So this is it. After tonight, baseball’s Alex Rodriguez era will officially be over. Sure, the Yankees are keeping him around as a “special advisor,” but regardless of what that actually means, it won’t be the same. There will be no more A-Bombs from A-Rod, or even any close-ups of him sitting dejectedly on the bench. For the first time since Bill Clinton’s first term in office, A-Rod will no longer be a professional baseball player.
In baseball, we don’t always see the generational talents coming. Albert Pujols, whose numbers rivaled A-Rod’s through most of the aughts, was a 13th round draft pick. Mike Trout, who’s unequivocally the best player in the game today, was passed over by 22 of the 30 teams in the 2009 amateur draft. Yet the entire industry knew very early on that A-Rod was special. The Mariners drafted him first overall in 1993 when he was just 17-years-old. Even then, scouts had glowing things to say about his skill set and future potential.
A-Rod didn’t disappoint in his first taste of the minor leagues. In fact, he hit better than anyone could have reasonably anticipated. As an 18-year-old shortstop, he slashed .312/.376/.577 with 20 steals between Low-A, Double-A and Triple-A before Seattle promoted him to the big leagues that summer. As someone who’s seen an embarrassing number of minor league stat lines, I can tell you that performances like that simply don’t happen. Even Bryce Harper, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, faltered in his first taste of Double-A when he was 18. I can only imagine the string of superlatives I would have used to describe teenage A-Rod had I been a prospect writer (rather than a preschooler) in 1994.
Unlike most of the players who were ballyhooed as teenagers, A-Rod actually lived up to the hype. He put up a 9 WAR season at age-20, and would eclipse the 9 WAR mark five more times. He was worth at least 3.8 WAR every year from 1996 to 2011, including ten seasons where he was worth at least 5 WAR. Even in the “down” years of his prime, he was still among the best players in baseball. His 113 career WAR is easily the most since 1960 for any player not named Barry Bonds.
It isn’t exactly news that A-Rod was a generational talent who was the best player in baseball for several years. What I find more interesting is that, unlike a lot of superstars, A-Rod was never the clear-cut best at any one area. He was a great hitter, he wasn’t as great a hitter as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, or even Jim Thome. He was a great defensive shortstop early on, but didn’t flash the leather like Rey Sanchez, Rey Ordonez, or even Mike Bordick. He was also a great baserunner at one time, but wasn’t as speedy as Tony Womack, a young Carlos Beltran, or even an old Rickey Henderson.
A-Rod was roughly the equivalent to Gary Sheffield at the plate, Jose Valentin in the field, and Ray Durham on the bases. Put that way, he doesn’t sound all that special. But that intersection of skills is unbelievably rare. Players who are in the 98th percentile at hitting are pretty much never the same ones who are in the 98th percentile at fielding. But A-Rod was among the best at everything, which made him far and away better than everyone who wasn’t Barry Bonds.
It’s sad that A-Rod’s career has to end this way. Not only has he been reduced to a struggling bench player, but it isn’t even clear that treatment is warranted. This is a guy who put together 151 games of 129 wRC+ ball just last season. And as bad he’s been in 2016, his .240 BABIP deserves at least some of the blame. Even after accounting for his abhorrent 2016 numbers, the projection systems still think he can come close to approximating a league-average hitter.
But let’s not dwell on that, because this isn’t the A-Rod we’ll ultimately remember. We’ll remember the player who excelled in all aspects of the game, and put up MVP-caliber numbers for over a decade. We’ll remember his phenomenal postseason performance in 2009 that culminated in a World Series title. We’ll remember the aging and oft-maligned slugger who — against all odds — gave us one final season of towering home runs in 2015. And unfortunately, we’ll also remember the PED scandals that posthumously put a dark cloud over the best years of his career. Love him or hate him, A-Rod’s given us a lot of memories. Here’s hoping he gives us one last good memory tonight.