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Ask Alex: What can we expect from a healthy A-Rod?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: Alex Rodriguez has been one of the best players in baseball for a decade and a half. But the last few years have seen a bit of a decline. He's averaged just 133 games a year since 2008, with DL trips for injuries to his calf, quadricep and hip. The hip injury was so serious that he had preseason surgery to fix it in 2009, costing him the first month of the season. He's still averaged 32 HRs, 109 RBIs and a .914 OPS over the last three years, which would be spectacular numbers for anyone not named Alex Rodriguez. But this spring he's been turning heads around the New York Yankees camp, inspiring "best shape of his career" stories, and he's been devastatingly effective even by his own standards, starting the spring with a 13-game hitting streak and batting a cool .410/.459/.949 with five homers through his first 39 at-bats.

The Question: Is this just a March mirage, or does Alex Rodriguez still have the old magic in his bat? {YSP:MORE}

The Analysis: In the last three years, injuries and age have reduced Rodriguez from best player in the American League to simply being one of the four-best third basemen in baseball. In other words, even in decline, Rodriguez is still plenty good -- a star, just no longer the brightest in the galaxy. His defense isn't what it once was, as he's gone from being one of the better defensive players in baseball in his 20s to being a slight liability in his 30s. Nothing serious, and his bat more than makes up for it, but it's still  a component in his decline.

A-Rod won't be hitting 50 home runs again, though, and probably won't hit 40. His power is still formidable, but it has been declining too. In each of the past three years, his groundball percentage has increased, and his homer per flyball percentage and slugging percentage have declined. Since he slugged .645 in his 2007 MVP season, he has slugged .573, .532, and .506 in the past three years. None of that is too shabby — he still led the league in 2008 with that .573 mark — but it marks a real trend. In other words, he isn't lofting the ball as much and it isn't going quite as far as it used to.

But the power decline might not be aging so much as the lingering aftereffects of injury and surgery. All those lower body injuries have a way of taking a toll on power production, because power hitters generate their power from their legs. So if he's truly healthy — and he's been saying things like, "This is as healthy as I've felt over the last several years," though of course a lot of players say that during spring training — it would make it even easier to believe that he will be able to tap into more of his power than he has the last three years. He claims that he finally feels healthy following the 2009 hip surgery, and improved health could partly offset the effects of aging, including his 36th birthday in July.

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Of course, injuries come more rapidly as players get older, and there's just no denying the effects of age. Fangraphs' Howard Bender simply doubts that Alex will really be able to stay healthy at this stage of his career:

Over the past three seasons we've seen a fairly dramatic decline across the board — HR, SB, BA, OBP, SLG and, everyone's favorite, wOBA. The injuries aren't going to cease as his body is slowly breaking down from the general wear and tear of 15 full seasons in the majors (ok fine, the steroid use obviously doesn't help).

Bender cites Rodriguez as the fourth-best third baseman in baseball, so it's not like he thinks Rodriguez is headed off a cliff. Not only is his power likely to improve (even if other nagging injuries conspire to keep him off the field for parts of the season), but his batting average is likely to improve from his career-worst .270, which was due in turn to a career-worst .274 Batting Average on Balls in Play. That BABIP is almost certain to rise by 20 and possibly 30 or 40 points, and it will bring his BA, OBP and SLG up with it. (He has hit below .270, but it was during two teenage cups of coffee in 1994 and 1995. In his first full season in 1996, the 20-year-old Rodriguez won the batting title by hitting .358.)

The Forecast for 2011: Expect a modest bounceback, but not a major one. He has a healthier hip, but he's also a year older. ZiPS projects .277/.369/.527, with 30 HR and 103 RBIs in just 124 games; Bill James projects .284/.381/.530, with 35 HR and 116 RBIs in 144 games. Very similar, except for the games played, and obviously, the home run production mostly depends on the number of games he manages to play. He hasn't played 140 games since his 2007 MVP campaign, when he played 158; he won't do that again, but he can probably manage more than 140, and as long as that happens, he's as sure a lock for 30-35 home runs as any player in the game.

The new Yankee Stadium is a great place for a power hitter — batters slugged .442 there, compared to .402 at all other stadiums — and Alex still has plenty enough juice left in his bat to take advantage. I'll predict .280/.380/.530, with 35 homers and 110 RBIs in 145 games.

However, as Mike Axisa of River Ave. Blues writes:

For most players, an MVP caliber season represents their best case scenario. For A-Rod, it seems like he's capable of so much more; you know he has the talent to put up a year that re-writes the record books. The chances of him doing so are far less likely now than they were five or ten years ago, of course, but I'll never put anything beyond Rodriguez.

Alex Rodriguez is no longer in his prime, but he's still one of the better players in the major leagues. This year, he'll be somewhere between good and amazing. I don't expect amazing, but I also wouldn't be too surprised if it happens.

Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?How many games will the Astros win?Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem?Will Neil Walker be a top 10 second baseman?Can Zack Greinke win the NL Cy Young award?Can Manny still be Manny at 39?Is this a breakout season for Jay Bruce's power?Can the Mariners offense rebound?Will Carlos Gonzalez take a step back in 2011?

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