The story has been re-told hundreds of times, but the Yankees have been in the off season for more than two weeks now. With post ideas running a little thin forgive me for recapping it here. In 2007 Alex Rodriguez had the best season of his career. He hit 54 homers, with a wOBA of 449 and a wRC+ of 178. He was just 32 at season’s end. With over 500 home runs to his name already, it was a matter of when, not if, he would take control of baseball’s most cherished record.
Things have not gone to plan since the 2007 season. A-Rod’s power numbers largely remained in tact from 2008 through 2010, but he played less than 140 games each season. As a result he hit “just” 95 homers over those three seasons. That’s a great result for just about any other slugger in his mid-thirties, but it’s not enough for a player trying to hit 763 homers in his career. Every homer A-Rod didn’t hit during his early thirties is one more he’d have to hit in his late thirties, when age would make power that much harder to achieve. Needless to say, A-Rod’s injury plagued 2011 season in which he hit only 16 homers has made things that much worse. Time is not on Alex’s side if he is going to break Barry Bonds‘ record. Can he still do it?
Sitting at 629 career home runs, Alex needs to hit an additional 134 homers as his career ends if he is to get to 763. At first glance, that seems reasonable. It translates to just 22.3 homers over the six years Alex has left on his contract. Given that Alex has averaged 42 homers for every 162 games he’s played in the majors it means he only needs to be about half as effective a home run hitter as he’s normally been. While that goal seems achievable, it hinges heavily on two things: Alex remaining healthy — something he hasn’t done since 2007 — and Alex not declining much more. Can he do either?
Baseball Reference provides similarity scores by age for current players. These scores are meant to be a statistically driven means of comparing the current career trajectory of a single player to the career trajectories of players who came before him. Although crude, they help answer this question. A-Rod will have a better chance of breaking the career home run record if the players he is most similar to hit roughly 100 or more home runs between ages 36 and 42. If none of those players achieved something similar, then it will indicate that the cards may really be stacked against Alex.
In order, Alex rates as most similar to the following four players: Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson and Willie Mays. Rodriguez is under contract through 2017, when he will turn 42. Of those four, only Aaron and Mays played until they were 42 years old and both retired after that season. Ott’s last season came when he turned 38 and Robinson’s last season came when he turned 40. This information doesn’t bode well for Alex or the Yankees. The generic assumption that Alex will break the record if he hits just 23 homers a season for the next six years is based on the second order assumption that he won’t age much during that period. Implicitly we know that isn’t true, but these comparisons help drive home just how untrue it is. Not only is it unlikely that Alex will put forward an evenly distributed performance over the remainder of his career, it is not even clear he’ll have enough left in the tank to play out his contract effectively.
Digging deeper, of the four players who compare most similarly to A-Rod, only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays hit anywhere near the same number of homers as Alex needs to break the record after the seasons in which they turned 36. Aaron was essentially ageless. He hit 47 homers his age 37 season and a stunning 163 over the last six years of his career. Mays wasn’t as effective. He hit just 96 homers over his last six seasons, which wouldn’t be enough for Alex but would put him in the ball park of where he needs to be for the record.
If Aaron and Mays show that there is a chance that Alex could break the record, then Ott and Robinson serve as stark warnings that a player Alex’s age with his injury trouble is almost as likely to fall off a cliff. Robinson hit 30 homers in his age 37 season and 22 homers the next year, but he was done after that, hitting just 12 homers over his last two years. Ott, meanwhile, was done when he was A-Rod’s age. He hit just one more homer in his entire career after he completed his age 36 season.
It isn’t enough for Alex to be as productive specifically as Aaron if he’s going to break the all-time home run record. He also has to be productive the same way Aaron was. The Hammer did most of his damage in the first half of the last six years of his career. In fact, he was a monster, hitting 47, 34 and then 40 homers over that period. A similar burst from Alex would put him at 750 career homers, just thirteen shy of breaking the record.
Therefore, if Alex is going to stand any meaningful chance of breaking the all time home run record he will need to be extremely productive the next two or three seasons, at least as productive as he was from 2008 to 2010, and realistically more so. This will be difficult. Alex’s defenders may point out that he’s been injured his last few seasons, limiting his potential, but Aaron was injured often during the three seasons in question as well. He never played more than 139 games after turning 37, and still put together not one, but two 40 home run seasons. In fact, in 1973 Hank played only 120 games and still hit 40 jacks! Alex hasn’t seen close to that level of production in recent years.
A lot of things are guaranteed for Alex as he plays out the remainder of his career. He’s already achieved a place in baseball’s inner-circle of great players (even if the steroids scandal keeps him out of the hall of fame). With 629 career homers, 2,775 career hits and 1,893 career RBI (over rated, I know) career milestones of 700, 3,000 and 2,000, respectively, all seem within reach over the next three seasons. But 763 homers is beginning to look more and more like too much of a stretch.