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June 22, 2009

Struggling Superstar

What's Eating A-Rod?

by Baseball Prospectus

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Performance Analysis: During the radio broadcast of last Thursday's game between the Yankees and the Nationals, a local beat writer joined YES announcers John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman in the booth, relaying an anecdote regarding Joe Girardi's attitude toward Alex Rodriguez's struggles. The writer said that the Yankee manager had no intention of giving the slugger a day off even amid his current slump because the team couldn't afford to have Rodriguez miss a day. Yet hours after Rodriguez's 0-for-4 showing against soft-tossing rookie Craig Stammen and company amid a 3-0 defeat, the team announced that he would sit out the next two games due to fatigue.

Call it the latest twist in Rodriguez's annus horribilis. Back in February, Selena Roberts identified the game's highest-paid player as one of the 104 players who tested positive for steroids during the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey testing, a report that became the centerpiece of a salacious tome painting him as a pants-on-fire liar as well as a pumpkin-eating cheater. A month later, the Yankees discovered that Rodriguez required surgery to repair a torn hip labrum, with Dr. Marc Philippon devising a procedure that would sideline him only until May while requiring a second operation after the season. His 2009 debut delayed until May 8, Rodriguez announced his return with a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw, but he was hitting just .212/.370/.462 at the time of his benching, including an 8-for-55 June.

The schadenfreudians might believe that Rodriguez is receiving a cosmic comeuppance for his sins, but the slugger's statistical line suggests that his slump is nothing extraordinary, except perhaps in the context of his extraordinary career. His .250 Isolated Power (or ISO, slugging percentage minus batting average) is 22 points below his career mark, but about the same distance above two of his five full seasons in pinstripes. It surpasses all but 24 batting-title qualifiers, not that A-Rod himself has enough plate appearances to qualify. He's homered in 5.4 percent of his PA, which would rank ninth among qualifiers, though it would be the fifth-lowest mark of his career.

The 33-year-old superstar's real problem is that the hits aren't falling in for him. Prior to his benching, Rodriguez's batting average on balls in play was .192, 128 points below his career mark, and 10 points below the next-lowest qualifier, Jay Bruce. Upon closer inspection, he's hit line drives-which result in hits far more frequently than any other type-on just 14.8 percent of his balls in play, well below last year's 18.1 percent. Meanwhile, his ground-ball rate has risen significantly. Using BP Idol contestant Brian Cartwright's BABIP estimator (15 × FB% + .24 × GB% + .73 × LD%) with the Baseball Info Solutions-based data around which he designed that formula (instead of our own MLB Advanced Media-based data, which differs somewhat), we can see how askew A-Rod's results are:

Year    LD%    GB%    FB%  eBABIP  BABIP    dif
2002   19.0   38.1   42.9   .294   .292   -.002
2003   22.8   38.8   38.4   .317   .309   -.008
2004   15.5   45.2   39.3   .281   .313    .032
2005   15.6   44.8   39.7   .281   .349    .068
2006   18.1   42.3   39.6   .293   .329    .036
2007   16.9   41.1   41.9   .285   .315    .030
2008   18.1   42.0   39.9   .293   .332    .039
2009   14.8   46.3   38.9   .278   .192   -.086
Total  17.9   41.8   40.2   .291   .315    .024

Because BABIP is so unstable, the formula isn't terribly accurate given one season's worth of data; Cartwright notes that the annual root mean square error for hitters is 36 points. Even so, while A-Rod may be making solid contact less frequently, his batted-ball distribution isn't so out of whack that it should produce a sub-.200 BABIP. Decreased foot speed from aging or injury doesn't explain the dip, either; he's produced infield hits on about eight percent of ground balls since 2002, but just four percent this year-a shortfall of just two hits.

Indeed, his numbers could simply be the product of bad luck in a small sample size. Such low BABIPs over the course of exactly 165 PA aren't uncommon, with 86 hitters-many of them accomplished sluggers-enduring such stretches since Opening Day 2007, including eight this year:

Player              Dates    eBABIP  BABIP
Jay Bruce          5/6-6/19   .251   .164
Brian Giles        4/6-5/21   .265   .168
Ian Kinsler       4/21-5/30   .231   .181
Adrian Gonzalez    5/1-6/13   .272   .183
Dan Uggla         4/18-6/1    .224   .184
Alex Rodriguez     5/8-6/18   .275   .192
Garrett Atkins    4/17-6/5    .274   .198
Ian Stewart       4/20-6/19   .238   .200

It happens. If there's an area of Rodriguez's performance that should draw concern, it's his elevated walk rate: he's drawing an unintentional pass in 17.5 percent of his PA, which would rank second among qualifiers, but more tellingly would shatter his career high (14.1 percent in 2000). That suggests Rodriguez may be laying off pitches that he'd otherwise hit, and hit hard. Whether that's due to fatigue, injury, or aging, only time and a larger sample size will tell.-Jay Jaffe

Health Report: A-Rod is one of several star players to recently have a procedure known as femoral-acetabular impingement labroplasty. Yes, the acronym for it is "FAIL," but this operation has been a success for the three players that have come back so far-Rodriguez, Chase Utley, and Mike Lowell-while early results on Alex Gordon and Carlos Delgado have been good as well. The problem is that while many skiers have recovered successfully from this operation, there's almost nothing beyond these very few names to go on as to how this will affect a baseball player. Even among the three that have come back, the surgery was markedly different for each. Utley and Lowell had a "full FAIL," where the acetabular labrum has the tearing smoothed out and the ball of the femur is also smoothed by a grinding procedure. In contrast, Rodriguez had a hybrid procedure where the labrum was smoothed, but the femur was "left for later." There was an injection of lubricating gel to help him make it to the offseason.

Where the failing of the FAIL seemed to happen is in the playing time. While the Yankees were ultra-conservative with Rodriguez during rehab, they suddenly forgot the schedule of offdays that Rodriguez's doctors had set up. Sources tell me that Rodriguez's hip still shows a small strength and range deficit, one that's become worse with fatigue. A more regular schedule of rest would appear to be necessary, and it should help get Rodriguez back on track physically.-Will Carroll

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  Alex Rodriguez,  A-rod,  Benching

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