On Thursday, June 3rd 1993, Alex Rodriguez was drafted with the first overall pick by the Seattle Mariners.
On Sunday, August 7th 2016, Alex Rodriguez retired from baseball with a year left on his current contract, tens of millions of dollars left on the table, and (at 696) four homeruns away from the rarest of air – the 700 Club. There were also a considerable number of games in the current season left to play, but he said he wouldn't be taking the field for a single one of them.
In the 23 years between those two dates, Rodriguez became the best player of his generation and the best player in the game at any given time for a good deal of the era. While the beginning and end of his career couldn't be more different in terms of good-will from fans, demand from teams, or performance on the field, the nearly two dozen seasons in the middle were remarkably consistent and impossibly dominant.
To back up the claims that he was the best, and not merely among the best players in more than two decades, I present his career WAR, as well as four representative seasons, each five or more seasons apart, to demonstrate just how his incredible longevity and day-to-day output were both historic. WAR is one of them new-fangled Sabermetrics that old-school baseball guys hate and new-school people pretend is the be-all, end-all stat. It seeks to represent how many more games a player's team would win with this player rather than a replacement (or truly, statistically average) player. A positive WAR means you're better than the average Joe in the MLB, and a negative means you're not.
WAR is a stat of attrition, with points only being awarded at a glacial pace. An elite player may have an 8 or 9 WAR season or two in their career and might compile a WAR of 50+ over a whole career. Rodriguez's career WAR is 118.9. That's good enough to make him number one among active players (no longer active, but come on), and 14th of all-time, in over a hundred years of baseball. After A-Rod, Albert Pujols is the second highest for career WAR at 100, and after him the gap is considerable, with only two players currently holding a career WAR of more than 70. That's also good enough to land him ahead of guys like Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Rickey Henderson, and everyone else in the history of the game – only behind the likes of Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and Babe Ruth.
To add to the degree of difficulty, WAR also includes your defensive contributions (or, if you're terrible in the field, your defensive liabilities) to your team, and Rodriguez switched positions halfway through his career, from short-stop to the arguably more difficult third-base. While he only won two Gold Glove awards in his career, that’s not saying much. In the nine consecutive seasons prior to 2002 (in which A-Rod earned the first of his two back-to-back trophies), the American League gave the award to Omar Vizquel of a dominant Seattle Mariners team, indicating that the award tends to go to dynasties rather than players of pure talent (which is not to say Vizquel was undeserving). Rodriguez is regarded as one of the best, most-athletically gifted fielders in the game’s history, and after being named the league's best at short, he took the hot corner and didn't skip a beat. Throughout his time at short, he had a career .977 fielding percentage, and at third it was (by year) .965, .971, .937, .965, .970, .967, .976, .973…you get the idea. He didn't let balls by him, no matter where he stood on the diamond.
And, as the more traditional numbers below prove, he didn't let them go by at the plate either. I selected four seasons from Rodriguez's career that are far enough apart that we can say with some confidence that he has matured, or aged, or declined between them, rather than cherry-picking the prime of his career to inflate his legendary status.
Beginning with his first full season of play, at age 20, and going to his last productive season, 2014, at age 39:
• Age 20 season – 141 runs, 215 hits, 54 doubles, 1 triple, 36 homeruns, 123 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, .358/.414//.631/1.045, 2nd in MVP voting.
• Age 25 season – 133 runs, 201 hits, 34 doubles, 1 triple, 52 homeruns, 135 RBIs, 18 stolen bases, .318/.399/.622/1.021, 6th in MVP voting.
• Age 31 season – 143 runs, 183 hits, 31 doubles, 0 triple, 54 homeruns, 156 RBIs, 24 stolen bases, .314/.422/.645/1.067
• Age 39 season – 83 runs, 131 hits, 22 double, 1 triple, 33 homeruns, 86 RBIs, 4 stolen bases, .250/.356/.486/.842
In case you feel like you missed anything, or like the numbers should have been going down more, you're not wrong. Normal people's lives as competitors, even normal professional athletes' lives as competitors, usually go like this:
1. A short prime wherein you are most productive
2. An immediate decline after the prime wherein you return to average output.
3. A stark drop off after the average-era wherein you go below the average output.
But, as I've been trying to tell you, he's not normal, even for a pro. He's a freak.
While any player would be happy to have four seasons like that in their entire career, he did it at four milestone ages. The stat line below represents what his output averaged out to over his entire career, if he were to play all 162 games in that hypothetically perfectly average season – it's ludicrous, when you realize that those averaged numbers comprise 23 seasons of play and neither the deflation of his numbers in the end of his career, nor any lulling seasons in his prime, were enough to dilute his explosiveness.
162 Game Avg. - 117 runs, 179 hits, 32 doubles, 2 triples, 40 homeruns, 120 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, .297/.382/.554/.937
Yes, as a Red Sox fan, it hurt to write every word of this article. Yes, he's got a gigantic looming asterisk on his career due to his scandalous doping and subsequent suspensions. Yes, I hate his guts as a baseball fan. But, he also played in the steroid era among other cheaters who never got close to his career tallies in any category with all their pharmaceutical help. He's also part of a World Series-winning team. He's fourth all-time in career homeruns (no one currently playing has a chance to catch him, unless Albert Pujols hits about 120 dingers in the next few seasons, or Miguel Cabrera can hit almost 300 in the next decade). He's a three-time MVP, a fourteen-time All-Star, ten-time Silver Slugger, and has 3,000 hits and two (should've had more) Golden Gloves. And, he's third all-time in RBIs and eighth in runs scored, just to drown out the last guy in the back shouting “A-Rod sucks.”
A lot of people had him pegged as the next, well, everybody – Aaron, Ruth, Mays, take your pick. And while he never sat on the throne as Homerun King as he was prophesied to one day, you can bet anything you own that there are a thousand high school kids across the country who scouts are calling the next Alex Rodriguez. Most of these prospects weren’t even born until Rodriguez was in his 7th season or later.
In a truly puzzling end-punctuation to his career, he walked away from around $25 million dollars, a handful of homeruns away from yet another superhuman accomplishment, with almost a third of the schedule to go. Our last image of Rodriguez in uniform is of a man weeping at a press conference on a weekend, when his last hit as a professional player was a homerun. All those kids who grew up watching him play are faced with an odd legacy to either try to emulate or not: Sign two of the biggest contracts in sports history, smash or get close to nearly every major offensive record in baseball, win a championship, win MVP awards, and then get caught using PEDs, fall from grace, and leave in disgrace.
In an era of farewell tours and appreciation nights (Jeter, Mariano, Ortiz), we’ve decided collectively as a culture to recognize and thank the greatest of their time, because so many have simply stopped playing at a certain point and faded into the past. Now, we let them stand on the field, tip their cap, and take it in one last time. How odd and sad then, that the player whose career statistical output is most deserving of a standing ovation and whose personality craves the approval of fans, the media, and the game at large most will instead see their time come to an end without ceremony, without fanfare, and without playing the game he reigned over for so long one last time.