For Alex Rodriguez and his teammates, the laborious trek to home run No. 600 is over. With another milestone in the books, the Yankees can turn their collective attention back to the task at hand: winning the World Series. The team and its fans got a jarring look at the toll these records can take while the team played poorly as A-Rod went nearly 50 at-bats before belting the round number on Thursday. A pennant race might even be a welcome relief now that the spotlight is somewhat removed from the game’s highest-paid player.
An obvious question lingers. Will this be the last time Rodriguez tangles with home run history? No one can say for certain without crystal balls and time machines but research and probability tend to favor A-Rod breaking Barry Bonds’ all-time record of 762.
Put on your nerd cap and consider Bill James’ Career Assessment Projector. James gives A-Rod a 44 percent chance at breaking the record. According to the algorithm, he needs to hit 43.7 home runs a year for the next 3.5 years. That number seems way too high given his recent production patterns and the computer cannot take into account Rodriguez’s injury history or the toil of playing under the New York media glare. Just doesn’t compute.
Rodriguez’s total is down considerably this year. He is leaving the yard once every 23 at-bats, down from his career level of 14.5. He is projected to tally 27 longballs this season which would be his lowest full-season total since 1997. All of these point to the beginning of the decline. Injuries, including the one caused by Lance Berkman’s hardest-hit ball as a Yankee, do not help. This is not excellent news for Yankee fans given that his $275 million contract runs through 2017. Remember – he has performance and marketing incentives for reaching each home run milestone.
Optimists argue that last year’s hip and steroid double debacle may be causing long-term effects but the fact remains A-Rod is on the wrong side of 35. The chemically-unaided body just does not produce at peak levels past a certain age. Rodriguez will certainly have some factors in his favor as his continues his quest, including a deep lineup and a favorable ballpark but the circumstantial evidence does not seem as cheery upon further review.
Keep in mind also that Alex Rodriguez, like most players in the post-steroid era, will not age like Barry Bonds. Bonds hit 317 homers (including a single-season record 73) after his age-35 season. Barry Bonds hit as many home runs as George Brett did in his entire career after turning 35! Somehow, all of this makes Ken Griffey Jr.’s poor numbers in his declining years as refreshing as they are unsettling. All fans of the game may have caught themselves thinking something to the effect of ‘this is how a legendary career should wind down.’
Of course, the whole issue may be rendered moot a few years later if Albert Pujols continues punishing baseballs at his current pace. A healthy A-Rod can break the record with about a half-dozen more ‘productive’ seasons. There are a lot of ifs there. The question of how it will be received is an entirely different issue.
Anthony Federico covers all levels of the game for Baseball Digest and Gotham Baseball. He is the author of “Must Be Nice” – a loving look at the glory of beer-league softball. Check out www.mustbenicebook.com for more info or follow him on Twitter @AntFeds