Alex Rodriguez had one of the best seasons in baseball history. His slash line was .314/.422/.645, good for a mind-numbing .449 wOBA. He hit 54 homers, his most as a Yankee, and pounded in 156 RBI while scoring 143 runs. That's impressive, regardless of how you view RBI and runs.
It was a season for the ages. No one understood this better than A-Rod (except maybe Scott Boras). Alex promptly opted out of his contract and got the Yankees to reward him with an even bigger one than his previous, record-setting, ten-year deal. The deal was ill-advised at the time, but the Yankee offense looked weak, to say the least, without number thirteen mashing in the middle of the lineup. It was a shrewd business move that paid the slugger handsomely.
The Yankees, however, have gotten the short end of the stick. Rodriguez's performance has declined each season since signing that new contract. In 2008 his wOBA fell to .413, which is still awesome, but a decline from his 2007 high. In 2009 his wOBA fell again, this time to .405. In 2010 Alex's contribution fell off a cliff (for him). His wOBA fell to .363, the lowest mark of his career as an everyday player.
Let's take a closer look:
If we were to add the missing .033 points from Alex's average to his entire 2010 slash line, his numbers would become .303/.374/.539, and the Yankees wouldn't have a problem. Sure, the OBP would down a bit from Alex's career levels, but no one would care. And this experiment just assumes Alex missed out only on singles. His slugging would no doubt be even higher, due to some doubles and homers mixing in there.
Alex's BABIP of .274 helps explain his drop in production. For his career Alex has hit .318 on balls in play. His 2010 mark is actually the lowest of his career, ever, even when he was a scrub in 1994 and 1995. Prior to 2010 Alex's lowest BABIP came in 1999, when he posted a .281 mark. All things being equal, given that luck does play a big part in BABIP, some of Alex's numbers should be expected to bounce back in 2010.
Unfortunately, a player's performance has a lot more to do with his BABIP than the conventional wisdom suggests. Some of the number is due to luck, to be certain, but if Alex rolls over a pitch and hits it weakly to the left side (again, and again, and again), it ain't luck. He's doing something wrong. In Alex's case, the numbers suggest that he lost some of his plate discipline.
Fangraphs provides plate discipline data going as far back as 2002. A quick examination of those data for A-Rod show consistent trends in almost every statistic, except one: swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. In 2010 Alex swung at 25.3% of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone, far and away the highest figure among available data.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Alex made contact on more of those pitches, hitting 65.6% of them, also far and away the highest figure among available data. Given that Alex only saw 45.6% of all his pitches in the zone, his increased propensity for swinging at bad pitches was a material difference in 2010.
His other numbers also suggest this. His 2010 walk rate of 9.9% was his lowest since 1999. His strikeout rate of 18.8% was his lowest since 1997. He hit more fly balls and ground balls, fewer line drives, and saw fewer flies carry for home runs. These are precisely the outcomes to expect from a player who is swinging at bad pitches, and making weak contact on them. That, in turn, is a recipe for a reduced BABIP, but one that is not due to luck.
2011 is in many ways a turning point for Alex. Since signing his monster contract A-Rod has never hit more than 35 home runs. He's also never played in more than 138 games (after playing in at least 148 games for eight consecutive seasons). The Yankees overpaid for Rodriguez, but they did so expecting a durable superstar. Instead, A-Rod has become injury-prone and his production has declined in each of the last three years.
The numbers suggest that A-Rod should be able to bounce back next season. If he regains some of his old selectivity at the plate he should see his BABIP recover, along with his production. While the days of 40-plus home run power may be a thing of the past for the 35-year-old slugger, he demonstrated a willingness to change his approach in season, when he tweaked his swing with Kevin Long in September. If Alex is going to return to form he'll need to continue that dedication in the offseason. For the sake of everyone in the Yankee Universe, let's hope that this analysis is correct, that A-Rod's 2010 problems are in fact fixable, and that he fixes them. If not, it's going to be a long seven years.