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The ballad of Alex Rodriguez

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Barely anyone expected A-Rod to be this good after being away from the game for so long at such an advanced age. It's easy to get lost in the narrative. It's much more fun to really look at what he's doing.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have lost five of their last six. They’ve run into some tough pitching, their bats disappeared and they were shut out for the first time this season on Sunday by Edinson Volquez and the Royals. Nonetheless, the Yankees remain in first place by a single game. There was going to be regression in this offense that runs on low batting averages and timely power. The red-hot hitting of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner can only do so much for this club. The Yankees are a first place team but they certainly don’t hit like one.

Yet for every Stephen Drew plate appearance, there’s an Alex Rodriguez plate appearance. Alex is 39 years, 9 months and 21 days young. After a year-long furlough from the game he’s hitting .250/.351/.563 in the middle of the Yankee batting order. It’s easy to look at A-Rod’s return to big leagues as the greatest heel story this side of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Perhaps no player has been more reviled in the 21st century than A-Rod. Barry Bonds juiced his way to the home run crown, but A-Rod turned steroids into a multi-year media circus with some Madonna and Mike Francesa mixed in. He was the golden boy, and then he wasn’t.

We all wondered how Alex would be received this season. We wondered how he would perform, how much he could actually perform at all. To this point he hasn’t just managed to say healthy, but he’s thrived. His .386 wOBA is second on the team to only Mark Teixeira, who is doing his own zombie renaissance act this year. He’s hit ten homers in 151 plate appearances and was this close to number 11 on Sunday.

His 12.6% walk rate is above his career average. His slugging percentage is over his career average. 18 of his 32 hits have gone for extra bases. While his 22.5% strikeout rate is about what you’d expect from someone pushing 40 in the age of the flaming-hot fastball, and is right around where it’s been for the past few seasons. All of this gives him a 146 wRC+. For the uninitiated, that means he’s 46 points above league average on offense. How’s he faring in comparison to another aging slugger that runs like molasses?

Not bad at all. He’s only been getting better too. Before Sunday’s game A-Rod was hitting .273/.333/.636 in the month of May. It’s not Teixeira’s mind-boggling .306/.433/.551 performance this month, but hey, we’ll take it. Alex’s past transgressions certainly still exist and they’ll forever be a mark on his ledger. I don’t know if you’ve read ESPN’s long-form piece on how Alex spent his suspension. If you haven’t, put some time aside at some point today and do so. It’s excellent and gives you a look inside the world of a man who never got the chance to learn to be an adult, a man who has always trying to live up to something he didn’t quite understand.

It doesn’t excuse cheating. Cheating is cheating, plain and simple. But it’s important to understand Alex Rodriguez: human being when looking at the big complicated picture of Alex Rodriguez: baseball player. I genuinely don’t know how I feel about A-Rod’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame, or those of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for that matter. Cheating isn’t okay. Yet… Babe Ruth corked his bat. Hank Aaron used greenies. Ty Cobb was a terrible human being who actively tried to spike other players. It’s all shades of gray within shades of gray. Boo for A-Rod when he comes to bat, cheer for him. I completely understand both methods of attack and I cannot fault anyone for doing what they do when Alex is at the plate.

Yet we cannot discount the astounding comeback that A-Rod is mounting. He’s not just playing; he’s thriving. He’s got a ridiculously good case to be the starting DH in the All-Star Game in a world where Nelson Cruz doesn’t exist. Alex Rodriguez is back. Baseball is better for it.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com.

Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Pinstripe Alley, where he writes about the Yankees and covers the Double-A Trenton Thunder. His national coverage can be found at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.