Saturday, October 20, 2012

Alex Rodriguez in the Playoffs

I did not expect to find myself in the position of standing up for one of my least favorite players, but that's what it's come to. I'm basking in the glow of the Yankees being swept in a best-of-seven series for the first time since I was born, but the amount of blame being sent Rodriguez' way is far out of proportion and the way his entire career has been downgraded by some in the last few days is ridiculous. Rodriguez is one of the twenty or so best players in MLB history and during his time with the Yankees he's been the best player in the American League. He's had some bad postseason series, but so has just about everyone who's played in more than a handful of them.

Rodriguez has played in 75 postseason games in his career and has an .833 OPS over those games. That's not as good as his regular season figure of .945, but playoff games generally come against better teams, with better pitching, so it should be no surprise that the vast majority of players have lower offensive numbers in the playoffs.

Rodriguez is constantly being compared to Derek Jeter, whose postseason reputation is sterling, yet Jeter's postseason OPS is .838, almost identical to Rodriguez's. I certainly understand why Jeter is far more revered by Yankee fans, because he's played his entire career for them, has accomplished more in a Yankees uniform, and has been a key member of five World Series winning teams (compared to just one for Rodriguez). Still, the notion that Jeter has been an incredible playoff performer while Rodriguez has been a donkey is simply inaccurate.

Rodriguez's figure includes postseason appearances with the Mariners, and his OPS does drop to .807 if you only look at his time with the Yankees, but it's still not a dramatic difference. The Yankees of course have played in far more playoff games than any other team, there are 16 different players who've gotten at least 100 PA in the postseason with the Yankees in the last twenty years. Here they are, ranked by their postseason OPS:

  1. Hideki Matsui          .933
  2. Jason Giambi           .919
  3. Bernie Williams        .850
  4. Derek Jeter              .838
  5. Paul O'Neill             .815
  6. Alex Rodriguez        .807
  7. Johnny Damon         .775
  8. Jorge Posada           .745
  9. David Justice            .721
  10. Tino Martinez           .698
  11. Scott Brosius            .696
  12. Robinson Cano         .686 
  13. Chuck Knoblauch     .631
  14. Alfonso Soriano        .622
  15. Mark Teixeira           .617
  16. Nick Swisher            .559
Cano is the Yankees' best player now, and has been for at least a couple years. Mark Teixeira has a massive contract. Why aren't they vilified the way Rodriguez is, when they've been far worse? Why is Tino Martinez held up as a "true" Yankee, when his postseason resume is so weak? 

It has often been said that Rodriguez only plays well when the pressure is off, his home runs come late in blowouts, while he strikes out when the game is on the line. WPA (win probability added) is a statistic that measures the impact of every plate appearance and determines how much it increased or decreased a team's chances of winning. A home run hit when a team is already ahead by 8 runs adds very little, but a home run late in a close game has a big impact. A strikeout late in a close game has a big impact too, in the opposite direction. A player with a WPA of .20 for a game can be said to have added 20% of a win for that game. The higher a player's WPA, the more he's done to improve his team's chances of winning that game.

Among the 50 best single postseason games for the Yankees since they returned to consistent success in 1995, Alex Rodriguez has five of them, the most of any player. Bernie Williams has four of them. Derek Jeter has three (as do Tino Martinez and Ruben Sierra). Keep in mind, Jeter has played in far more playoff games as a Yankee, yet Rodriguez has had more of the "best" games.

Here are the top ten WPA scores by a Yankee in a playoff game since 1995:

1) .828 - Raul Ibanez - Game 3, 2012 ALDS (home run to tie it in the 9th, another to win in the 12th)
2) .684 - Alex Rodriguez - Game 2, 2004 ALDS (4 hits, including a HR and game-tying double in the 12th)
3) .624 - Scott Brosius - Game 3, 1998 World Series (3 hits, including 2 home runs)
4) .614 - Alex Rodriguez - Game 4, 2004 ALDS (2 doubles, stole third and scored winning run in the 9th)
5) .587 - Jose Vizcaino - Game 1, 2000 World Series (4 hits, including game-winning single in the 12th)
6) .578 - Alex Rodriguez - Game 2, 2009 ALDS (2 hits, including game-tying home run in the 9th)
7) .567 - Raul Ibanez - Game 1, 2012 ALCS (2 hits, including game-tying home run in the 9th)
8) .530 - Tino Martinez - Game 4, 2001 World Series (game-tying home run with two outs in the 9th)
9) .505 - Bernie Williams - Game 1, 1996 ALCS (2 hits, including game-winning home run in the 9th)
10) .444 - Luis Sojo - Game 5, 2000 World Series (pinch-hit single in the 9th that scored the winning run)

Also, no Yankee during these last eighteen years has had as good a postseason as Rodriguez did in 2009. The Yankees' only championship in the last twelve years owes more to Rodriguez than any other player.

None of this is meant to degrade Jeter's postseason performance. He's been a very good player over his postseason career and has had some huge games in the playoffs over the year. Rodriguez has too though. If you're looking for someone to blame for the Yankees being swept from the ALCS, you need to widen your search and accept that there's plenty of blame to go around.

Ruth and Gehrig both had great World Series numbers. Joe DiMaggio did not. Carlos Beltran and Albert Pujols have been incredible in their postseason careers. George Brett and Paul Molitor were too. Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, and Ted Williams all did poorly. Rodriguez is comfortably in the middle, fairly average numbers among great players. All of these figures come in small samples, they matter more to us because the playoffs matter more, but they shouldn't be viewed as some sort of definitive statement on any particular player.

Rodriguez was awful this October, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. He's had other bad playoff runs too. Just like Jeter, just like Bernie Williams, just like just about every player lucky enough to play in more than one or two postseasons. He's had good runs too.

I've spent a lot of years rooting against Rodriguez now, but give the man his due, he's been a tremendous player.

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