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A-Rod Does the Popcorn

Alex Rodriguez is in fine rhythm. (AP)

On Thursday night, the Yankees overcame another rough start from Phil Hughes, pulling off a stirring come-from-behind win over the Orioles thanks to plenty of pinstriped heroes. Bartolo Colon tossed three scoreless innings in relief of Hughes; he now has more innings in relief of the struggling starter (11.1 to 10.1), not to mention better numbers across the board. Joba Chamberlain got five outs in the eighth and ninth innings, the biggest of which came after a wild pitch with inherited runner Felix Pie on third base; Chamberlain's slider evaded Russell Martin, but he blocked the plate and delivered the tag, then struck out Mark Reynolds to escape the jam. Jorge Posada delivered a game-tying homer to lead off the ninth, on Oriole closer Kevin Gregg's first pitch. Nick Swisher poked the game-winning sacrifice fly in the 10th to bring home Mark Teixeira and earned himself a faceful of shaving cream pie.

Somewhat lost in all of that was the stellar night of Alex Rodriguez, who after clubbing a three-run homer on Wednesday night went 3-for-3 with a walk and a fair bit of heavy lifting himself. His double to lead off the fifth inning broke up Jake Arrieta's no-hitter, and he came around to score the Yankees' first run when Robinson Cano knocked a double of his own. His sacrifice fly in the sixth plated Derek Jeter to cut the lead to 5-3. He nearly sparked a rally in the eighth by digging out of a two-out, two strike hole with a single which was followed by a Cano single. His second double of the night, off Mike Gonzalez in the 10th, sent Teixeira to third base; Cano lined out before Swisher brought home the winning run.

Back at full strength after two years in which he was limited by hip woes, A-Rod is off to a searing start, hitting .412/.512/.882 with four doubles and four homers in just 43 plate appearances. He has scored 11 runs and driven in nine in 10 games, and struck out four times while walking seven. Forget Cameron Diaz and the Super Bowl, he is still-prime-at-36 James Brown doing the Popcorn.

Hot starts are nothing new to Rodriguez; his career line in March and April (.310/.391/.607/998) is just a couple points shy of his across-the-board highs in August (.313/.394/.609/1003). While he's just halfway through the month, this one could challenge his best early-season showings:

------------March/April-------------   --------Rest of Season-------
2011 43 4 .412/.512/.882 1394
2007 106 14 .355/.415/.882 1297 602 40 .306/.424/.600 1024
2000 106 8 .354/.500/.747 1247 566 33 .309/.405/.583 988
2003 124 9 .355/.444/.673 1116 591 38 .286/.386/.584 970
2002 116 9 .306/.397/.663 1060 609 48 .298/.391/.616 1007
2001 115 7 .312/.426/.602 1028 617 45 .319/.394/.625 1019

In 2003 and 2007, two of his three best Aprils according to OPS, Rodriguez went on to win MVP awards, and in all of his previous top five Aprils, his rest-of-season OPS topped his career numbers (.303/.387/.573/960). Of course, it's fair to note that all five of those seasons occurred during a higher-offense era, with the 2001-2003 years coming in a particularly favorable ballpark (The Ballpark at Arlington) during a time in which Rodriguez has since admitted to using performance enhancing drugs.

Even if those performances were as pure as the driven snow, we're still talking about small sample sizes. But at the very least, A-Rod's performance to date is a most encouraging sign for the Yankees, one which could herald another season to rank among his best.

Speaking of Rodriguez and Jeter, both players figure prominently in a piece I did for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN Insider on Thursday. In testing the old adage about team strength up the middle — namely at catcher, second base, shortstop and center field — I found that during the Wild Card era, no fewer than six Yankees teams during Jeter's tenure (1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007) and five Mariners teams from Rodriguez's time (1996-2000) place among the top 25 in total Runs Above Average (Batting Runs Above Average plus Fielding Runs Above Average).

Eighteen of those top 25 teams reached the postseason, including all six Yankees clubs and two of the Mariners ones. The first four of those Yankees clubs had Posada, Jeter, Bernie Williams and a rotating cast of second basemen, the last two had Cano, with Williams displaced from center field by Johnny Damon in 2006 and gone altogether the following season. The first four of those Mariners teams also included Ken Griffey Jr. before he was traded to Cincinnati. While the up-the-middle positions rank as the four toughest defensive spots on the diamond, it turns out that the level of offense a team receives from those positions is a much better indicator of success, simply because the spread of performance between good hitters and bad ones at those spots is much wider than the spread between good and bad defenders. Even when it comes to Jeter — even when it comes to late-period Jeter, in fact; the 2010 club ranked 26th, and the 2009 one 29th.

I intend to do a follow-up next week to compare how well performance at other position clusters (infield, outfield, cornermen and pitchers) drives team success, and I suspect both Rodriguez and Jeter will figure prominently in those rankings as well. Stay tuned.