A-Rod is a $300 million migraine

The $300 million headache has graduated to a migraine.

They’re booing Alex Rodriguez at Yankee Stadium again. These are not standard-issue rants, either, from an esteemed group of Chicken Littles and DUIs-in-waiting. Even the sane and sober are giving their vocal cords extended workouts to razz one of the great numbers hoarders of all time, the sort of Bronx jeer reserved for only the most loathsome Yankees.

Carl Pavano is more popular right now than A-Rod. Think about that.

And then think about the last year, perhaps the most seminal of Rodriguez’s life. He gagged again last postseason, clumsily opted out of his contract during the World Series, revealed himself a pliable ninny by blaming his agent, broke up his marriage by latching on to Madonna (who at 50 could be his mom), again forgot how to hit in the clutch and now is stuck in one of the worst stretches of his career, glug-glug-glugging with his sunken ship.

Win Probability Added

When analyzing how “clutch” a player truly is, sabermetricians turn to a statistic called WPA, or Win Probability Added, that calculates how many wins a player added to his team by giving more credit to important situations. Fangraphs.com comes up with a “clutch” score by comparing WPA with WPA/LI – Win Probability Added with the Leverage Index removed, i.e. making all at-bats equal, regardless of the situation.

Except for a couple of seasons, Alex Rodriguez has been anything but clutch. And this season, his Clutch score is the lowest in baseball and 20th-worst since 1974.

Year WPA Rank         WPA/LI Rank         Clutch Rank
2008 0.27 93rd   2.91 18th   -2.67 158th of 158
2007 6.85 1st   5.82 2nd   1.00 17th of 162
2006 1.09 76th   2.41 39th   -1.37 150th of 160
2005 5.52 3rd   6.27 3rd   -0.65 109th of 148
2004 3.08 26th   2.96 29th   0.24 57th of 161
2003 4.15 11th   4.82 6th   -0.12 82nd of 165
2002 3.75 26th   4.98 11th   -1.27 133rd of 151
2001 5.23 12th   5.96 8th   -0.69 125th of 156
2000 5.27 8th   5.62 7th   0.09 64th of 162
1999 1.19 69th   3.22 34th   -2.02 151st of 157
1998 4.51 13th   4.00 20th   0.63 33rd of 159
1997 1.97 49th   2.32 37th   -0.38 96th of 144
1996 3.79 18th   4.20 13th   -0.55 106th of 147
Source: fangraphs.com

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Rodriguez re-signed with the Yankees for 10 years, and that is now the issue at heart. He is not even one full year into the richest deal in professional sports history, and already it looks like a marriage made in hell. Or, better yet, purgatory, because both sides are stuck.

A-Rod is grounding into double plays and striking out and putting together – no hyperbole – the worst clutch-hitting season in all of Major League Baseball, owner Hank Steinbrenner has cased his verbal paintballs in favor of BBs, with the bazooka at arm’s length, and everyone knows A-Rod can’t go anywhere else because the money is too big and Rodriguez’s career-long struggle with important at-bats is again popping up like a zit.

Every player has his demons; Rodriguez’s happen to come with the magnifying glass tilted toward him. That he fries like an ant is nothing new. With a few exceptions, such as last season, Rodriguez’s losing battle in clutch situations has stained what is otherwise a career of marvelous achievement, no-doubt first-ballot Hall-of-Fame induction and likely the all-time home run record.

Never has it been as bad for Rodriguez as this season. Numbers back up the cries of Yankees fans, whose complaints about Rodriguez look, on the surface, like those of a scorned lover, what with his .306 batting average, 29 home runs, 81 RBIs and .968 OPS. They say he never hits when it counts – home run No. 29, a solo shot Sunday when the Yankees were down 4-0, is a prime example – and a deeper look, with a metric that analyzes clutch hitting, shows they are onto something.

Win Probability Added (WPA), as tracked by fangraphs.com, assigns a different value to every situation. For example, a run-scoring single to tie a game in the seventh inning is worth significantly more than a bases-empty single in the first inning. Over the entire season, it adds up the positives, subtracts the negatives and produces a number that shows how many wins a player contributed to his team – and, ostensibly, an indicator of how well a player fared in clutch situations.

This year, Rodriguez’s WPA ranks 93rd of 158 eligible players.

It gets truly ugly when compared to another metric that takes away the extra credit for coming through in a close game – the Leverage Index, it’s called – and treats every at-bat equally. Rodriguez’s WPA/LI is 18th in baseball.

In other words, the difference between how well Rodriguez produces in regular situations compared to how poorly in high-leverage ones is staggering. The resulting metric, called “Clutch,” ranks A-Rod last in the major leagues this season, 158th out of 158.

This is nothing new. In eight of Rodriguez’s 13 full major league seasons, he has ranked in the bottom half of Clutch rankings. Even last season, when his WPA ranked first in the major leagues – he contributed nearly seven wins – A-Rod’s Clutch score was only 17th.

In 2007, he did show an ability to hit well when it mattered. Rodriguez hit eight home runs in the ninth inning. Five came in games that were either tied or within one run. Twenty-eight of his 54 total homers came with the Yankees tied or behind. He was the American League MVP, the Yankees’ savior.

And he drove in one run over 15 postseason at-bats.

That matches his number of RBIs in the ninth inning this season. Rodriguez has come up 11 times this season in the ninth with runners in scoring position. He walked twice. He singled once. And he carries a .111 average and .111 slugging percentage in such situations into September.

The Yankees’ misery with runners in scoring position this season is as much a part of their woes as injuries and spotty starting pitching. Their .737 OPS in such situations ranks 21st in baseball, directly behind San Diego, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, three of the game’s more anemic offenses.

To scapegoat Rodriguez is natural. Because of the money he makes, the profile he keeps, the things he says and the talent he possesses, much responsibility should fall to him. Yet the suggestion that the Yankees would be better without him is ludicrous, regardless of how awful his numbers are in the clutch.

Whether that’s true going forward is a different story. Something needs to change in Rodriguez’s relationships. With the fans and with the franchise and with himself. He is theirs. They are his. To-be-determined ever after. Till retirement do them part.

Step one of mending the relationships could come in the next few weeks. On Sept. 12, New York starts the final homestand at Yankee Stadium. The fans will have had time to cool down, to forget about A-Rod’s 11 double plays in August after hitting into four the season’s first four months, to come to terms with the last game at the historic ballpark coming in September and not October. They have a chance to do things properly and make those 10 days about the stadium, not their frustrations.

Though it will be tough. Because when Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball with the lowest aptitude in important situations, steps to the plate, they’ll know that this year no medicine can cure the $300 million migraine.