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The Hot Corner
2004-12-28 08:48
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

By Cliff Corcoran

Submitted for your approval, Alex Rodriguez's 2004 season:

.286/.375/.512
.301 EQA
36 HR, 106 RBI, 112 R
28 SB (88 %)

Those are some pretty numbers, especially when they're coming from your 28-year-old third-baseman who just posted a 106 Rate in the field and is under contract for the next six years. Those numbers represent what just might have been the greatest season ever by a Yankee third baseman, and was at worst one of the four best alongside Red Rolfe's 1939, Graig Nettles' 1976, and Frank Baker's 1918.

So why do they seem so disappointing?

Back in February, I contributed a piece to this site that debunked the myth that Alex Rodriguez is, or was on his way to becoming, the greatest shortstop ever to play the game (Honus Wagner has him beat any way you slice it) and gave lie to the oft-touted fact that Rodriguez is, or has been, the best player in the game (ditto Barry Bonds). Those misconceptions of Rodriguez's standing in the game might answer my question in part, but they're only part of the story.

Buried in all the number crunching that lead to those conclusions was a minor, but still unsettling downward trend in Rodriguez's offensive numbers. That trend began with Alex's first season in Texas in 2001, but was disguised by his move from the pitcher-friendly Safeco Park (2000 Park Factor: 91) to the Ballpark at Arlington (2001 Park Factor: 100) and subsequently by his new park's emergence as the second (after Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium) most extreme hitters park in the American League (2002 and 2003 Park Factors: 112, 110).

When I wrote my original piece in February, it seemed like knit-picking to labor over the gradual decline in the adjusted rate stats of a player who had posted an aggregate .305/.395/.615 line with an average of 52 homers and 132 RBIs over his previous three seasons, so I didn't. But now that Rodriguez has moved his 81 home games to Yankee Stadium (2004 Park Factor: 96) and endured a season which began with a 1 for 17 showing in his first series against the rival Red Sox, found him hitting .213 with runners in scoring position on September 1, and ended with a dismal postseason collapse best exemplified by the desperation of Slapgate, I believe the time has come to call attention to this trend.

Consider the following park-adjusted rate stats beginning with Rodriguez's age-24 season in 2000, his last with the Mariners, continuing through his three seasons in Texas, and concluding with his first season as a Yankee in 2004:

EQA: .333, .324, .318, .315, .301
OPS+: 167, 164, 152, 148, 133
OWP: .770, .749, .705, .697, .654

I could list other stats that exhibit the same trend, both adjusted and non-adjusted (WARP, Runs Created, RCAA, RC/G, regular OPS, GPA . . .), but there's no need. This trend is real and is four years running. It is my belief that this trend is hard evidence of the fact that Alex Rodriguez's 2000 season represented an early peak which he is unlikely to replicate. In other words, his best years are behind him.

For some historical perspective, and perhaps a clue as to how the remainder of Rodriguez's career as a hitter will play out, let's turn to The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. In James's entry on Eddie Mathews in that book, he presents the following all-star team of "the best young players ever":

C Johnny Bench
1B Jimmie Fox
2B Rogers Hornsby
3B Eddie Mathews
[natch]
SS Arky Vaughan
OF Mickey Mantle
OF Ty Cobb
OF Mel Ott
SP Babe Ruth
SP Amos Rusie
SP Christy Mathewson
SP Monte Ward

James doesn't qualify "young," but my assumption is that all of these players enjoyed their best seasons prior to their expected peak at age 27. Tossing aside the pitchers, who are irrelevant to this discussion of offensive trends, and adding in Rodriguez as a DH (as I wrote in my February piece, Arky Vaughan was the superior shortstop through age 27), here are the starting nine (all inner-circle Hall of Famers, by the way) along with their ages during
their best offensive seasons (measured against their leagues):

C Johnny Bench (24)
1B Jimmie Foxx (24)
2B Rogers Hornsby (28)
3B Eddie Mathews (22)
SS Arky Vaughan (23)
OF Mickey Mantle (25)
OF Ty Cobb (23)
OF Mel Ott (29)
DH Alex Rodriguez (24)

First let's explain away Hornsby and Ott, who actually enjoyed their best seasons after the age of 27.

Hornsby's career followed the expected progression during his 20s (gradual increase in productivity to a late-20s peak). Rather, it would seem he made James's list for two other reasons. The first is that he hit the ground running with a 150 OPS+ at age 20 and got better from there (he was the sixth best hitter ever). The second is that his career was derailed at age 34 by a gruesome ankle injury suffered early in the 1930 season, itself partially the result of chronic heal problems which continued afterwards. As a result, Hornsby totaled just 719 at-bats from 1930 through the end of his career at age 41. Its likely that the only reason Hornsby remained active at all during many of those later years was that he managed in each one of them and employed himself as a pinch-hitter (usually with good results).
As for Mel Ott, he too got a very early start (a 139 OPS+ in his first full season at age 19), but his numbers don't really trend much at all. From age 19 to 36 he was never more than 23 points away from his career average 155 OPS+ in either direction, and the figure never increased or decreased for more than two consecutive seasons. Ott is likely on James's list because he posted an OPS+ below 150 just twice from age 19 to 29, but saw his playing time start to decrease after age 33. Like Hornsby, Ott managed and employed himself as a pinch hitter in the final years of his career. Unlike Hornsby, Ott wasn't terribly useful in the role. Over his final two seasons (at age 37 and 38), Ott reached base just 13 times (just five hits) in 70 plate appearances.

To give us a better picture of the career paths of the remaining seven, here is a quick chart showing each player's age during his rookie year, first year as a starter (min. 450 plate appearances), peak season (as per above), last season as a starter, and last year in the majors:

Namerookiestarterpeakstarterlast
Fox1720243337
Mathews2020223536
Vaughan2020233136
Bench1920243135
Mantle1920253636
Cobb1820234041
Rodriguez182024??

Even if we put Hornsby and Ott back in there, just one of these eight inner-circle Hall of Famers (Cobb) was a regular beyond the age of 36, and the first five men in the above chart were out of baseball entirely before the age of 38 (with Ott getting just four hitless pinch-hit at-bats at that age).

All this seems to spell doom for Rodriguez until you realize that there are extenuating circumstances for the majority of these men. Foxx drank himself out of baseball. Mantle was besieged by injuries throughout his career and, if he didn't quite drink himself out of the game, his relationship with the bottle certainly didn't add to his longevity. Vaughan just plain walked away after a fight with Leo Durocher, sitting out his age 32-34 seasons. Bench was a catcher ('nuff said).

That just leaves two, Eddie Mathews and Ty Cobb. Mathews, no stranger to the bottle himself, had the earliest peak of the bunch and was simply not the same hitter after the age of 31, though he did enjoy a surge around his proper peak from ages 27 to 29. As for Ty Cobb, he had a season at age 30 that was every bit as good as his age 23 season and a 170 OPS+ at age 38.

Curiously, of the nine hitters on James' all-star team, Cobb's career correlates best to Rodriguez's. Both broke in at age 18, became full-timers at age 20 (both with an OPS+ in the 160s, I might add), and enjoyed their best season before the age of 25. Cobb's OPS+ gradually improved in each season from age 18 to 23. Rodriguez's enjoyed a spike during his age 20 season, but otherwise saw his OPS+ gradually improve from age 18 to 24. As we've already seen, Alex's OPS+ has steadily declined in the four seasons since then (ages 25-28). Curiously, Cobb maintained his peak for three seasons and then saw a similar (though even more gradual) four year decline in his OPS+ from ages 26 to 29. In both cases, the bulk of the decrease came from a reduction in slugging.

After Cobb's four year decline he enjoyed two more seasons that ranked with his peak years before settling into a level of production well below that of his twenties. Of course, Cobb was the seventh greatest hitter in the history of the game, so a level "well below that of his twenties" meant he was still one of the top ten hitters in the league. Cobb twice posted an OPS+ of 170 after the age of 34, but he was so good from age 23 to 31 that a 170 OPS+ would have been his worst during that period by a comfortable margin (nine points).

By comparison, Alex Rodriguez's career best OPS+ was 167. Whereas Cobb was the seventh best hitter in the history of the game, Rodriguez isn't even the seventh best hitter in the game right now. None of which is meant to slight Rodriguez as much as it is to temper expectations.

One might hope that Rodriguez would be able to follow Cobb's lead and have one or two more MVP-quality seasons before settling into his thirtysomething groove. Such optimism is reinforced by the fact that his 2005 campaign will not be burdened by the distractions of switching positions and being the Yankees' Savior of the Year (a title still reserved for Carlos Beltran lest it trickle down to Carl Pavano). Unfortunately, the ability gap between Cobb and Rodriguez is such that it seems foolhardy to expect such a renaissance from the Yankee third baseman. Rather, Yankee fans will likely have to put up with a third baseman who plays gold glove defense, is a threat on the bases (lost in the fallout from The Collapse/Choke/Slapgate is the fact that Rodriguez single-handedly manufactured the winning run of the ALDS to cap of an MVP performance), and hits a lot like Derek Jeter (post-1999) but with about ten extra homers per season. They should all be such disappointments!

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