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Alex Rodriguez Would’ve Made The Hall Of Fame Without Steroids

News broke Wednesday morning that Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees third baseman who was suspended by Major League Baseball for the entire 2014 season over allegations of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use, had admitted to federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials that he used the prohibited substances from 2010 through 2012. Rodriguez’s confession came behind closed doors last January, but in public he continued to deny the charges right up until the Miami Herald released its findings in a story Wednesday.

The news confirms accusations that Rodriguez had augmented his performance during the 2011 and 2012 MLB seasons, in addition to his previous admission of using PEDs from 2001 to 2003, when he was a member of the Texas Rangers. Given the current climate of baseball’s Hall of Fame voting — neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens has cracked 40 percent of the vote in either of their two years on the ballot — Rodriguez’s latest admission seems like the final nail in the coffin for his Hall of Fame candidacy, assuming it wasn’t already long buried. But it’s also worth remembering that, like Bonds and Clemens before him, Rodriguez was a magnificent player before taking PEDs, and likely could have been a Hall of Famer without them.

Not only did Rodriguez rank first on Baseball America’s 1995 Top 100 Prospects list, but after hitting .311 with a .948 OPS and good range at shortstop as an 18-year-old at Triple-A in 1994, he might well have been the greatest prospect in the history of the draft era. And lest the hype seem unjustified, in 1996 — his first full season in the majors — all Rodriguez did was belt an MLB-leading 54 doubles, smack 36 home runs, hit .358 (!!), post a 1.045 OPS (just the second time a shortstop had ever topped a 1.000 OPS, creating a club with the incomparable Arky Vaughan), lead the American League in total bases and finish tied as the fourth-best fielding shortstop in the AL according to TotalZone runs saved.

Did I mention he did all that at age 20?

Between then and 2001, when Rodriguez was said to have begun using PEDs, he would also do things like hit .300 or better in three out of four seasons, hit 40 or more home runs in three out of four seasons, set the all-time single-season record for Bill James’s Power/Speed statistic in 1998 (when he became the third member of the 40-40 Club with 42 home runs and 46 stolen bases), and become, in 2000, just the 22nd player in baseball history to surpass 10.0 wins above replacement (WAR) in a single season.

Rodriguez’s supposed last season before he began using came that year, his last as a member of the Seattle Mariners. Through age 24, only two players in baseball history — Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle — produced more career WAR than Rodriguez did. Current Los Angeles Angel Mike Trout has A-Rod beat (along with everyone else who ever played the game) on career WAR through age 22, but there’s no question that Rodriguez had the pure talent to rank among the game’s all-time greatest players even before he started using PEDs.

James once developed a long-term career forecast model called Brock2 — essentially a very early progenitor of a full-fledged projection system like PECOTA — which could produce an expected career stat line for a player based on his career performance through a given age. Feed it Rodriguez’s age 20-24 seasons, and it produces an absurd set of projected career totals: 3,573 hits; 668 doubles; 1,075 home runs. As mean projections for anybody, those numbers are silly (Trout through age 22 also generates a forecast of 3,646 hits, 740 doubles, and 826 home runs), but they underscore how incredible Rodriguez’s first five full MLB seasons were. (Through 20 seasons, Rodriguez now has 2,939 hits, 519 doubles and 654 home runs.)

All of this, it bears mentioning, matters only if you believe Rodriguez began using PEDs in 2001, and didn’t before that. At the time of Rodriguez’s initial suspension in August 2013, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote a column that included the following quote:

“If you believe he started using [PEDs] in 2001, when he said he did, you’re a fool,” a former teammate said. “The likelihood is that he never played a day clean in the major leagues. Why? Insecurity. Alex doesn’t know how good he could be without drugs, and didn’t trust himself to find out.”

That remains speculation at this point. But based on what we do know, Rodriguez’s early-career numbers were so great, and his potential so vast, that he had a very high likelihood of making the Hall of Fame before he ostensibly began using performance-enhancing drugs. Wednesday’s revelations only add to the disgrace he’s brought to his legacy since then.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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