|Are Alex Rodriguez's best days behind the Yankees infielder?|
|Updated 6/13/2012 11:47 PM ET|
We watch him add to his place in baseball history this week with his 23rd grand slam, matched only by New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig.
We marvel at a recent 447-foot home run off arguably the best pitcher in the game, a jaw-dropping reminder from one of the defining athletic talents of this generation.MORE: A-Rod hits record 23rd grand slam to tie Gehrig PHOTOS: A-Rod photo gallery
In between, we wonder why Rodriguez has performed much of this season like a slap-hitting leadoff man, threatening to post career lows in every measure of power hitting.
Rodriguez is 36 now, morphing from the assumed heir to baseball's all-time home run crown to a prideful man battling the force of age every superstar inevitably faces.
"I've been doing this for a long time," says Rodriguez, who espouses confidence at the same time he continues a gym-rat approach to working on his craft.
"You're always trying to find it. Even when you have it, and then you're trying to keep it."
Finding it. Keeping it. Losing it?
Those are the concerns surrounding Rodriguez, who needs 124 homers to top Barry Bonds' record 762 and seems to revel in the knowledge everyone is watching.
But for Yankees fans, sometimes it's hard to watch.
Rodriguez's homer to tie Gehrig was his 10th of the season. His ninth was the monstrous shot off reigning American League MVP Justin Verlander.
But in between those two long balls was an eight-game stretch in which he hit .217 with one extra-base hit. And in 19 games since May 22, Rodriguez has five homers but just one other extra-base hit.
His home run frequency is the lowest of his career and has been cut by more than half since 2007, the year before the onset of hip issues that required surgery in 2009. But there's more.
According to Fangraphs.com, he's swinging at 31.3% of pitches that are out of the strike zone, well above his 21.8% career rate. His fly-ball rate is a career-low 32.2%; his career norm is 40%.
Yet his .276 batting average is in line with the last three seasons. He still can hit, but he hits differently.
So is he sliding as every superstar inevitably does … or merely slumping?
"Tell the Yankees, 'You pay that salary and trade him,' and you'll see everybody in baseball take that guy," Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen says. "He makes everybody better."
More money,more pressure
That salary has the Yankees paying Rodriguez at least $143 million through the end of 2017, when he'll be 43.
The Yankees aim to lower their payroll — currently at $198 million — to $189 million by 2014. Hitting that mark while maintaining their competitive standard will be challenging if they're paying an average $27 million a season to a player with modest power numbers.
"Do I think seven or eight home runs in a month is possible?" Yankees manager Joe Girardi asks. "Absolutely. Can he carry that over six months? That's hard for any hitter to do."
Hitting coach Kevin Long, who matches Rodriguez's batting-cage thirst, acknowledges a fourth 50-homer season might not be realistic but says a 30-homer year is possible.
For others, Rodriguez's concessions to age are palpable.
"You can tell he's getting old," says Andy Andres, a baseball researcher at Boston University who has taught biology and the physiology of athletic performance as well as sabermetrics. Andres analyzed Rodriguez's swings over the last 18 years for USA TODAY Sports to provide perspective on where the Yankees third baseman is today and what to expect in the future.
Andres sees changes in Rodriguez's swing, even since this season began, including the reduction of a trademark high leg kick. It's a work in progress Rodriguez and Long acknowledge.
Rodriguez had hip surgery and a knee injury in the last three seasons. The trick is determining whether his waning power is an irreversible factor of age or a fixable remnant of the injuries.
"I've always said power's never going to be a problem for me," Rodriguez said after his homer against Verlander.
Bonds' home run recordmight be out of reach
His perspective comes in quick bursts these days because he limits his news media contact almost exclusively to postgame comments regarding that day's contest.
The arm's-length approach comes after a few years of public tumult, including the lost notion that he was the great, clean alternative to Bonds, whose connection to steroid suspicions sullied his 2007 surpassing of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. Rodriguez was tainted by his 2009 admission of using performance-enhancing drugs earlier in his career.
Now, it's a legitimate question to wonder if, under any circumstances, Rodriguez can catch Bonds.
The odds are against him, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The website has a tool that compares players with their statistical peers throughout baseball history. Those most similar to Rodriguez are a who's who of home run hitters — from Aaron and Bonds to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
The average careers of the 10 players most similar to Rodriguez spanned four seasons and 84 home runs after age 35. And that includes Bonds' 268 homers over his seven post-35 seasons. Bonds and Aaron were the only ones to continue playing as long as the five-plus years Rodriguez's contract has remaining.
It's also worth noting that all but two of the similar players were outfielders. First baseman Jimmie Foxx was done at 37. Eddie Mathews, a third baseman, played 31 games after turning 36.
"If he has a healthy year, I expect him to be above average for players at his position," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "When healthy, that's what he's always been. It's hard to say, because he hasn't been healthy, but I'd like to believe that type of production is still there."
That's an expensive hope.
Rodriguez is being paid $29 million this season as part of 10-year contract signed before the 2008 season. He'll get $28 million next year, followed by seasons of $25 million, $21 million, $20 million and $20 million.
In the midst of everything else, Rodriguez is a centerpiece of a star-studded Yankees team somewhere between too experienced for the competition to keep up with and too old to remain a formidable force — but very much a contender in a tight AL East.
"When you hit in the middle of the order, you're expected to come up with big hits," Rodriguez says. "I know what my bread and butter is: to make big noise with my bat. I've been doing this a long time. I think there's a lot more to come."
Showing, and fighting,effects of age at plate
But it's clearly a struggle against opponents hardly cowering when Rodriguez strides to the plate flipping his bat, appearing as cocksure as ever.
"When pitches are low, his head moves a lot more, like he's trying to track the ball," Andres says. "I'd tell everybody to throw him fastballs low and inside. Pound the inside corner - for now, anyway. He'll adjust."
At the height of his power production, Rodriguez would lift his front leg so his thigh was parallel with the ground as the pitcher released the ball. It was more movement than most hitters use, but he had the unusual ability to still get the bat through the hitting zone quickly enough to provide the power for five AL home run titles.
He carried his usual swing into this season but, through work with Long, has greatly reduced the kick. It's quicker and lower.
The high kick came back for one recent at-bat — the home run against Verlander, when Rodriguez obviously anticipated another of the low, inside pitches Andres recommends.
The cat-and-mouse game continued last week, when Rodriguez faced Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price with the bases loaded. Price pounded him with inside pitches in a classic 11-pitch battle. But the last three pitches were curveballs that surprised Rodriguez; he fouled two inside curves off and flailed at an outside curve for strike three.
Rays manager Joe Maddon admitted later that the counterintuitive approach was part of the strategy.
Long says he told Rodriguez, "Your leg kick has got to be up and down. It can't go up and back. You don't allow yourself enough time to react to the baseball."
Time — just how much does Rodriguez have?
Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz, himself an aging slugger, has heard that talk before.
"Oh, come on — he's fine," Ortiz says. "He'll be fine."
We can't help but watch and wonder.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz in Oakland. White reported from New York and Miami.
|Posted 6/13/2012 11:29 PM ET|
|Updated 6/13/2012 11:47 PM ET|