November 2, 2009
Maybe this will be the stake in the heart, the straw that breaks the camel's back, the end of an era. Maybe the RBI double that tore up a thousand game stories will wreak its havoc on millions more to come. Maybe, just maybe, Alex Rodriguez did not only himself a favor, but did one for hundreds upon hundreds of baseball players to follow him.
With a late-night, two-out line drive to left field, Rodriguez broke a ninth-inning tie in Game Four of the World Series. His overall statistics in the Series remain poor-.143/.333/.429-but he's made his hits count, with a two-run home run that turned Game Three around and his game-winning double last night. The overall postseason line remains staggering, .348/.483/.804 with six home runs. It's not just that he's put up statistics; Rodriguez has had big hit after big hit in this postseason, so many that there's no longer any way to argue that he has some ineffable quality that makes him a great player for six months and a poor one after that. He is a great player all the time.
This has always been obvious to anyone willing to take a reasoned look at Rodriguez's work in the playoffs or, for that matter, to anyone sensible enough to understand baseball's complexity. We can train all the cameras we want on a playoff game, but it's still baseball. Failure is more common than success, at least for hitters. Outcomes swing wildly over the span of a few games, and just as players do in the regular season, they have good stretches and bad in the postseason. Few get enough opportunities for their postseason statistics to acquire significance, so we inflate or deflate the reputations of some based on tiny amounts of evidence; not enough evidence, just data, data that doesn't carry nearly enough weight for the conclusions reached from it. Sometimes, and this is the insidious part, data gets carved up to reach preconceived notions. Both contributed to the narrative of Alex Rodriguez.
Through October 16, 2004, Rodriguez had played in 22 postseason games, stretching back to some cameos with the 1995 Mariners and through Game Three of the 2004 ALCS. In those games, he batted 94 times, hitting .372/.419/.640. This included a monster series in the 2000 ALCS against the Yankees, and a carry-the-team performance, clutch hits included in the 2004 ALDS against the Twins. In his next 15 postseason games, from the Yankees' collapse in the ALCS that year through the first two games of the 2007 Division Series, Rodriguez batted 67 times and was awful: .096/.299/.173. Most famously, he was 1-for-14 against the Tigers in the 2006 Division Series and was dropped by Joe Torre to the eighth slot in the batting order for the fourth game. It was in this period that the legend of Rodriguez was formed but, in fact, that legend was the product of variance and viciousness. His performance, while terrible, and was out of context not just with his career, but his postseason career. To decide that Alex Rodriguez had a fatal flaw, you had to ignore 60 percent of his postseason plate appearances, including a series-dominating performance in 2004 against the Twins. You had to want it.
By the end of that second stretch, Rodriguez had 161 career plate appearances, about a quarter of a season, and a line of .268/.369/.464. That's below his career numbers, of course, but given top postseason competition well within a reasonable range of performance.
Starting with the last two games of the 2007 Division Series, Rodriguez has gone crazy, batting .364/.478/.800 in 69 plate appearances. His career postseason line now stands at .295/.400/.560 in 230 plate appearances. Compare that to his regular season rates of .305/.390/.576, adjust for competition and weather, and realize that Rodriguez, on the whole, has perhaps been a better player in the playoffs than he has in the regular season. He now has 163 appearances outside of the 15-game slump in which he's hit like Babe Ruth's little brother, and those appearances count for about 70 percent of his postseason career. Broken down by series, and tossing 1995 (two PAs in two rounds), you find that Rodriguez has had four great series, three good ones, four middling ones, and that disastrous ALDS in 2006. That's a track record any player would take.
It's not enough, though, for the story around Rodriguez to change. The lesson here shouldn't be that maybe people were wrong to destroy Rodriguez for having 15 bad games at the wrong time. (Not that it will be; the narrative is now about how he's changed, relaxed, matured. God love the mainstream media.) No, the lesson here should be that it's wrong to reach conclusions about a person's character based on their postseason performance. Hits are clutch. Pitches are clutch. Great double-play turns are clutch. Baseball players are just people, and they're subject to the ups and downs of a baseball season even when, maybe especially when, they get to play into October. A three- or four-game stretch in which a player does nothing-or does everything-isn't that unusual in any season. It happens, in fact, all the time without notice. The problem when a player does the very baseball thing in October isn't him; it's the observers, desperate to divine meaning, airtime, column inches from something that is actually quite mundane.
The lesson of the 2009 postseason isn't that Alex Rodriguez really is clutch. It's that over a week or two or three of baseball, performance varies so wildly that the results tell you nothing about the players. Given enough time, Alex Rodriguez has played in the postseason as he does during the regular season. For any of these guys, given enough playing time, they'll perform in the postseason as they do in the regular season. That's the takeaway.
Tune in for my chat at 3 p.m., a pre-game Unfiltered, Roundtable all night, and in-game updates via Twitter. All World Series, all the time.