Time, not calendar, is what's haunting A-Rod
Slugger's career October numbers are strong, but he's showing his age this year
NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez is lost right now. He can't get around on a fastball, and it's a problem for the Yankees, whose bats have been kept mostly quiet in the American League Division Series, save for one big inning in Game 1.
That's all true. This also is true: It's not some magical result of the calendar turning to October, and Rodriguez is not the only one in pinstripes looking for some hits to fall.
Rodriguez's contract, his fame and his third spot in the New York batting order all make him the default first target whenever the Yankees' bats go cold, whether it's April or October. And their bats have gone cold, even though the Yanks have a 2-1 lead in the ALDS thanks to two huge homers from Raul Ibanez, who pinch-hit for Rodriguez in the ninth inning on Wednesday.
He's not lacking the ability to perform in the clutch. He's lacking the ability to square up a ball and hit it with authority. His numbers have been declining for several years now, which isn't exactly shocking for a player in his late 30s.
"You get your pitch, you can't miss it," Rodriguez said. "The difference is this much. You get a pitch, you've got to put it in play, you've got to hit it hard and be productive. Foul it off, it's the difference between a groundout and a liner."
The eye test tells the story plenty well. From watching, it's clear that it's not a matter of Rodriguez's strike zone, of him chasing the wrong pitches, so much as he's not hitting the pitches he's getting. The numbers tell a similar story, and not just this week.
A total of 160 Major League players saw at least 1,000 fastballs this year. Only three swung and missed a higher percentage of the time at fastballs in the strike zone than Rodriguez's 22 percent. By comparison, as recently as 2010, Rodriguez swung-and-missed at only 12.6 percent of fastballs in the zone. There's no longer a reason for pitchers to fear coming right at Rodriguez.
That's not a factor of October pressure. That's something much simpler. That's a guy who's not the same hitter he once was.
"He might be a little different hitter," manager Joe Girardi acknowledged. "But I still think he can be extremely productive. We saw him have a run of two really good weeks in the month of September where he hit the ball hard. Right before he got hurt, he was swinging the bat extremely well and driving the ball, so it's in there, it's definitely in there. We've just got to get it to come out."
That's not to say he can't be effective, as Girardi notes. Rodriguez managed a nice .353 on-base percentage this year. He still hit 18 home runs. He stole 13 bases in 14 tries. And he punished left-handed pitching for a .308/.410/.514 line.
He's not the key man in the Yankees lineup anymore, though. And so the case to move him out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order is legitimate. The Yankees might be well served by Rodriguez hitting in a table-setting position, or down in the sixth or seventh spot. This is a fair point, but it misses another essential part of the equation.
Curtis Granderson is 1-for-11 this postseason, following a brutal second half to the season. Nick Swisher has a pair of walks, a pair of singles, and nothing else in 13 plate appearances, continuing a long run of postseason struggles. But still, it's Rodriguez who gets the headlines.
Never mind that the talk about Rodriguez as some sort of postseason failure isn't entirely accurate. To pretend that he can't hit in October ignores his month-long blitz in 2009. Frankly, it ignores his overall career numbers. Rodriguez has nearly a half-season's worth of postseason stats, and while they aren't quite up to his regular-season performances, they're not bad at all.
Entering Wednesday night, he was a lifetime .271 hitter with a .380 on-base percentage and a .484 slugging percentage in postseason games. That's not up to his overall numbers, but it doesn't scream "choker" either. He can hit in October. He's done it before.
If Rodriguez doesn't hit this October -- and there's no denying that so far he hasn't -- it won't be because of the baseball calendar. It may well be because of the clock on his career.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.