Thursday, March 24, 2005

Baseball: Spring Training News; Bring Back Alex Rodriguez at Shortstop!

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will be focusing more attention to offensive production this season, Tyler Kepner, the New York Times beat reporter covering the Yankees says. (A writer at has much the same story, but it is difficult to link to.) Kepner informs us: "By his estimate, Rodriguez devoted 95 percent of his attention to defense last spring. He surprised the Yankees with how smoothly he handled third, but he was not the offensive force he had been in Texas."

Regarding the later, that is an understatement of sorts. Rodriguez last season batted .286, slugged 36 HR, and drove in 106 runs. Contrast those stats with Rodriguez' numbers for the previous three seasons playing shortstop for the Texas Rangers:

2001: .318 BA, 52 HR, 135 RBI
2002: .300 BA, 57 HR, 142 RBI
2003: .296 BA, 47 HR, 118 RBI

To consider how extraordinary those earlier numbers are, now we know that Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and only God-knows-how-many-other players were on the juice. There have never been any allegations that Rodriguez has ever used steroids. In that context, Rodriguez's home run numbers are all the more impressive.

Disqualify Mark McGwire's 70 home runs, and Barry Bonds' 73, because of their alleged steroid use, and the only person who has hit more than Rodriguez' 57 home runs in a single season during this era has been Sammy Sosa.

Add to that the fact that Rodriguez put up those numbers while playing shortstop, and it is difficult to conclude anything other than that he has clearly been far and away the greatest player in the game over the course of the last several years, and, moreover, has already more than established himself at a still relatively young age as one of the greatest players of all time.

Yankees manager Joe Torre has attributed Rodriguez' lower numbers last season -- 36 home runs is quite a substantial drop from the previous three seasons during which he hit 52, 57, and 47-- to the transition by Rodriguez from playing shortstop to third base, and the New York media glare. That glare should now dim somewhat, Kepner writes, allowing Rodriguez to focus more on his hitting: "The big stories [now] are Randy Johnson, the new Yankees ace, and baseball's steroid controversy. Only with the Yankees, it seems, can a player with a $252 million contract stay out of the spotlight."

What Kepner neglects to say is that Yankee stadium has also always been a difficult park for right handed batters, and that might have contributed to Rodriguez's less than average season. It favors lefties and switch hitters, because of its short right field porch. It is no accident that the greatest Yankee players (Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, Mickey Mantle) have been lefties, and its two best players today, other than Rodriguez-- Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada-- are switch hitters. Roger Maris, who hit 61 homers while a Yankee, was also a lefty. Joe DiMaggio, a right handed batter, was a rare exception.

Rodriguez' natural numbers may have declined as soon as he became a Yankee for that reason alone.

Before he became a Yankee, Rodriguez was the best player in the game. But one of the reasons he was was because he was a shortstop, a position historically (Miguel Tejada, Derek Jeter, and Noamar Garciaparra, Cal Ripken notwithstanding) where players ordinarily do not put up such astronomical numbers.

Further add to that before Rodriguez was shifted to playing third base for the Yankees, he had just come off winning two consecutive Gold Glove awards at shortstop, and one only then comes away with further evidence as to how great a player he is. (Although there are few who would argue that Rodriguez was as good a defensive shortstop as Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger-- or perhaps Larry Bowa-- none of those players ever hit more than five home runs in a season. On the other hand, Rodriguez did twice beat out Omar Vizquel, albeit an aging Omar Vizquel, for the Gold Glove award. And Vizquel is often mentioned in the same breath as Belanger and Smith as one of the all time defensive greats at the position.)

By moving Rodriguez to third base from shortstop, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner tansformed Rodriguez from the greatest player in the game to just another exceptional player. And Rodriguez was now a third baseman with lower offensive stats then when he played shorstop. Whether his diminishing numbers were due to learning a new position, the New York media, or playing in Yankee stadium, a combination of one or more of those, or simply the result of one off season remains to be seen. For all we know, the rigors of playing shortstop and his first season at Yankee stadium behind him, Rodriguez might break out offensively, and he could stand out even more now that he won't be competing against players on steroids. But for time being, there are other third basemen who last year put up much better numbers than Rodriguez (Adrian Beltre) or comparable numbers (Scott Rolen of St. Louis, Eric Chavez of Oakland, and Herb Blaylock of Texas). And Chavez beat out Rodriguez for a Gold Glove at third base, even though Chavez himself wrongly predicted before the season began that he would lose his reigning Gold Glove title to Rodriguez.

So Steinbrenner not only moved Rodriguez from shortstop to third, he turned the game's greatest player, at least for the time being, into the mere second or third best third baseman last season. (Surely, Adrian Beltre, who hit .334, slugged 48 HR, and batted in 121 runs, played superb defense, and would have been voted MVP if those voting knew that MVP Barry Bonds was on steroids, was much more valuable to his team. A similar argument could made for the Cardinals' Scott Rolen as well.) Steinbrenner's contributions to the game just keep on coming.

And, by Rodriguez having been moved to third base, we will never fully have the opportunity to see him develop his full defensive potential as a shortstop. If you think that he has already had his best years behind him as a shortstop, think again. I watched Larry Bowa play for the Phillies growing up, and even though he had his best range and surest hands when he was younger, his play at short only got better in other ways as he aged and learned a just a little more and became more practiced every year. Sports writers I know who saw Ozzie Smith and Mark Belanger play say much the same thing about their development as defensive players as they aged as well.

Of course, moving Rodriguez to third base, allowed Derek Jeter to win his first (deserved) Gold Glove at shortstop. But it is also a given that Jeter probably did not want to win the award this way: his owner trades for his Gold Glove competitor by offering to pay a good portion of the quarter of a billion dollars owed on his contract (that's no hyperbole, Rodriguez's contract is for $250 million, which is a quarter of a billion dollars.), and moves him to third base. Now that Rodriguez has sacrificed for the "team" by moving to third, perhaps it is time to seriously consider that Jeter should sacrifice for the team by moving to second, so that Rodriguez can play shortstop once again.

It is unlikely, however, that Jeter is going to play anywhere but shortstop, and for the Yankees.

In the meantime, absent such a move, Steinbrenner may have perhaps denied us the opportunity to see Alex Rodriguez ever play shortstop again... while having provided Yankee fans with the joy of watching Jason Giambi play on steroids... and now providing Yankee fans of the joy of watching Jason Giambi play not on steroids.

Meanwhile, asking Alex Rodriguez to play third base instead of shortstop is a lot like asking Murphy Brown to play nice.

It's like asking George W. Bush to wring his hands in indecision.

It's like asking Bill Mazeroski to take his glove and play right field.

It is like requiring E. E. Cummings to write poetry with proper grammar.

It is unnatural. It is something that only George Steinbrenner could have brought about.

In other baseball news today, the Red Sox formally committed to continue to play in Fenway Park. Yay! Larry Lucchino, the team's president and chief executive, told a press conference yesterday: "The Red Sox will be playing baseball games at Fenway Park for years to come, and we hope, for generations to come."

No comments: