The Yankees struggled mightily down the stretch in 2015. New York entered August with a surprising five game lead in the AL East, a 58-45 record, and a .563 winning percentage that, prorated across a full season, was equivalent to a 91-win pace. From there, the team scuffled to the finish at a below .500 clip over the remainder of the regular season, before bowing out meekly in the Wild Card game against the Astros.
There were numerous culprits for this downturn. Injuries struck, of course, but so did ineffectiveness. Dependable veterans such as Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner turned in limp producers as the year wore on. Perhaps most notably, Alex Rodriguez, a darling during his resurgent first half, also struggled to close the season. Firmly penciled in as the team's designated hitter, a quality full season from Rodriguez could be crucial for the team's playoff chances. How can the Yankees keep their
pariah star slugger from fading in 2016?
Let's glance at Rodriguez's decline during 2015. After raking to the tune of a .278/.382/.515 slash line in the first half, A-Rod only mustered a line of .216/.324/.448 in the second half. A sterling hard contact rate of 38.6% in the first half declined to 31.5% in the second half, while his soft contact rate spiked from 9.4% to 16.1%. Rodriguez actually started hitting more fly balls during the second half, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but may have contributed to his BABIP plummeting from .307 to .238.
What caused this dip in production? After seeing Rodriguez crush in the first half, pitchers actually attacked him with more fastballs. He continued to rake against such pitches, hitting .347 with a .764 slugging percentage against four-seamers in the second half, though he did see his batting average against sinkers fall from .270 to .185.
Still, Rodriguez's struggles couldn't be pinned to a simple increase in hard pitches. It was his trouble with breaking and off-speed pitches. Pitchers may have been throwing more hard stuff his way in the second half, but it was their slower offerings that were truly keeping Rodriguez off-balance. The table below displays Rodriguez's results against breaking and off-speed pitches during the first half versus the second half.
|Pitch||1st Half BA||1st Half SLG||2nd Half BA||2nd Half SLG|
It must be noted that the sample sizes here are not large (for example, Rodriguez only put 68 curves in play during the second half), but the differences are no less stark. Rodriguez declined markedly as the season wore on against breaking and off-speed stuff, while still maintaining success against fastballs.
As for what the Yankees can do to help, what makes the most sense for him is extra rest. One of the more logical explanations for Rodriguez's resurgence in 2015 is that his year off in 2014 allowed for his forty-year-old body to rest, putting him in a much better position to succeed, at least in the beginning of 2015.
Manager Joe Girardi surely knows this, though he did not seem to rest Rodriguez much in 2015 as the season went on:
|Month||A-Rod Games Played||NYY Games Played||% of Games Played by A-Rod|
Despite a slight dip in games played in August, which also happens to have been Rodriguez's worst month (a 41 wRC+), Girardi rode Rodriguez pretty steadily for the season's entirety. However, part of that may have been Rodriguez's importance to the lineup. With the aforementioned Ellsbury and Gardner, as well as Brian McCann, struggling down the stretch, and with Mark Teixeira injured, Girardi may have seen no recourse other than to trot out Rodriguez, even if his star designated hitter required rest.
However, in 2016, the hope is that Girardi will be better equipped to keep Rodriguez rested. The addition of a player like Aaron Hicks should help in such an endeavor. Hicks, who posted 1.5 fWAR in just 97 games last season, appears overqualified to be a fourth outfielder, and thus should frequently spell Carlos Beltran in right field, while also taking occasional turns in left and center field. Sliding a slugger like Beltran to DH with increased frequency could potentially do wonders for the health of both Beltran and A-Rod.
The emergence of younger players should also help Girardi keep Rodriguez in form. While Gary Sanchez was just optioned to Triple-A (which isn't the end of the world!), it would not be surprising to see him in the majors sooner rather than later. If Sanchez can prove himself to be a quality option, it would allow Girardi to slide him in behind the plate, and let McCann receive a half day off at DH. It certainly would not be a shock if Sanchez proved capable right away, as evidenced by his solid ZiPS projection (a 99 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR in 446 plate appearances).
The addition of Starlin Castro, and the imminent arrival of Aaron Judge to the big leagues, only deepens the Yankee lineup and increases Girardi's flexibility to rest Rodriguez. A-Rod appeared in 151 games last year, a shockingly high figure, and his highest mark since his 2007 MVP season. It would be fairly surprising if he was allowed to approach that total in 2016.
Ultimately, Rodriguez figures to be important to the 2016 Yankees, but if he is required to eclipse the 150 game mark again, that may signal something has gone wrong for New York. Barring a barrage of injuries, Girardi will surely look to avoid penciling A-Rod's name into the lineup day-after-day as he did in 2015, in an effort to prevent a similar decline in 2016. With likely just two years left to watch Rodriguez work, it would be a shame if a heavy workload diminished him as his playing years came to a close. With any luck, the Yankees will be able to manage his playing time going forward, and try to ensure that Rodriguez can still hit at a high level all the way to the end of his all-time great career.