Why we can expect a better OBP from Alex Rodriguez in 2011

In the grand baseball scheme of things, Alex Rodriguez had a solid, if unspectacular season in 2010, posting the 4th-best fWAR (3.9) among third basemen in the American League. However, the gap between A-Rod and the third-best fWARs (Jose Bautista and Evan Longoria at 6.9 each) was pretty massive, and along with the fact that Alex recorded career lows in a host of meaningful statistical categories it’s hard to characterize A-Rod’s 2010 anything other than a disappointment.

However, there are a lot of encouraging signs pointing to an A-Rod recovery in 2011. Though his power stroke went missing for much of the season, he seemed to find it during the last two months of the year. More distressingly, the most significant decline in A-Rod’s game was his OBP, which, at a career-low .341, was his worst full-season mark since 1999’s .357. The good news is that so far both projection systems that have been released see an OBP bump for Alex in 2011, with Bill James forecasting a (perhaps overly optimistic) 40-point jump to .381, while SG’s CAIRO system sees Alex at .372. Either of those would of course be a most-welcome improvement.

James’ projection calls for Alex’s BB% to climb from 9.9% to 12.2%, and also sees a rebound in Alex’s career-low 2010 BABIP of .274 to .306. While I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect Alex to pick up 14 more hits, I’m slightly more wary of the 17 additional walks forecasted. If Alex is going to make those 31 less outs, he’s going to have to work on a couple of things.

First and foremost, he’ll need to get his timing back. Alex looked overpowered by the fastball — historically his bread-and-butter — for much of the season, and only his late-season adjustments enabled him to still post a relatively respectable 17.2 runs above average mark against the four-seamer. Somewhat surprisingly that was the 13th-best mark against fastballs in the AL, although it still represented his lowest number in pinstripes. In 2009, he was at 25.5 runs above average against the heat, good for 11th-best. Alex’s worst pitch in 2010 was the slider, with -2.6 runs above average down from 0.0 in 2009 and significantly down from 10.3 in 2008 and 12.8 in his historical 2007 campaign. A-Rod actually had his best year as a Yankee against the curveball this past season with a 5.8 runs above average showing, good for 7th-best in the AL. And he was basically right around where he usually is against the change, at 1.4 runs above average.

Alex’s struggles against the fastball led to a slight uptick in the number he saw in 2010 (60.5% compared to 58.9% in 2009) and his success against the curveball resulted in a decline (6.7% compared to 8.0% in 2009).

Secondly, he’ll need to get his patience back, and this is the area of his game that if he can improve will enable him to reach those lofty OBP projections. For starters, Alex swung at more than a quarter (25.3%) of the pitches he saw out of the strike zone, by far a career high and significantly above his career mark of 20.9%. He also swung at more pitches in the zone (68.5%) than he had since 2004, and his overall swing percentage of 45% was significantly higher than 2009’s 42.6% and a slight jump on his 44% career rate.

Like his pal Derek Jeter, as a result of all of this extra swinging, A-Rod wound up making a lot of bad contact, connecting with an absurd (for A-Rod, anyway) 65.6% of the pitches out of the zone that he swung at, up from 2009’s 58.8% and way up from his 52.1% career rate. He also made contact with a career-high 86.1% of the pitches he swung at in the zone, and taken together these two marks resulted in a career-high 79.8% contact percentage (75.7% for his career).

Pitchers were able to take advantage of A-Rod’s expansion of his strike zone, as he saw a career-low 45.6% of pitches in the strike zone (compared to 49% career). All of this additional swinging at bad pitches led to a career-low LD% of 13.8% (17.8% career) and career-high GB% of 46.0% (42.2% career). His FB% was actually up over 2009 (40.2% compared to 37.7%), but more of those flies ended up being easy fly-outs, reflected in his career-low 17.1% HR/FB rate.

So the moral of the story is, if Alex Rodriguez is going to bounceback and have the kind of 2011 we know he’s capable of having, he has to stop swinging at so many pitches, especially of the outside-the-zone variety. Fortunately, 2010 aside, A-Rod has shown over his long career that he is a very patient hitter, with his .387 career OBP coming in at 18th among active players, and given that plate discipline is one of the few baseball skills that anecdotally doesn’t tend to deteriorate (and sometimes even improves) as a player ages, Alex should be a good bet for a significant improvement in OBP in 2011.