Yes, he had a terrible post-season. But the numbers show that he's still a better clutch hitter than his teammates—and some legendary playoff sluggers of decades past.
The New York Yankees lost the American League Championship Series to the Detroit Tigers yesterday in the most thorough humiliation in the team's postseason history. But they won the bigger battle: scapegoating Alex Rodriguez.
Well before the series was over, the Yankees front office used its allies in the press to divert the focus of blame for the team's failure to Rodriguez. Trade rumors with the Miami Marlins had already made headlines before yesterday's sweep-completing 8-1 loss at Detroit. And so GM Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners are halfway to accomplishing the amazing task of wrapping all of their bad decisions around Alex Rodriguez and convincing Yankee fans that once A-Rod is gone, a new dawn is coming.
And no one would argue that Rodriguez didn't have a miserable playoff. In seven games he batted 25 times with just three hits—that's a .120 batting average—and striking out 12 times.
But he was merely one of a team that failed completely. Robinson Cano, touted as the Yankees MVP, was 3 for 40 for a .075 BA. Curtis Granderson was worse than A-Rod: 3 for 30 for a .100 BA. Nick Swisher was very nearly as bad as both, with 5 for 30, making a .167 BA. Mark Teixeira, had 9 hits in 32 at-bats for a .281 BA, but had just one RBI.
Managing erratically, Joe Girardi, in Game 3, sat A-Rod down against the dreaded Justin Verlander even though A-Rod had hit Verlander quite well over the years. Rodriguez was, in fact, the only Yankee who had. The man Girardi replaced him with, Eric Chavez, went a perfect 0 for 16 with three bad plays at third.
Analysts have long argued over the years whether clutch hitting exists or is a statistical aberration. Some say clutch hitting is determined by how well a player hits in the late innings in close games. To which skeptics respond: Why would a three-run homer in the first inning that helps to knock out the opposing team's starting pitcher any less important? An agnostic on the subject would say that both questions are beside the point, that there simply isn't enough of a sampling to make any definitive judgment. Or as Bill James maintained several years ago, given enough at-bats, a player will hit in so-called clutch situations exactly what he hits during any other time.
I'd say this: If (if!) there is such a thing as clutch hitting, it means hitting well in postseason games. That's when the most pressure is on, that's when hitters are facing the best pitchers, and that's when it matters the most.
Was the New York Yankees' collective failure to hit in the 2012 playoffs just the luck of the draw or a failure or nerve—team-wide unclutchness? Their 2012 performance may not be enough of a sampling to prove anything, so let's use a larger data set. When we do that, it becomes clear that the Yankees' lack of performance in 2012 wasn't a mere statistical blip but rather reflects the big picture—and the big picture actually helps exonerate A-Rod.
Robinson Cano has now played in 51 postseason games and been at-bat 203 times. His postseason BA is .222. Eric Chavez has played in 34 games, batted 125 times and hit .192. Curtis Granderson has played in 36 games, come to bat 131 times and hit .229. The much-maligned Nick Swisher has been in 46 playoff games, batted 154 times and hit just .169. Mark Teixeira has appeared in 40 postseason contests with 153 at-bats and has hit .222.
So five big Yankee hitters have played in 207 postseason games, batted 766 times and post a collective batting average of only .208. If I'm right and clutch hitting is measured by what a hitter does in the postseason, I think the stats of those five players are enough to constitute a large sampling and the message is clear: They can't hit in the clutch.
Despite his horrendous 2012 performance, A-Rod has spent the equivalent of nearly half a regular season in the playoffs: 75 games and 274 at-bats. He hasn't been great, but on the whole he's been semi-respectable with a .263 average, 13 home runs, and 41 RBIs. If you doubled those numbers over another 75 games, he'd have played the equivalent of one regular season and had about 30 home runs and 90 RBIs. That's not bad, and it's certainly a lot better than his teammates.
Let's consider it from a historical perspective. Mickey Mantle is the demi-God of Yankees postseason play (though, of course, Mickey's postseason games were all World Series because the playoffs didn't start until 1969, the year after he retired). Mantle played in 65 postseason games, 10 fewer than A-Rod, and batted 230 times, 16 more. His BA was .257, six points lower than A-Rod's. Mickey hit a World-Series-record 18 home runs, five more than Rodriguez's postseason total, but actually had one fewer RBI, 40 to 41. But Mantle was surrounded by much better hitters, most notably Yogi Berra, and pitchers, like Whitey Ford, so nobody noticed when Mantle didn't come through because somebody else on the Yankees usually did.
I'm not saying Alex Rodriguez has been a better postseason or clutch performer than Mickey Mantle. I'm merely pointing out that the numbers don't say he wasn't.
Let's try one more comparison, Joe DiMaggio, a Yankee with nine World Series rings. In 51 games, DiMaggio batted 199 times in postseason play, 15 more than Alex Rodriguez. He outhit A-Rod by exactly 8 points, .271 to .263. Rodriguez has had more home runs, 13 to 8, and 11 more RBIs, 41 to 30. But no one dwelled on what DiMaggio failed to do in those World Series because the Yankees won them.
Alex Rodriguez is probably the most despised player in baseball history. Barry Bonds was at least cheered by the hometown crowds in San Francisco, and Ty Cobb was rooted for by many fans in his own lifetime. Rodriguez is booed in every park he plays in. The New York press has seen to it that his nine seasons in the Bronx will be forever regarded as a dark age in the history of baseball's most successful team.
And what has Rodriguez accomplished since 2004? He has been an All-Star in seven of nine seasons, won two MVP awards, and hit 302 home runs. He was arguably the league's MVP in 2009, when he missed 38 games but led the Yankees to the 2009 AL pennant and their only World Series win since 2000. Take him away, and the Yankees entire postseason history is a 12-year record of frustration and failure.
Rodriguez had the worst season of his career in 2012, hitting .272 with just 18 home runs and 57 RBIs while missing 40 games due to injury. But he gets no credit for what he's done right. He hustled, playing a decent third base and stealing 13 bases in 14 tries. He doesn't feud with his managers or teammates, and he doesn't complain to reporters when he's benched. He's polite to even the rudest fans. He goes out of his way to help young players.
Perhaps when the Yankees finally succeed in riding him out of New York—no matter how many millions it costs them—some of this will be understood and Rodriguez's achievements will be put in perspective. But I doubt it. Reputations made in New York, whether fair or unfair, tend to be permanent. I can already see the scene some time around the year 2027 when Rodriguez runs out onto the field at a Yankees Old Timer game: some cheers, a smattering of boos, and A-rod forcing a half smile and shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "What the hell?"