Perhaps it was inevitable. A once-in-a-generation player. A player so talented, so fluid, so powerful, so fast, so agile. A player in his nineteenth big-league season. A player saddled with injuries and questions about his health and his toughness.
Baseball’s highest-paid player struggling on the biggest stage. In the biggest city. For the most successful team in the history of the sport. In an age of immediate information and instant analysis and second-guessing. The manager fills out his lineup card and the focus shifts to the missing name. A-Rod benched. In the biggest, most important game of the season.
The Yankees lost last night in Game Three of the American League Championship Series with A-Rod on the bench. He didn’t start, replaced at third base by Eric Chavez. He didn’t pinch hit. He sat, with his Yankees windbreaker jacket keeping him warm on a cool Detroit night.
In six postseason games, Alex Rodriguez has three hits in 23 at bats, plus two walks, and one run scored. And twelve strikeouts. The Yankees won the Division Series over the Orioles despite A-Rod’s failures, but face elimination tonight against the Tigers, perhaps, because of them.
But let’s not lose perspective.
A-Rod is 37-years-old. He suffered a fractured left hand this season and missed 40 games. He’s had knee and hip surgery in the last three seasons. The Yankees still owe him $119 million through the end of 2017. Five more years at an average of just under $20 million per year. Some players will average more each of the next five seasons, but none will have been been paid as much as A-Rod has over the prior nineteen. And maybe the money is so big, so out-sized in proportion to what A-Rod is likely to produce, that we just can’t get passed it.
But A-Rod is not the first great ballplayer to watch his performance crater in the postseason. And he won’t be the last.
I created a custom leader board on FanGraphs, listing the top offensive players from 1962-2012 as measured by WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Barry Bonds tops the list with 168 WAR. A-Rod is second with 114.6. Joe Morgan is fifth, Wade Boggs is eighth, and Reggie Jackson is eighteenth.
Joe Morgan played in the majors for 22 seasons. His career batting line is .271/.392/.427. He was the National League MVP in 1975 and 1976 while with the Cincinnati Reds. A ten-time All-Star. And he won five Gold Gloves. Morgan played in eleven postseason series in his career, a total of 50 games. His career postseason line: .182/.323/.348.
At age 39, Morgan played in his final postseason, when the Phillies won the National League East, beat the Dodgers in the League Championship Series and lost to the Orioles in the World Series. In the four games against the Dodgers, Morgan had one hit in 15 at bats, with two walks. He did bounce back in the World Series, going 5-for-19 with two home runs, in a losing effort.
Wade Boggs played eleven seasons with the Red Sox, five with the Yankees and two with the Devil Rays. He amassed a .328/.415/.443 career slash and played in twelve All-Star games. Boggs played in nine postseason series, a total of 39 games. His career postseason line: .273/.339/.383.
In 1996, at age 38, he played in 132 games for the Yankees, mostly at third base, and batted .311/.389/.389 for the season. New York won the American League East that season and faced the Rangers in the Division Series. The Yankees won in four games, but Boggs only played in three. In twelve at bats, he had one hit — a double — no walks and two strikeouts. In the Championship Series against the Orioles, Boggs struggled again, and played in only three of the five games. In fifteen at bats, Boggs had two singles. He struck out three times and walked twice. Like Morgan had done in 1983, Boggs improved in the World Series, but only played in four of the six games. He went 3-for-11 with one walk.
And then there’s Reggie Jackson. Mr. October. He of the .278/.358/.527 slash in 77 postseason games in his 21-year career. One of the greatest postseason performers in the history of baseball.
But he got old, and his skills declined, because that’s what happens with age. It happened to Joe Morgan. It happened to Wade Boggs. And it happened to Reggie Jackson. His last postseason came with the Angels in 1986, in the classic seven-game battle against the Red Sox. Jackson was the Angels’ designated hitter, but sat out Game 2. In the six games he played, Jackson batted .192/.250/.269 with no home runs and seven strikeouts.
It’s also true that postseason series give us small sample sizes, when managers often have the opportunity to exploit the platoon advantage to an even greater extent than in the regular season. When a player can perform well above his skill level for a short period of time, only to fall back to earth in the regular season. When failure is magnified.
Maybe this is the beginning of the end of A-Rod’s illustrious career. Maybe he’ll bounce back in 2013, the Yankees will make the postseason, again, and he’ll carry the team to a World Series Championship. Or something in between.
But he’s not alone in his struggles, either in the Yankees’ current lineup or in baseball history.