The circus has arrived. Alex Rodriguez is set to rejoin the Yankees this season after serving his 162-game suspension last year, and he’s already made the rounds. He apologized to new commish Rob Manfred. He apologized to the Yankees. He apologized to everyone — including the fans! — in a handwritten statement. That was all necessary in my opinion and it’s done now. Good. Let’s move on.
For the purposes of this post, moving on means talking about actual baseball, not discussing how the Yankees can get out of A-Rod‘s contract or anything like that. Like it or not, Alex is back and the Yankees seem committed to seeing if he has anything left. Considering there are three years and over $60M left on his contract, they have to at least see what he can do, right? He was a pretty good player once upon a time, remember. Maybe the year away did his body good.
Let’s start by laying out some facts:
- A-Rod is 39 and will turn 40 in late-July.
- A-Rod has played zero MLB games in the last 16 months and only 44 games in the last 28 months.
- A-Rod has had surgery on both hips as well as his right knee within the last six years.
That’s all pretty bad as far as on-field production goes. Old players usually don’t perform well. Old players with a recent history of serious injuries perform even worse. Old players with a recent history of serious injuries who haven’t played at all in a year and not that much in two years perform even worse than that. A-Rod hits the trifecta.
Since the turn of the century, there have been 104 instances of a position player age 39 or older appearing in at least 54 games (one-third of a season), and 78 of the 104 finished the year with 1.0 WAR or less. Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, and Edgar Martinez account for seven of the 26 1.0+ WAR seasons. Sixty-two of the 104 were at 0.5 WAR or less. Forty-two of the 104, or 40.4%, were replacement level or worse. That’s really bad.
Normally, this is where I’d point out A-Rod is much more like Bonds or Chipper or Edgar than he is, say, Omar Vizquel or Todd Pratt or Jeff Conine. Rodriguez was a friggin’ star, man. He put up huge numbers and is simply one of the best right-handed hitters ever. Great players age differently than everyone else, but Bonds, Chipper, and Edger were not coming back from any major lower body injuries nor had they missed close to two full seasons before their age 39 season.
Forget about WAR for guys in their age 39 season. This is more important: over the last 25 years, 50 players had fewer than 200 plate appearances during their age 37-38 seasons combined, including A-Rod. Of the 49 non-Alex players, only four managed to play even one game in their age 39 season: outfielder Trent Hubbard (ten games) and backup catchers Lance Parrish (70 games), Pat Borders (93 games through age 42), and Mike Difelice (seven games). That’s it. Players who are damn near out of the league at 37-38 usually don’t come back to play at age 39, nevermind 39-41, the ages covered by the remainder of Rodriguez’s contract. He’s trying to do something no has done in the last quarter-century.
Want to look at some projections? Fine. PECOTA pegs A-Rod as a .247/.324/.409 true talent hitter going into 2015 and holy crap that would be amazing. ZiPS has him at .229/.312/.399, which is basically 2014 Mark Teixeira (.216/.313/.398). Steamer has him at .233/.310/.372 and is the least optimistic. But the computers don’t know about A-Rod’s injury history and they don’t know how to account for all his time away from the game the last two years, so they basically ignore them. Projections are mostly useless in general and they’re even more useless for A-Rod.
This is all a roundabout way of saying we have no idea what to expect from Alex this coming season. His injures and time away complicate things way too much. Old players are tough to figure out because they could fall off a cliff at any moment. A-Rod’s an old guy with an injury history who hasn’t played a whole lot. The smart money is on him contributing very little — like, very very like — in 2015 and that’s why the Yankees flat out replaced him at third base (Chase Headley) and brought in protection for the DH spot (Garrett Jones). They’re expecting nothing and prepared for it.
No matter what, A-Rod is going to be a distraction in Spring Training and early in the regular season. (Actually, probably all season.) Cameras are going to be all over him, the media’s going to write all about him, and the broadcasters won’t shut up about him. That’s inevitable and it’ll all be much more tolerable if he contributes in some way on the field. Even league average production would be welcome. There’s no way to realistically expect that though. We know the off-the-field stuff will be ridiculous. The on-field stuff is a total mystery.