In a press conference on Sunday, the New York Yankees announced that Alex Rodriguez would play his final major league game on Friday, against the Tampa Bay Rays, before taking on an advisory role with the club. With that game, one of the greatest — and most complicated — careers in baseball history will come to a close.
Certainly, Rodriguez had reached the end of the productive phase of his career this season. One year after a surprising renaissance campaign, Rodriguez is on pace for the worst full-season OPS and fewest wins above replacement (WAR) of his career. Despite ranking among baseball’s highest-paid players, he’s struck out 4.6 times for every walk, is barely hitting over the Mendoza Line and can’t play any position other than designated hitter anymore. As a team, the Yankees are having their worst season since 1992. It was time for Rodriguez to go.
But A-Rod in his heyday was a different story. In fact, A-Rod before his prime was better than almost anybody in baseball history. In 1996, at the ripe old age of 20, Rodriguez produced 9.4 WAR — which is still tied for the 87th-best season in MLB history and was, at the time, easily the most WAR produced in one season at that age.1 From there, A-Rod would pile on seven more seasons of 8 or more WAR, and he’d make a strong case for having the best career of any player who ever spent the majority of his prime years at shortstop.
Of course, the other prominent player on that — apparently shirt-optional — Mount Rushmore of young shortstops was Derek Jeter, Rodriguez’s longtime frenemy, rival, comparison-point and, eventually, teammate. Jeter had the rings — four by age 26, to be exact — but A-Rod had the numbers. Through 2003, the season before he joined the Yankees, A-Rod had Jeter beat on career WAR (63.5 to 40.4), home runs (345 to 127), OPS (.963 to .851) and walks (559 to 513); A-Rod was also within striking distance of the more contact-oriented Jeter in batting average (.308 vs. Jeter’s .317 mark). And he was miles better than Jeter in one very important (yet misunderstood) department: defense.
To the naked eye, Jeter looked like a great defensive shortstop (he’d eventually win five Gold Gloves at the position), but according to the numbers he was the worst. From his 1995 debut until 2003, Jeter cost the Yankees 11.4 runs (i.e., more than one full win) per year compared to an average-fielding shortstop; by contrast, Rodriguez saved his teams 2 runs a year. When Jeter and Rodriguez joined forces, A-Rod deferred and moved from shortstop to third base, but all evidence said it should have been the other way around. The Yankees’ subsequent defensive numbers — they had the majors’ worst shortstop defense from 2004 until Jeter’s retirement in 2014 — agreed.
Together, though, Rodriguez and Jeter would win boatloads of games, plus a World Series in 2009. Numbers from his final week pending, A-Rod would end up compiling 696 home runs — fourth-most ever — and he’s currently 12th all-time in WAR. (He even ranks eighth among Yankees!) Judging from the statistics alone, Rodriguez should be concluding his career as one of the greatest handful of position players in baseball history.
But things are never so easy with A-Rod.
For instance, Rodriguez’s tremendous on-field value was mitigated by the fact that no player made more money over his career. He broke the all-time record for the largest contract in professional sports history twice, surpassed only when Giancarlo Stanton inked a 13-year, $325 million deal before the 2015 season. Like most star players, Rodriguez still earned every cent he was paid and then some; using the common dollars per WAR framework, the value of A-Rod’s career wins sums to about $109 million more than he was paid.2 But in the minds of many fans, A-Rod personified the ever-upward climb of MLB salaries at a time when the cost of attending a ballgame had never been higher.
A-Rod’s massive compensation was a particular point of frustration for Yankee fans, given that the team’s frequency of championships during his tenure (one title in 13 seasons) pales in comparison to what it had been before he arrived (one title every 3.9 seasons). Rodriguez’s postseason numbers aren’t bad — he had an .822 career OPS, pretty good considering the elevated competition of playoff pitching — but unlike Jeter, who raised his lifetime OPS from .817 in the regular season to .838 in the playoffs, Rodriguez’s .930 regular-season OPS suggested the wasted potential for so many more postseason heroics.
And then there are the performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez copped to using steroids during the height of the PED era, in the early 2000s, around when he signed his first record-breaking contract, then admitted to better hitting through chemistry again in conjunction with the Biogenesis scandal. Like with his disgraced peer Barry Bonds, A-Rod’s pre-juicing numbers suggest he had the talent to make the Hall of Fame without chemical assistance. But as a confessed two-time offender, Rodriguez’s numbers will always be tainted for countless baseball fans. That’s why his Hall of Fame chances, ironclad without the PED factor, are next to nonexistent in reality.
So when Rodriguez leaves baseball on Friday, he’ll go down as one of the greatest talents in the game’s history, and one of its most impressive statistical performers. But by the same token, his more lasting legacy might be as one of its most discredited players. In the end, we’ll probably be left trying to grapple with A-Rod’s impact on the game for decades to come.