Fame-eligible players, Hall of Famers, and “inner-circle” Hall of Famers, along with a best-fit curve for A-Rod based on his performance so far. All five curves have been re-baselined to be equal at age 27, allowing us to compare their trajectories more easily. What’s important isn’t the TAv of each, but the decline in the TAv of each from year to year.
What we see is that the performance of HoF-eligible hitters (those who play for at least 10 seasons) tends to decline more gradually than that of average hitters. But even though A-Rod is a member of that HoF-eligible group, he’s not declining like one. His aging curve places his rate of decline roughly halfway between that of the HoF-eligible players and that of the average ones.
Interestingly, both average Hall of Fame hitters and “inner-circle” Hall of Fame age at roughly the same rate as players who are eligible for the Hall but aren’t inducted. But because those inner-circle Hall members have such high peaks, they tend to remain productive well into their late-30s (and sometimes beyond). The same hasn’t held true for Rodriguez.
Age-36 True Averages of Hitters with at Least 100 WARP Since 1950
If A-Rod’s offense continues to decline along the path predicted by the curve, it won’t be long before he’s a liability. PECOTA projects his TAv to bounce back to .306 in the second half. Let’s say it does: in that case, he’d finish 2012 with a .290 mark. Even in that relatively rosy scenario, Rodriguez projects to be a significantly below-average hitter for at least the last two years of his contract. And if he can’t continue to play third, his bat will be even less valuable.
A-Rod’s Projected True Averages, Ages 36-41
A-Rod’s health—which may have caused some of his struggles—is an equally serious problem. From 2001-2007, he avoided the disabled list entirely. From 2008-2012, he’s been on the DL four times and had surgeries on his hip and knee. Last winter, Rodriguez traveled to Germany to undergo an experimental Orthokine procedure on his knee and shoulder, and he’s played in all but three of the Yankees’ games this season. But the larger trend is disturbing.
Almost from the start, A-Rod made many more trips to the plate than the average major leaguer his age. But over the past few seasons, the gap has almost disappeared. The average player makes 18 percent fewer annual plate appearances from ages 32-35 than he does from ages 25-29. Rodriguez’s average annual plate appearances over that period declined by 25 percent.
Some might attribute A-Rod’s seemingly accelerated aging to his admitted use of steroids, but any connection is purely speculative. Rodriguez claims to have been clean since 2003. Since then, he has two more MVP awards than he does failed drug tests. It’s impossible to prove that his past PED use is unrelated to his recent performance, but he’s hardly the first player to decline more quickly than expected. Before blaming A-Rod’s history for his present problems, consider that clean-living anti-steroid crusader Dale Murphy, a Hall-of-Fame caliber player in his prime, was essentially finished at age 32. Player aging isn’t completely predictable, and there are no absolutes. We know when most players reach their peaks and start to decline, but not every player follows the typical pattern.
Regardless of the reason for his atypical aging, A-Rod’s recent play has hurt his chances of making history (and the additional $30 million he stands to make in milestone incentives). From 2010-2012, Rodriguez has hit 59 home runs in 1200 at-bats, or roughly one every 20. He remains 120 home runs behind Barry Bonds on the all-time list. Even assuming A-Rod suffers no further performance decline and continues to hit home runs at the same rate he has since 2010—an iffy assumption to make—he’d need over 2450 at-bats to pass Bonds. If he stays healthy, he could make that mark by the time he turns 40. But if he averages 462 at-bats per season, as he did from 2008-11, he won’t get to 2450 until the final weeks of his age-41 season, the last of his current contract. That sounds like the perfect set-up for a storybook ending—an ancient A-Rod limping around the bases and becoming baseball’s home run king just before the book closes on his contract—but it’s more likely to be fiction than fact.
The Yankees are the one team that could afford to give A-Rod his current contract, and they’re the one team that can continue to compete even after it becomes a burden. But they couldn’t have expected it to become a burden so soon.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .