Mood Music: Ghost of the Navigator by Iron Maiden
We need to come up with a new name of the first month of the season. We don't need to go the whole nine yards and find a new name for April; just find something that better describes how we should think of the first month of a baseball season. A lot happens in first the month, but for a team like the Yankees where most everything is static, how much does that time frame matter? It's almost like an extended version of spring training in the big picture. We could call it extended spring training, but extended spring training already exists. Let's not make things more complicated than they should be.
Individual months are kind of a strange thing to think about in general, but April seems stranger than the others. The first is always the most awkward. We get near 30 games worth of data which then gets parlayed into black and white, definitive statements. All games are important so you could say the data is somewhat meaningful, but reaching conclusions at the beginning is backwards. You can't end something that hasn't really started yet.
We can see this happening with just about every player on the roster, but Alex Rodriguez seems like the one being pegged with the most definitive definitives. Isn't it always A-Rod? It's tough to think of another player who consistently receives a smaller window in which to perform before jumping to conclusions. In the haste to eulogize his power, lament the return of his presumed lack of clutch hitting and continue the discussion of his never-ending contract, we seem to have missed something kind of important; Rodriguez is having a pretty good season.
Semantics! Note the semantics. He's having a good, not great, season to date. It hasn't been a typical A-Rod season so far, and that's perfectly fine. How lucky and spoiled must we be to be somewhat disappointed because the numbers are so atypical?
That's an atypical start. It says a lot about the caliber of player Rodriguez is that being top three or four amongst his AL peers in most categories is so different from what we're used to seeing. It says a lot about us as fans, too. This is unusual and startling to us. We have grown accustomed to such a high level of play that good largely escapes our grasp.
Put as much stock into fWAR, or any other stat listed, as you'd like at this point of the season, but note that incredible fielding from three of the top young third basemen in baseball has pushed them up the list. Rodriguez has been better offensively than Brett Lawrie and Kyle Seager in many respects, they just play a higher level of defense. It's not a knock on either because they're both quality players, just something that bears mentioning. Benefits of youth.
Of course, it hasn't all been good. There's the obvious disappointing numbers with runners in scoring position, but that's been a team-wide problem, so it's difficult to bash him too much for that. Not that "well, everyone is doing it" is a great excuse; it does help take the sting out of it when you think of it as a bug spreading around the clubhouse, though. What gives...a bit of pause has been the clear drop in total slugging. He still shows off absurd all-fields power; he's just gotten shyer about it. Who says he isn't humble? No, the power hasn't been there, but even after April plus-one we may be bailing too soon.
Still nothing to write home about, but his slugging has been on the rise. It's almost hard to believe it hasn't improved more considering the drastic shift in how he's been hitting the ball. A couple brutal weeks in April pushed his groundball rate near 60%, so there's that early season conclusion thing again. Since those two weeks where everything was ticketed for the infield dirt, Rodriguez has dropped his ground balls to a still too high, but better, 47.4%, jumped his line drives to 22.1% and posted a line of .291/.379/.462 with eight home runs. Even with the slow start, he's still on pace for 27 homers. No power indeed. It's not what we're used to, but it isn't that much different either.
A-Rod is a bit on strange side, so it shouldn't be surprising that something so similar can yield such different results. Strange. If there's anything to take away from the side-by-side with his five years ago self, a season removed from his last MVP campaign, it's that he isn't pulling the ball for long hits as much. The power to left-center is largely the same, just less frequent. He's using the opposite field more, which is good to see as he gets older, but a lot of drives are going for loud outs. We can assume this is as either what to expect more often as he declines, or that it's some bad BABIP luck mixed with other factors. It's hard to say, really. Fly balls have unquestionably died near or on the track this year, but it's tough to make assumptions as to why based on data from one-third of the season. The real one-third of the season, not Michael Kay's game 51 "over a third of the way through the season" one-third. Maybe those drives leave the yard as summer weather moves in. Maybe they don't. Either way, assuming does the thing it promises when you break it down phonetically.
It's probably grasping at straws and trying to tack on an extra positive, but the best thing he's brought to the team this season is health. Rodriguez has appeared in 57 of 58 games this season; 39 of those at third base. Any time he gives the team in the field or otherwise is good time. Even if he isn't producing at the level we think he should be, whatever that means, Rodriguez in the lineup is better than Rodriguez not in the lineup. The Yankees are a better team when A-Rod plays. As long as he's healthy, that isn't going to change.
Complain about the contract; it's an albatross. Complain about the lack of hitting with runners on base; he hasn't been very good so far. Complain about the ridiculous faces he makes and stupid situations he puts himself in; not sure why you would, but it's there if needed. But don't bury him just yet. He may not be great like he once was, but if he can keep improving, even at a gradual pace, on the good play he's already produced, that should be good enough.