There were legitimate questions heading into last season about whether or not Alex Rodriguez would be able to play baseball again. He was 39, hadn't played in a year and a half, and his body was breaking down. The most optimistic projections for him were around a .250 average and 20 home runs. Some thought he wouldn't even be able to last the entire season, injured or not. Six months later, A-Rod finished with a very strong .250/.356/.486 slash, mashed 33 homers (some very far), drove in 86 runs, and finished as perhaps the Yankees' most productive hitter.
Fast forward to prior this season, and those questions were essentially erased. Whether or not A-Rod can repeat last season's performance is highly questionable, but 2015 showed everyone that, yes, Alex Rodriguez can still play baseball quite well. He's only 35 plate appearances into 2016, but some are already in full-on panic mode. He's slashing just .100/.229/.200 and is striking out over 30% of the time. He has homered once, but he has looked late on a lot of pitches.
In my opinion, the concerns are overblown but not unwarranted. We're not even two weeks into the season, so it's tough to draw conclusions about anything, much less proclaim that the Yankee DH is finished. However, this slow start is coming off a spring training in which he didn't have an extra-base hit over his final 48 at-bats, and that rough spring training is following a second half that left much to be desired. He had a very good 2015, but his first and second half splits were starkly different.
The power was still there, and he was still drawing walks, but he regressed everywhere else. His average was down a lot, mainly a result of increased strikeouts and less hard contact. His line drive percentage also decreased, and his soft contact percentage shot up.
He just overall looked like a lot more like a 40-year-old coming off a year-long suspension than he did early in the season. August was particularly tough on the righty, as he hit .153 with a 41 wRC+. The reason some are worried goes beyond just a slow start in 2016. Between that and the second half of last year and spring training, it has been quite awhile since we've seen A-Rod being consistently productive at the plate.
Now again, 35 plate appearances this season is a small sample size, but it's big enough that it has caused some concerns. The main reasons people are worried is that he's swinging and missing a lot and is often late on pitches when he does make contact, pulling the ball only around 20% of the time.
Brooks Baseball provides us with this 2016 data. Against the 96 fastballs he's seen, he has "a disastrously-high likelihood to swing and miss" (36% whiff/swing). He has seen 33 breaking balls, and displayed "a disastrously-high likelihood to swing and miss" (56% whiff/swing). Against 11 offspeed pitches, he has displayed, you guessed it, "a disastrously-high likelihood to swing and miss" (60% whiff/swing).
So, you know, not ideal.
The concern clearly isn't completely unwarranted, but to paraphrase Aaron Rodgers, "R-E-L-A-X. A-Rod is probably fine." Again, the season is not even two weeks old. Jumping to conclusions so quickly is just silly. As for spring training, well, it's spring training. March stats are not entirely meaningless, but for a 40-year-old mainly focused on not getting hurt, they're pretty close. In regards to the second half of last year, it could've just been the dog days of August dragging him down. In July and September/October, he combined to hit .253 and 16 home runs.
Slow starts are also not unprecedented for A-Rod. Last April, he hit just .232 and had a 27.4 K%. Even if you did want to really look into his season thus far despite the small sample size, there are enough reasons for optimism.
He's drawing walks at a solid clip, 11.4 BB%, and he's shown good command of the strike zone. He's swinging at just 22.2% of pitches outside the zone, and 68.3% of pitches inside the zone. Both are in line with his career marks.
When he does swing and make contact, he's hitting the ball hard and fast. He has a 29.4 LD% (career mark of 17.8%), and almost all of his contact has been medium or hard. Additionally, per Statcast, his average launch speed is 93.8 MPH, noticeably better than the major league average of 89.15 MPH.
So while all the numbers are well and good, possibly the most important thing is that he has still shown us he can go deep. In Detroit, a pitcher's ballpark, he launched a 429-foot bomb of a homer that left the bat at 117.6 MPH (via hittrackeronline.com). He may not hit these as often as he did ten years ago, but he still can, which is really important.
Basically, I get why some people are worried about Rodriguez. He's old, he's not exactly the picture of health, his overall second half numbers last year look pretty poor, and spring training included, he has just two extra-base hits in 79 at bats this season. However, it's still early in 2016, and some of those concerns can be alleviated when you dig deeper.
It's not time to shut the book on Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez just yet. That day will eventually come, and I will cry like a baby. For now, though, keep the Kleenex away.
Statistics provided by FanGraphs unless otherwise noted