The $252 Million Man

Alex Rodriguez
New York's Alex Rodriguez vents his frustrations after striking out by hitting himself in the head with his bat. (Al Bello - Getty Images)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Alex Rodriguez has reached a crisis point in his career. The widespread perception of him as being a choker -- someone who puts up mammoth numbers but fails consistently in the clutch -- has penetrated his skin, turned him sullen and fatalistic.

"Rip away," he dared the media Thursday following another typical performance. "You can write the worst article, and say the worst things, and you're probably right."

That day, with the bases empty in the seventh inning and the New York Yankees trailing the Cleveland Indians by five runs, Rodriguez crushed an estimated 500-foot homer -- the kind of awe-inspiring swing that validates his standing as the most talented player in the game.

But an inning later, with the Yankees down by only two and with the tying runs on base, Rodriguez struck out with a meek swing, cascades of boos trailing him back to the dugout. The day's performance left Rodriguez hitting just .150 for the month of June, heading into this weekend's series against the Nationals.

Rodriguez has always known that his $252 million contract, the richest ever in professional team sports, means he will be held to a higher standard. But what he seems to be realizing lately is that, as he told reporters earlier this month, the "choke" label won't go away until he wins "five or six world championships and hits a Joe Carter home run to win every one of them."

In other words, it will never go away. That label, nearly 12 years into his career, is Rodriguez's legacy, fairly or unfairly. Ask someone to pinpoint the defining moment of his career, and it likely would not be any of his 443 (through Thursday) home runs, or any of the six he has hit in 31 career playoff games. It will be his infamous slap of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo's glove in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

Is it fair? Is Rodriguez really the gag artist he is made out to be? Some of the numbers may surprise you.

In any critical situation, most Yankees fans would say they'd prefer to see Derek Jeter at the plate, as opposed to Rodriguez. But their career numbers in "close-and-late" situations -- defined by Stats, Inc. as "seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one run, tied, or with the tying run on base, at bat, or on deck" -- are telling.

In those situations, Rodriguez has hit .271 (or 35 points below his overall career average) with an .892 OPS (on-base plus slugging), while Jeter has hit .283 (or 32 points below his career average) with an .849 OPS.

What about the postseason, where Jeter supposedly raises his game, and Rodriguez supposedly turns into a choking dog? Jeter has hit .307 with an .841 OPS, while Rodriguez has hit .305 with a .935 OPS.

(By way of comparison, Boston's David Ortiz, another player heralded as a clutch performer, goes .284/.961 in close-and-late, and .301/.935 in the postseason.) The prevailing wisdom in the sabermetric community -- those folks who study baseball numbers for a living -- is that the existence of clutch hitters is a myth. A hitter who succeeds in clutch situations one year is just as likely to fail to a similar degree the following year.

With Rodriguez, that certainly is the case. This season, in close-and-late situations, he is hitting just .114 with a .327 OPS (through Thursday) -- horrible, pathetic, must-be-a-typo numbers. But last year, he went .293/.935.

In the Yankees' Division Series loss to the Angels last October, Rodriguez hit .133 and did not drive in a run over five games. But the year before, in their Division Series win over Minnesota, he hit .421 with a 1.213 OPS. (Of course, he then disappeared in the Yankees' four straight losses to Boston in the ALCS.) Realistically, no matter what the numbers say, the perception will remain the same, and not without some justification. We know Jeter and Ortiz are clutch because we see it with our own eyes. We know Rodriguez chokes because we see that, too.

Maybe we're just not watching when the opposite is true.

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