This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 20 years.
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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 7, No. 4
March 4, 2015
In a few hours, Alex Rodriguez will step to the plate and begin to do the only thing left that can change his story: playing baseball. Whatever has come before -- suspensions, drug usage, investigations, lies, recriminations -- is prologue to the two at-bats he'll get today and the season laid out ahead of him. The only thing that can possibly change the story now is Rodriguez's performance on the field. If he hits, people will cheer. If he doesn't hit, they won't. We have a decade of evidence that baseball fans don't care very much about the use of sports drugs, that they're willing to cheer for players caught cheating, to advocate for their signing, to welcome them when they put on the local livery. Rodriguez's case is different by degree, not kind.
Over at NBC's Hardball Talk, blogger-in-chief Craig Calcaterra has done a wonderful job tracking what he has dubbed A-Rod Derangement Syndrome. The coverage of Rodriguez in the New York press has ranged from biased to hysterical, and not just in the tabloids. The coverage of Rodriguez has always ignored the history playing out in front of us, whether an industry lavishing eight-figure deals on players after their suspensions, or young teams trading for JDA violators down the stretch of a pennant race, or postseason heroes allowed to be postseason heroes without the constant references to their past.
Jhonny Peralta and Marlon Byrd and Nelson Cruz are just players now, respected by their peers, welcomed by their teammates, paid lavishly by their employers, cheered by their teams' fans. Since their suspensions, the three have signed combined free-agent deals worth well over $100 million. Byrd has been signed by or traded for by more than a quarter of the National League since his suspension. Nelson Cruz was voted onto the AL All-Star team by the fans. There's no Jhonny Peralta Derangement Syndrome. The media treatment of Alex Rodriguez singles him out for his supposed crimes to a greater degree than any other player caught in the Biogenesis investigation -- an investigation that remains unique in baseball history and ethically questionable in its execution.
How we got here, however, can only be forgotten if Rodriguez hits. For all of the media cries for the Yankees to release Rodriguez and eat the $63 million left on his deal, the team actually needs him. Last year, with three expensive free agents but without Rodriguez, the Yankees finished 13th in the AL in runs and 14th in OBP. Their designated hitters batted .230/.290/.372. In absentia, Rodriguez was a more productive player than Alfonso Soriano (-0.7 bWAR) and Carlos Beltran (-0.2 bWAR) and not that much worse than Derek Jeter (0.2 bWAR). The Yankees blocked off third base by signing Chase Headley, a good defensive player who hit .246/.338/.387 at 29 and 30. They brought in Garrett Jones as part of a first base/DH solution; Jones hit .240/.300/.415 the past two years. The idea that Rodriguez can't help the 2015 Yankees is more than a little ridiculous. Two years ago, playing on one leg, Rodriguez hit .244/.348/.423, good for half a win in 44 games even with terrible third-base defense. That line alone would have led the 2014 Yankees in OBP and SLG among full-time players. The Yankees haven't kept Alex Rodriguez around just because they don't want to eat the money. They've kept him around because they need his bat.
Can Rodriguez be productive? If you hold a realistic view of sports drugs, of how much of his career was his own and how much was artificial -- that is to say "all" and "none" -- you measure Rodriguez against some of the best players who ever lived. Those players weren't all productive at 39, but the ones who were, raked. Hank Aaron, who has been Rodriguez's top statistical comp by age for a while, hit .301/.402/.643 (OPS+ of 177) at 39. Willie Mays hit .291/.390/.506 (140). Babe Ruth hit .288/.448/.537 (160). Barry Bonds hit .362/.609/.812 (263!) and was intentionally walked in about 20% of his plate appearances. I don't think Bonds is a comp for Alex Rodriguez, I just like writing that sentence. Those four players, of course, are the four ahead of Rodriguez on the all-time home-run list. One sign of greatness is longevity, so there's precedent for players like Rodriguez to produce in their late thirties and early forties.
The comp I've been using for some time is that of Dave Winfield. Winfield, arguably the gold standard for mistreated Yankees before Rodriguez, hit .322/.398/.530 (159) in 1988 at the age of 36, finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting -- his first time getting votes since 1985 -- in what was the second-best season of his career. In 1989, however, Winfield had to undergo surgery for a herniated disc and missed the entire season. The year off was salubrious; Winfield would be a productive hitter for the next three years -- .274/.348/.473 (127) in the offensive wasteland of the early 1990s -- and contribute to a World Championship team in 1992 with the Blue Jays. That's the parallel I see in Rodriguez; he didn't miss 2014 with an injury, but the time off and the surgery he underwent to fix his hip problem have given him a chance to be the best version of himself in a way that hasn't been the case since at least 2012 -- also the last time the Yankees made the playoffs. The combination of Rodriguez's baseline talent and a healed body give him a chance at a comeback like Winfield's.
I won't lie -- I'm rooting for him, and pretty hard. Whatever he's done, he's been singled out by his industry and the media that covers it in a manner wildly disproportionate to his misdeeds. Rodriguez was suspended by a commissioner who once led the charge to violate the Collective Bargaining Agreement to the tune of $280 million in penalties, and who saw a subsequent labor strategy laughed out of federal court by a future Supreme Court Justice. He wears a uniform worn previously, famously, by drunks and reprobates and cheaters and brawlers and, heaven help us, writers. He works in an industry that was a bulwark against racial progress, that has siphoned billions from the public coffers to no good end, that didn't give a rip about what players put into their bodies until it was economically advantageous to do so. That still doesn't, as evidenced by the treatment of players who break the rules.
When Alex Rodriguez steps up to the plate today, he'll do so in a place named for a man who has four times the suspension days he does, a convicted felon who once paid a small-time crook for information against a star player -- something that MLB used to look down upon. Rodriguez will stand on a field named for someone whose second suspension, in 1990, was greeted with a standing ovation at the ballpark on the night it was announced.
Alex Rodriguez starts his comeback in a place that stands as testament to the idea that if you win, no one will care what you did before: George M. Steinbrenner Field.