Why we can expect a better OBP from Alex Rodriguez, the sequel

Fan Confidence Poll: November 21st, 2011
Granderson, Cano finish fourth and sixth in AL MVP race
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Last offseason, on the heels of Alex Rodriguez posting a career-low .341 OBP over 595 PAs (an OBP only .016 points above league average), I posited that Alex was a strong bet for an improvement on that mark for the 2011 season, and indeed, Alex turned in a .362 OBP over significantly fewer PAs (428). While that mark still falls well short of his career .386 OBP, it wound up being the third-best OBP on the 2011 Yankees, and was well above the league average of .321.

For the second straight winter, I think Yankee fans can realistically expect an improved on-base percentage from Alex next season. Now the obvious reason for optimism is the fact that Alex basically only played half a season in 2011. During his healthy first half, he was hitting .299/.377/.507 through the end of June. The seven games he played in in July before hitting the shelf for knee surgery didn’t do anything to help his cause, and his OBP fell to .366 as he went on the DL (with 33 walks and four HBPs to his name through 80 team games). Alex didn’t really do much of anything in the 19 games he played over the remainder of the season — though he still managed to get on base — putting up a  .191/.345/.353 line (15 walks, 1 HBP) over his final 84 PAs.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that a healthy Alex would have managed to come close to doubling his first half walk total, finishing the year at around 65 walks, which is what he did in 2008, a season he OBP’d .392 in 594 PAs. Now, this hypothetical healthy 2011 Alex still might not have finished with an OBP quite that high, but he was also hitting .295 at the time of his injury with 90 hits. For comparison’s sake, he hit .302 in 2008 and had 154 hits. Without going too crazy with extrapolations, it doesn’t seem terribly unrealistic to expect a .290-ish-hitting A-Rod to post an OBP somewhere in the high .370s.

Of course, that’s all a bit too intangible, so I’ll expand on the idea some by looking at Alex’s plate discipline data. I gathered PD data for Alex going back to 2009 from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, as it seems the general consensus has been that BP’s newly introduced data is superior to that of FanGraphs’ BIS-provided percentages and I was curious to see just how much the two data sets differentiated. For the most part, in the small sample that I culled, it appeared that the differences in the data sets were mostly on the order of 100 to 500 basis points — which sounds like a lot, except 100 basis points = 1% — with BP’s numbers generally coming in slightly lower. The major difference between the two sets is in the Swinging Strike%, as it appears that BP’s percentage also includes foul balls.

Anyway, I point all this out to show that yes, there are tangible differences, and eventually BP’s will probably be the more reliable go-to, but I’m going to go with FanGraphs for this analysis because the BP data isn’t backfilled/built-out enough yet, as it doesn’t yet allow you to slice and dice by month or compare against career numbers.

Anyway, here are A-Rod’s plate discipline numbers (per FanGraphs) from the last three seasons:

O-Sw% Z-Sw% Sw% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% Sw-Strk%
2009 21.1% 67.4% 42.6% 58.8% 84.9% 78.0% 46.6% 9.1%
2010 25.3% 68.5% 45.0% 65.6% 86.1% 79.8% 45.6% 8.9%
2011 27.0% 66.1% 44.0% 61.7% 83.7% 76.0% 43.4% 10.3%
Car. 21.4% 67.9% 44.0% 53.0% 83.2% 75.7% 48.7% 10.5%

It won’t surprise anyone to see that Alex’s lowest O-Swing% and O-Contact% of the last three years was in 2009, his last .400-plus wOBA campaign. Somewhat foreboding is Alex’s 27% O-Swing% in 2011 — up from 2010’s 25.3% and considerably higher than his 21.4% career mark — though his O-Contact% was down from 2010’s 65.6%, which was his highest percentage since the data started being collected in 2002. Still, the 61.7% O-Contact% was also a good deal higher than his career mark, and Alex swinging at more bad pitches and making more contact with them is probably not a recipe for OBP success.

However, the 2011 data set is a bit skewed by the fact that Alex only had 31 PAs in July, 19 in August and 65 in September.

Here’s his 2011 monthly breakdown:

O-Sw% Z-Sw% Sw% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% Sw-Strk%
April 20.1% 64.0% 38.7% 60.0% 86.2% 78.4% 42.5% 8.4%
May 32.9% 63.9% 47.2% 66.3% 87.7% 79.6% 46.2% 9.3%
June 26.0% 65.0% 43.7% 58.8% 83.0% 75.2% 45.4% 10.5%
July 40.4% 72.2% 56.6% 61.9% 74.4% 70.0% 50.9% 16.8%
August 23.9% 80.7% 46.8% 54.6% 92.0% 80.6% 40.3% 9.1%
Sept. 24.4% 67.7% 39.6% 59.5% 74.6% 68.6% 35.1% 12.2%
Car. 21.4% 67.9% 44.0% 53.0% 83.2% 75.7% 48.7% 10.5%

Alex’s two best months of the season were April (.422 wOBA; 16.3% BB%) and June (.423 wOBA; 11.9% BB%). May was his only fully healthy month of really poor (.328 wOBA; 4.8% BB%) play, although his May line was dragged down by one of the worst four-week stretches of his career, which I spent quite a bit of time documenting earlier this season. April was Alex’s most selective month of the season (a mere 20.1% O-Swing%), which makes it no surprise it was also his best month. His May O-Swing% of 32.9% along with a 66.3% O-Contact% underscore just how out-of-whack he was that month.

In June, his PD numbers were pretty much where you’d expect them to be given his outstanding month, as he basically matched his career averages in every category except — somewhat unexpectedly — O-Swing% and O-Contact%, though the latter was his lowest percentage of the full months he played in 2011.

I would expect a healthy Alex to be swinging more in line with his April and June 2011 rates, and in turn, better the .362 OBP he turned in on the season. The ever-optimistic Bill James agrees, and has Alex hitting .277/.373/.497 next season. That’s probably a bit aggressive, as much of that OBP is fueled by a projected 70 walks and 12.1% BB% — numbers he’s only eclipsed once in the last four seasons (in 2009) — although I’m also not sure I’d bet against a highly motivated Alex Rodriguez. He may be turning 37 next year, but a healthy year should go a long way in silencing some of the critics that wanted to blame the team’s playoff downfall on a far-from-100% A-Rod.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 21st, 2011
Granderson, Cano finish fourth and sixth in AL MVP race
  • MIcah

    Really? “hypocritical” instead of “hypothetical”? Doesn’t anyone proof read these things any more?

    • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

      You know, you don’t have to express your displeasure with one error by Larry. You can just send the correction into the “Submit A Tip” box. You know, instead of looking like a nitpicker in public.

  • ADam

    He’s done being a cleanup hitter, even though Joe will pencil him in every game being Carlos Pen…. I mean Mark Teixeira

    • Need Pitching

      yes, ARod was the Yankees third best everyday hitter this season (by wRC+, 4th by OPS). How dare Joe bat him clean up.

      • thenamestsam

        The perception of ARod’s demise has in some way preceded the actual decline. I think it’s due to all the talk about how bad the contract is (which is true) has made people look ahead a lot to what he will become and forget that he’s still damn good. He nearly doubled Jeter in WAR this past year despite all the missed time, and that projection for next year(although all of Bill James’ projections look overly optimistic) looks extremely strong as well.

        The guy has injury problems and in 4 years he may very well have no business batting cleanup or playing third, but for now he’s still a legitimate middle of the lineup hitter who plays near gold glove caliber defense at third when healthy. But people are so worried about the contract and what he’ll be like down the line that they’re already clamoring to bat him 6th and move him to DH.

  • Mike HC

    Healthy ARod should rake, and unhealthy ARod should do something less than that. Here is to hoping for a healthy ARod.

    • LarryM.,Fl.

      I agree if he’s healthy expectations should be high. If his health is sub par and there are many levels of sub par then his offense will suffer in comparison to the level of health.

      Mr.Koestler your report is well written and backed by statistics but its something not necessary to back up. We as Yankee fans have known Arod for sometime.

      If Cashman makes a trade the initial reaction with statistics may be well worth the initial reaction to the trade.

  • noseeum

    While I agree overall, you can’t forget the reduced league wide offense. Arod’s career OBP is the product of a different offensive environment than we currently have. Combine that with the gradual decline of aging, and I don’t think we can expect him to best his career average anymore.

    Nothing wrong with .370 though! Especially at the bargain rate they get to pay him.

  • NJ_Andy

    While I sort of take a solid OBP for granted from Alex, do we think he can top a .500 slugging % next year? That’s my main concern from A-Rod.

    I trust him to get on base–he’s a smart ballplayer who knows how to work a count–but are his 30 HR seasons behind him?

    • Larry Koestler

      I thought about looking at A-Rod’s SLG while pulling this piece together but wasn’t certain what route I wanted to take; perhaps that’ll be a future post. Without getting too fancy, I’d expect an increased OBP to lead to a better SLG for Alex simply due to improved pitch recognition on his part. And obviously a healthy lower body so he can generate the appropriate power in his swing will be critical for a SLG recovery as well; though that’s a bit tougher to quantify.

      • NJ_Andy

        Very good points. It seems like his batspeed may be lowering as well. His pull numbers (SLG, wOBA, ISO, whatever) have dropped every year since ’07 while his #’s to center have been increasing. Additionally, the speed of the ball off of his bat has begun to drop by a few MPH.

        I’m no expert, but this may be an area of concern.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    I cannot think that any Yankee fan would not be happy with a great season from Arod. Unfortunately history tells us that is seldom he case for a player turning 37. Ted Williams hit over .380 at the age of 40. That was Ted Williams the best hitter the game has ever known. If Arod can do a .370 OBP at 37 that would be quite a surprise. Still, our hopes are that he has a great year overall.

  • Rich in NJ

    At some point over the next year or so as Montero develops, if Alex bats in front of him, he is going to get a lot of fat pitches to hit, especially v. LHP, and his OBP will almost certainly reflect that.

    • noseeum

      I don’t think anyone is going to be avoiding Montero to pitch to Arod in 2012. Even if the kid is a stud with the stick, we shouldn’t be expecting MVP caliber numbers in his first full season.

      • Rainbow Connection

        Rich in NJ actually said none of those things. Please re-read.

        • noseeum

          He may not have said that, but Montero would have to put up MVP type numbers in order to:
          1. Be promoted to hitting behind Arod
          2. Force pitchers to pitch to Arod in order to avoid the dreaded Jesus.