Monday, May 21, 2012

Warning Track A-Rod

(And this reaction wasn't even on the HR swing.  Courtesy of Getty Images)

It was a rough weekend for supposedly elite horses.  Bodemeister got run down again on the home stretch of The Preakness on Saturday and Alex Rodriguez failed to hit a ball that he thought he got all of over the wall in the 8th inning of yesterday's 5-2 loss to the Reds.  In Bodemeister's case, he did pretty much everything you could do to win a race, he just got beat by a better horse.  In A-Rod's case, the failed HR was the latest example of a troubling trend in his game and a perfect visual representation of the Yankees' collective offensive struggles.

We've been conditioned since 2004 to know when The Horse hits a big home run.  There's the brief split-second pause at the finish of his follow through, the bat flip to the on-deck circle, the turn to the dugout, and the beginning of the slow victory lap jog around the bases to bask in the moment of triumph.  All of those trademark A-Rod moves were in play yesterday when the ball left his bat in the 8th inning, and all that had to be done was watching to see just where the ball was going to land, bullpen or stands.  But then a funny thing happened.  Chris Heisey settled under the ball about halfway onto the warning track, raised his glove, and made the catch to keep the go-ahead runs off the scoreboard and put the 2nd out on it.

Alex's reaction was a combination of stunned disbelief and frustrated anger, a reaction that was surely shared by the fans in The Stadium and everybody watching the game at home.  Something like that doesn't happen to somebody like Alex Rodriguez.  When you've hit as many home runs as he has, you KNOW when you've gotten all of a ball and he KNEW he had gotten it all on that swing yesterday.  And because he reacted the way he did, we all KNEW that he had just hit a very timely homer to hopefully help snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  To have that certain HR turn into a certain flyout in a matter of seconds was a crushing blow to the Yankees' chances of winning yesterday's game and possibly an even greater blow to A-Rod's status as an elite or even above-average power hitting threat.

There was plenty of talk about the wind at The Stadium being a factor in preventing that ball from going over the wall, but that seems like a cop out to me.  How often have we seen the wind prevent a Rodriguez HR from going out, especially when he reacts in his trademark "no doubt about that one" fashion?  There isn't a single instance that comes to mind.  A more likely, and far more depressing, explanation is that this is the type of power that A-Rod has these days; just enough to give the ball a ride, but not enough to get it out of the park.  That explanation would certainly would be in line with the power numbers that Alex has (or hasn't) put up in the season's first 6 weeks.

A-Rod's batting line currently sits at .270/.368/.399.  His wOBA is .350 and his wRC+ is 119, both slightly down from the values he posted in 2011.  His BB and K rates are right in line with what he did last season, as is his BABIP.  What's dragging him down is his career-low .128 ISO, down almost 80 points from his previous career low set last season.  The sub-.400 SLG is also way down from last season's career-low rate.  Alex has gotten plenty of rest this season, and there is no indication that he's suffering from any kind of physical ailment, eliminating the 2 simplest excuses for why he is having such a down power year.

The only explanation left is that Alex is old and has lost his HR power.  He's 36, turning 37 in 2 months, and has been on a steady decline in the power department since 2007.  That paints a pretty convincing picture.  I certainly hope that isn't the case, but after yesterday I'm not sure what other explanation there could be.  Even with the declining power over the past 5 seasons, the trademark A-Rod HR reaction has always, ALWAYS meant a home run.  Now it means a deep flyball that may or may not die on the warning track.  The Horse's contract was already a big anchor on the Yankees' payroll and their future budget plans.  If this is what he's going to be moving forward, a aging corner infielder with warning-track power, that anchor becomes even bigger.

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