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Alex Rodriguez’s 2016 struggles are a serious cause for concern

As A-Rod’s offensive woes continue, should the Yankees worry about their designated hitter?

MLB: New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

When a baseball player approaches a milestone number, the attention paid to him increases. When he struggles to reach that milestone quickly, the microscope zooms in closer. Coaches, reporters, and fans alike feel the urge to weigh in on the chase. Is he pressing? Is he hiding an injury? A variety of hot takes and think pieces begin to surface.

When said player is Alex Rodriguez, the attention paid gets amplified by one hundred. As Rodriguez chases his 700th home run, the focus has increased exponentially. That was always going to be the case. He’s an attention magnet. Unfortunately for A-Rod, he has slumped mightily all season, which has only exacerbated the scrutiny.

Last season’s resurgence was a revelation for the Yankees. Without A-Rod, it’s very likely that the Yankees don’t find themselves in the American League Wild Card game. He hit .250/.356/.486 with a 129 wRC+. He swatted 33 home runs and played 151 games. He accumulated 2.7 WAR as a full-time designated hitter. It was best-case scenario stuff for a 40-year-old coming off a year-long suspension and two bad hips.

The 2016 season, on the other hand, has not gone according to plan. Following the series against the Rockies, A-Rod’s slash line sits at .215/.259/.399 with only a 72 wRC+. His power output has diminished; he has only eight home runs on the year. More troubling is the fact that he has only managed to play in 42 of the team’s 71 games since he missed extensive time with a strained hamstring.

Given his age and cold start, there is a rational reason for concern. Add in his massive contract, then you have the perfect storm for a full-blown panic. In the past week there have been a number of calls for the Yankees to cut ties with their designated hitter. That’s in addition to the growing chorus of “A-Rod is what’s wrong with the Yankees” articles.

But are things truly as bad as pundits indicate? Is A-Rod actually cooked? Or is there an explanation for his struggles? I tried to piece together what’s going on with the Yankees designated hitter, starting with on-base plus slugging percentage.

That’s a steep decline. So far this season, A-Rod has mustered a .658 OPS. That’s sufficiently below the MLB average of .721. That’s just not acceptable for a middle of the order bat. He’s not getting on base enough and he’s not hitting for power. That combination can lead to stories that a player is pressing, or worse, that he is finished. It’s easy to jump to those conclusions when a DH is not hitting the ball with authority. That’s their job, after all.

In the last few games, Rodriguez has made some loud outs and flashed warning track power. He has also spent the season rolling over on pitchers and smacking some lazy fly balls. However, would anybody be surprised if A-Rod went on a tear and hit three home runs in the next five games? This one falls under the “too early to call” category.

Another common criticism for A-Rod is that he strikes out too much. Could that be a factor in his poor season so far?

A-Rod has always struck out a lot. He’s not the active strikeout leader by accident. Comparing his strikeout numbers against the MLB average doesn’t quite help us. His year-to-year variance is more telling. Last season he struck out 28% of the time. That matches his 2013 season numbers, and is not much different than the 25% clip in 2012.

His strikeout rate currently sits at 32%, which is an increase. He has 50 strikeouts on the season. That’s not insignificant! Fortunately, there’s still half of a season left to play. If those numbers continue to trend upward, then there’s a problem. But it’s always possible that A-Rod’s strikeout numbers will adjust to his previous norms.

Strikeout rates only tell part of the story. Let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at his whiff percentage on different pitch types. For the sake of comparison, here are his 2015 and 2016 season numbers to date.

Whiff percentage measures how often a player swings and misses at a specific pitch. Two things stand out in the chart. First, A-Rod is whiffing at a high rate on off-speed and breaking balls at a noticeably high clip. In, May he fanned on 33% of the breaking balls he saw. Compare that to his season high in 2015, also in May, of 19%. Rodriguez spent some time on the disabled list, so the numbers might be a little wonky, but that’s a pretty big jump. His timing is off on those pitches, which explains the high strikeout rate.

More revealing, however, is his whiff percentage on fastballs. They’re pretty similar to his 2015 line. He spiked to 18% in May but has cut that in half so far in June. That’s a good sign! If his fastball whiff percentage had a dramatic increase, it could indicate that his bat speed has dropped off. That doesn’t appear to be the case, which bodes well for a strikeout percentage regression.

His walk rate, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.

So far this season A-Rod has only mustered a 5% walk percentage. Again, there’s still half of a season to play. Those are his lowest numbers since 1998. Rodriguez has been known to be one of the smartest baseball players in the game, and he has a great batting eye. We’ve already seen that he’s swinging and missing at off-speed and breaking pitches more this season. Could those have been pitches that he laid off of in previous years? Possibly.

Perhaps more telling though is that pitchers are more apt to challenge A-Rod this year than they have in the past. On Wednesday, Rockies reliever Gonzalez Germen intentionally walked Carlos Beltran to face Rodriguez. How often has that happened? In previous years, A-Rod would have been getting the free passes. Now that he has struggled this season, however, pitchers are more likely to take their chances with him.

The 2016 season clearly leaves a lot to be desired. Rodriguez is not the middle-of-the-order force that he was as recently as last year, at least not at the moment. Things could turn around, but until he forces the issue, sliding down in the order would be the right move. Joe Girardi has done that before with A-Rod. This isn’t a 2014 Derek Jeter situation. If his bat heats up, he can easily move back into the middle of the order.

The A-Rod doomsday scenario is not yet here. It has been a disappointing year, especially for player who is a DH only. That being said, designating Rodriguez for assignment is an overreaction. Additionally, it would be highly unlikely. While other teams have parted ways with high-priced sunk costs, that’s not the Yankees modus operandi.

Like it or not, Alex Rodriguez is here to stay. The success of the 2016 is directly connected to his season’s success. If the Yankees want to crawl back into the postseason race, they’re going to need a strong rebound from A-Rod. That’s going to come with attentive media scrutiny and criticism. It’s only natural for Rodriguez.

In the meantime, enjoy A-Rod’s chase for membership in the 700 club, even if it’s at a slower pace than one would like. It’s far too easy to get bogged down in where Rodriguez has slipped or underperformed. He is closing in on history and it would be a shame to miss out on the fun.