Yesterday, I wrote about the Alex Rodriguez trade, and I don’t think you can discuss his legacy without including a conversation about his playoff performances, and indeed, the multi-year failure of the Yankees to recapture their late-90s postseason dominance. It’s not entirely A-Rod’s fault — in the series I’m about to talk about, the Yankees started Literally Jaret Wright in an elimination game — but as the best player, and highest paid, he was expected to carry the freight for a postseason run.
And in the 2006 ALDS against the Tigers, he was awful: 1-for-14, with a single, hit by a pitch, and four strikeouts in four games. That’s a .071/.133/.071 slash line from a guy that should have been penciled in as a 3/4 hitter every single day, but of course started the series batting sixth, and ended it batting eighth.
I wanted to dive into his PAs in this series because it’s so hard to assess performance over four games by just looking at the statline. If Rodriguez went 1-for-14 in four games over, say, Memorial Day weekend, we’d all kind of just brush it off. If you go 1-for-14 in the postseason, you get a blog post written about how bad you were 15 years later.
Specifically, I want to look at the nature of those PAs. You can have bad luck at the plate — scorch a line drive that the shortstop makes a diving play for to take away a hit, or be a microsecond early on a pitch and just pull it foul when it would have easily been a double. If A-Rod had three or four of those kinds of contact land for hits, maybe the Yankees still don’t win that series but he looks much better, and certainly the team has a much better chance.
Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge my official annoyance with the lockout, since it makes searching for video considerably harder without having search function on MLB FilmRoom. So thank you MLB, you have further reduced my goodwill toward you.
In Game 1 of this series, Rodriguez 1-for-14 with his only hit of the ALDS (a single) in a Yankee 8-4 win. Fine game for him, good game for the team, no complaints.
Game 2, Mike Mussina strikes out the first three Tigers he faces, and the Yankees load the bases in the bottom of the first. A-Rod’s up, with two out, and has a chance to break the game open early against a rookie Justin Verlander:
JV starts off with a fastball at the top of the zone, and Alex is wayyy out in front. You can tell he’s a little jacked up watching the video, because it’s pretty hard to be early on 101 mph. Verlander comes in at 100 on the second pitch, A-Rod is again early, fouling it off for strike two. Both Jon Miller and Joe Morgan at this point note that its the perfect time for Verlander’s curveball, but Rodriguez can’t pull the trigger on one in the middle of the zone:
Good morning, good evening, goodnight, no runs score. I’m pretty forgiving of strikeouts but that is a bad AB against a pitcher on the ropes. A-Rod is no victim of bad luck here.
Fast-forward a couple innings, Alex is leading off, gets himself into a good hitter’s count, and puts a fastball in play:
It’s not a great swing decision, with the pitch inside, and it results in pretty weak contact, both points against A-Rod. At the same time, we see a bloop like this fall in for a hit pretty much every single game, only a nice sliding catch by Craig Monroe stops it from being a hit. It’s not a good AB, because of the decision and contact, but it’s not nearly as bad as the strikeout. He struck out two more times that game, although the eighth-inning K against Joel Zumaya throwing 103 ... I’m willing to give him a little latitude there. Overall, pretty poor showing from A-Rod, two BAD AB, one that’s underwhelming, and one that I’ll cut him slack on. Still, no bad luck.
After this, video gets a little harder to track down — again, thanks MLB! — so we have to rely more on Retrosheet’s play by plays, which is better than just statlines although not as informative as the video. A-Rod does reach base one more time in the series, being plunked by an otherwise-dominant Kenny Rogers in a Game 3 shutout. He grounds out four times in the final two games, all to the left side of the infield.
Now look, most hitters pull their groundballs, it’s just physics. Still, I think we can plausibly argue two things: first, A-Rod was jumpy this series. We saw how eager, overly eager in fact, he was to go after Verlander when he otherwise should have been completely in control of the plate appearance. Moderate ground balls to third can often be a symptom of being too early in your swing, itself a symptom of nerves. It’s odd to think of an established, multiple-time MVP being nervous, but we know that Alex is a guy who put incredible pressure on himself to succeed.
In fact, that was one of the reasons he gave for taking steroids as a Ranger. Maybe you believe that, maybe you don’t, but I think at least A-Rod believes it — he was under such a microscope, the only way he thought he could meet expectations was to use. I think someone with that attitude might well carry it into the games with him — he was under such a microscope, the only way he felt he could make an impact in the postseason was gearing up to hit a homer every bat. Swings start early, he’s on top of the baseball, not a recipe for success.
I think we can also surmise that his mechanics were out of whack. You don’t hit 696 home runs by shortening up, putting the ball in play, and putting pressure on the defense. You do it by hitting 35-40 percent of your balls in the air, which A-Rod consistently did, falling outside that bucket just one season his entire career. In the 2006 playoffs, after 39.7 percent and 39.6 percent of his batted balls were in the air in the previous two regular seasons, just 26.6 percent got off the ground in the ALDS. I also mentioned yesterday this SI article from the very next April that broke down how he rebuilt his swing in the offseason, so I think we can say there was something off with his mechanics in the postseason.
Maybe he was just cold, maybe he was on edge, maybe there was a real problem with his swing, and probably it was a little bit of everything. What it probably wasn’t, was pure old bad luck. Alex Rodriguez deserved that terrible batting line in 2006, but what continues to mystify me about him is how it came in the middle of an incredible 2004 postseason (1.014 OPS), a solid 2007 (.820), and outstanding 2009 (1.308). Why was he so much more on edge in 2006? (Or 2005 for that matter?)
Alex Rodriguez is one of the most fascinating players in baseball history. His ability to carry a team offensively, and follow that up with quite literally one of the worst playoff series in memory attests to that. He earned that awful .205 OPS, and a better series may not have been enough to overcome Jaret Wright, Elimination Game Pitcher, but it might have made a world of difference in A-Rod’s personal postseason narrative.