Friday, July 21, 2006

Hard Hits: The Case of Alex Rodriguez

Nobody questions Alex Rodriguez' talent or effort. However, lately plenty of questions have arisen about whether or not the Yankee third baseman is mentally strong enough to perform up to his tremendous capabilities.

This topic has been beaten to death more times than Paris Hilton has been linked to yet another celebrity.

If you look at A-Rod's third season as a Bronx Bomber, it's not bad by any stretch. The 21 home runs and 71 RBI's are respectable. The 2005 AL MVP reached two milestones in the Yanks' 7-3 loss at Toronto Friday night. His three-run dinger off A.J. Burnett was his 2,000th career hit. It was fitting that such a laser which landed in the second deck was also Rodriguez' 450th career homer- making him the youngest player at 30 to ever reach it. Quite an accomplishment for such a gifted superstar.

But in the same game which he got his ballclub right back in by cutting the deficit to 4-3, the two-time MVP committed his second error in two nights. After failing to catch a Vernon Wells foul pop, his errant throw pulled first baseman Andy Phillips off the bag. The Jays took advantage a couple of batters later to go up 6-3.

Lately, this has become an Achilles' heel for Rodriguez. The night before, another miscue helped setup a four run inning for Toronto. With his team ahead 3-0 in the sixth, for some reason A-Rod decided to throw home instead of taking the second out at first. It proved costly as starter Mike Mussina promptly allowed three straight hits to suddenly put the Bronx Bombers a run behind.

They eventually lost in extra innings 5-4 on a Wells walkoff homer off Mariano Rivera. Afterwards, Mussina was surprised that Rodriguez didn't concede the run and take the out. Maybe the whole inning could've been different and New York wins the ballgame. We'll never know.

That's how it's gone for Rodriguez. His recent struggles in the field have placed even more burden on his broad shoulders. This bad stretch of futility began with three errors in a win over Seattle Monday. In that game, he fouled a ball off his foot which messed up his timing, leading to two throwing errors and being pulled from the game in favor of Nick Green.

He was only given one day off before Joe Torre reinserted him. Maybe it was a mistake. The error total is up to five heading into the weekend. The third baseman insists that he must stop sidearming the ball. What if the foot is really the problem? Shouldn't Torre give him a game at DH. Especially on turf.

That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the ex-Ranger now leads all third basemen with 18 errors. In his MVP season last year, he made just 12 and played well enough to merit Gold Glove consideration. So what's changed? Is it mechanics? Or is it in his head? Maybe it's the pressure.

Whatever the reason, the highest paid superstar has been underwhelming this season. As pointed out earlier, the numbers aren't bad. But when you compare them to other stars, they're not quite where they should be.

Take for example the guy A-Rod beat out up in Boston for last year's MVP. David Ortiz is having another monster year- leading the AL in homers (32) and RBI's (90). He's certainly holding up his end of the bargain.

We're not going to talk about Albert Pujols because nobody is in his class.

The player who he's linked most to is Mets' third baseman David Wright. In only year three, he's become a star. Many critics believe the 23 year-old is having a better season than his New York counterpart. It's hard to argue.

The NL MVP candidate entered Friday hitting over .300 (.317) with the same amount of home runs (21) and had eight more RBI's (79). While it's true his numbers aren't vastly superior to Rodriguez, he has been clutch all season. Wright is hitting .355 with nine homers and 67 RBI's with runners on. It gets even better when they're in scoring position. He hits .379 with five dingers and 57 RBI's. Even with RISP and two out, he is a sizzling .373 with three long balls and 26 base knocks.

That's as clutch as it gets. A-Rod's stats in the same situations are respectable but pale in comparison to the Amazin's wonderkid. The Yankee third baseman entered Friday at .294, 13 HR, 61 RBI's with runners on. With RISP, he's a solid .302 with eight homers along with 50 RBI's. With RISP w/ two out, it increases to .311, 3 HR and 17 RBI's.

Certainly, those stats can't be severely criticized by anyone. More often than not, he has come through. The dilemma is that he has set the bar so high, that when he fails, it leaves a mark. When you're making $25 million a year, it's going to be almost impossible to fulfill expectations.

Coming off an MVP season in which he dominated, hitting .321 with 48 home runs and 130 RBI's, Rodriguez was expected to continue that kind of success. Most figured he finally became more comfortable in his second season in New York.

When Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield went down, people expected the former Mariner 1993 first overall pick to pickup the slack. That's what great players do. Outside of a stretch in May where he took AL Player of the Month, A-Rod has been unable to carry the Yankees. He's been overshadowed by Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi. Even rookie Melky Cabrera has received more accolades than the future Hall of Famer.

Maybe Rodriguez misses Matsui and Sheffield. He hits cleanup and doesn't have the same batting protection he would if both 100 RBI outfielders were healthy. That has left less margin for error. It should be noted that Matsui would probably bat fifth behind A-Rod. He's finally able to take practice swings and could possibly be back the first week of August. It definitely couldn't hurt.

As we see it, here's the other problem:

"It's cool that it came this week because in a week of so much criticism it's good to get a little reminder that you do some special things in this game."

That was A-Rod after reaching his two milestones. Remarks like that are what draw the ire of fans. Let's face it. The man tries way too hard. If he has a flaw, it's that he's way too sensitive to media and fan reaction. He has a very human quality in that he wants to please everyone.

Part of playing under the bright lights in the city that never sleeps is dealing with the elements. Booing is part of baseball here. The expectations are through the roof.

Fans are coming out in historic bunches to support their team. They're also paying astronomical prices. Unfortunately, New Yorkers have a Win Now mentality.

It's not just happening in the Bronx where fans have become spoiled from making the postseason 11 years running. But it's also taking place in Queens where even with the Mets comfortably leading the NL East, WFAN is still fielding plenty of calls from concerned fans about not having enough starting pitching for October. That same team hasn't seen a postseason in six years and had a recent history of bitter disappointments.

But when you go out and acquire players such as Carlos Delgado, Paul LoDuca and Billy Wagner, you're not trying to rebuild. It's about winning championships.

Rodriguez has to understand that his job here is not to communicate with the press or fans. Nobody likes excuses. He's here for one reason. To deliver a 27th World Championship to the Yankees.

My advice: Stop worrying about us. Screw it and play the damn game the way you're capable of.

If he can do that the last three months, that will silence everyone including me. If he can't, maybe it's time for the Yanks to unload him.



GREAT JOB AS USUAL KOVY. I LIKE AROD, but this was as fair and balanced of an assesment as I've ever seen. He should just shutup and play. like my football teams old coach and current gm said

"let what you do on the field speak so loudly that no one cares what you say"

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