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Can the Yankees win with Alex Rodriguez: the unabridged version

[This was cut to 500 words for LoHud. Below is the full version.]


Can the Yankees win with Arod? He's been criticized as a ‘me-first' player that destroys team chemistry since he left Seattle for Texas in the 2000-01 off-season. The evidence often used is threefold: the Mariners won 25 more games the year after Arod left (2001); the Rangers won 18 more games the year after Arod left (2004); and after Arod joined the Yankees, they've ended each year progressively worse. In 2003 (one year before Arod), the Yankees won the pennant and lost the World Series in six games. The downward spiral began when he joined, starting with a seven-game loss to Boston in the League Championship Series, followed by a Division Series loss to Anaheim in five games, an LDS loss to Detroit in four games, an LDS loss to Cleveland in four games and then 2008, when the Yankees missed the playoffs entirely.

I went into this study not sure what to find. First, I looked at the lineups of each teams, to see who ‘replaced' Arod after he departed.

The 2000 Mariners (Arod's last year with Seattle) had a team OPS+ of 107. The 2001 team had a considerably better 118 OPS+. What was the difference? The largest improvement was at second-base, where Bret Boone posted a ridiculous 153 OPS+, replacing Mark McLemore's 76 from the previous year. Not to be overlooked is the addition of Ichiro Suzuki, who only won the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in 2001. He improved their outfield OPS+ from 105 to 114.

They were also helped by much improved seasons from catcher Dan Wilson (62 OPS+ vs. 90) and John Olerud (116 vs. 136). These differences improved Seattle from fourth in the American League in runs scored to first, despite moving to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. The additions of Boone and Ichiro were huge, and does anyone really think the absence of Arod caused Wilson and Olerud to hit better? Perhaps the departure of Arod allowed GM Pat Gillick more flexibility to sign Boone and Ichiro. The 2000 Mariners had a payroll of roughly $60 million. The 2001 Mariners had a payroll around $74.5 million. Boone and Ichiro were paid $9 million total (plus a $13 million posting fee) in 2001, while Arod was paid $22 million. It's safe to say the former pair were more valuable, but a team like Seattle couldn't (or wouldn't) pay all three. So Arod did indirectly cause the addition of more valuable players, basically because he was so good that Seattle couldn't afford him. But to credit his absence for the improved play is far-fetched. No one thought Bret Boone and Ichiro would have that kind of year. The pitching also improved (negligibly) from second to first (in the AL).

After his time in Texas, Arod departed to the Yankees and the Rangers won 18 more games. What happened? They played in the same ballpark, so that had no effect. The offense improved slightly from fifth to fourth in the AL. How did their lineup change? Obviously there was the addition of Alfonso Soriano, but he was merely average in 2004 (100 OPS+). The biggest difference in the lineup was the ‘coming out party' of Mark Teixeira, who upped his OPS+ from 102 to 131. That merely made up for Arod's absence. It certainly didn't exceed it. So while the offense was nearly identical after Arod departed (96 vs. 97 OPS+), the difference was drastically improved pitching.

Texas ranked dead last in the AL in 2003, but through signings, trades and the maturation of young players, posted the fifth best ERA in 2004. In fact, they allowed 180 fewer runs. So while the offense was nearly identical after Arod departed, the difference was the drastically improved pitching. Arod can't be faulted for poor pitching, can he? And in this case, his burdensome contract for Texas (or lack thereof after 2003) did not cause an influx of quality free agent pitchers. The only quality free agent added in 2004 was Kenny Rogers (106 ERA+), who cost a measly $3 million. That's nothing for Tom Hicks.

Then there's the current Yankee era, which has resulted in a worse result each year. The 2003 Yankees were a very good all-around team, ranking third in runs scored and third in ERA. The '04 Yanks took a big step back in terms of run prevention, dropping to sixth in ERA (and not one starter went over 200 innings while four topped it in '03). The pitching declined even further in 2005, dropping to ninth in the AL. Including last year, the Yankees haven't finished in the top 5 in ERA since 2003 (6th, 9th, 6th, 8th and 8th respectively since then). But their run production has remained solid: 2nd, 2nd, 4th and 2nd from 2004 to 2007, while they dropped precipitously in 2008, finishing seventh in runs.

So there seems to be a pattern of teams acquiring Arod and then foregoing pitching. Perhaps they feel that their offense will be so good, why splurge on pitching? It's almost like they get blinded by Arod's star-power and offense that they forget about pitching.

Then there's his ‘clutch' and playoff hitting -

Going by Baseball Reference's ‘High Leverage' index, Arod has fared just about average (for him) in clutch situations in his career. No better or worse than his normal production: .305/.393/.582 in High Leverage vs. .306/.389/.578 overall. That's virtually identical. To be nit-picky, his variance from year to year is rather high, ranging from a ridiculous 1.316 OPS in High Leverage in 2003 to a pedestrian .813 OPS in 2008.

He admittedly has not fared as well as in post-season opportunities, posting an .844 OPS in 39 playoff games. For comparison, Derek Jeter has posted a near identical OPS during his playoff career (.846). Obviously, more is expected from Arod, as his normal OPS is .967, so there are two ways to look at this: 1) Arod performs at the same level as Derek Jeter in the playoffs (in other words, quite well), or 2) Arod performs well below his normal level in the playoffs.

It gets interesting when we look at Arod's playoff performances in New York. No pussy-footing here, Arod has stunk: in five playoff series with the Yankees, his OPS is .730 (which matches Khalil Greene's career OPS, and he plays in PETCO Park in the NL West). Then again, it's way too small a sample (24 games) to make a conclusive judgment.

As for him being a ‘bad seed', we know he doesn't have sleepovers with Derek Jeter anymore, but does that make him a bad teammate? And if Jeter is the ‘winner' most people think he is, would he let that affect his or a teammate's play? Jeter had his best season ever (2006) with Arod playing alongside him. Unless we could know the mindset of every player in the clubhouse, and how or if Arod actually affects their play (the stats don't support it), how can we know? Teams have won with far worse ‘seeds', namely Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Manny Ramirez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, just to name a few.

What's far more worrisome is the fact that Arod is signed through the age of 42. In the entire history of professional baseball, only 11 third-baseman ever played beyond 40, and the list isn't exactly inspiring (only one had an above-average OPS+). Looking at all players over 40 is only slightly more encouraging. Even outside of the PED-assisted, hitters can still be productive after 40. The list is headlined by Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Carlton Fisk. The discouraging aspect is the fact that only 26 players have even managed 1000 plate appearances after 40, just as we might expect as injuries mount on aging players. It's a reasonable certainty that Arod's decade-long contract will become a burden.

Then there are the incentives that Hank Steinbrenner gave him, like an extra $6 million for every record-breaking homerun. I've heard of incentives based on MVPs, Cy Youngs and All-Star games, but never on homeruns. What's to stop Arod from swinging for the fences all the time? Do the stats back this up? They actually don't. His fly-ball and homerun-per-fly-ball rates were down. And while his pitches/PA was the lowest it's been since 1998 (he was a tad impatient last year), his swing percentage was right in line with his career (if anything, a bit lower): so he's making contact more, but also swinging less, how is that possible? Because when he is swinging, he's putting the ball in play more often (as we see from his higher contact rate). That says to me that he's not swinging for the fences any more than normal (as least through year one of the contract).

Final verdict: Alex Rodriguez is not at fault for the relative lack of success of his teams. Despite his prodigious offense, pitching is still crucial, and teams seem to forget that after acquiring Arod.