Believe it or not, the best offensive weapon for the New York Yankees through the first six games of the season has been baseball’s own biggest pariah, Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who missed the entire 2014 season after his involvement with Biogenesis, has batted .300 (6-for-20) in the first week of the season and has three extra base hits (two doubles and a home run). As a team, the Yankees are batting a paltry .233, which saw a healthy rise after the 14-4 beating the Bombers administered to the Red Sox on Sunday night.
Rodriguez has done most of his damage against fastballs and cutters. Five of his six hits have come against the hard stuff. He has swung and missed on seven of 11 swings against changeups and sliders in the early going. So far, Rodriguez has proven he can still hit a fastball, but how will he react when pitchers begin to realize that as his 40th birthday approaches, Rodriguez has been essentially reduced to a one-trick pony.
I believe that early in the season, pitchers are still feeling their way out when it comes to facing Rodriguez. Joe Girardi has moved Rodriguez around the lineup, batting him as low as seventh. Against the Red Sox on Sunday night, Rodriguez batted sixth. Hitters in the bottom half of the order often see more fastballs, especially if a pitcher likes their chances against a player who has been away from the game for over a year. The cold April weather can also not be discounted when considering the amount of fastballs being thrown to Rodriguez. Cold temperatures do have an effect on a pitcher’s ability to grip the ball, especially when throwing secondary pitches. As the weather warms, and pitchers gain more command of their breaking and offspeed pitches, Rodriguez should see a healthier diet of sliders, changeups, and curveballs.
If that is the case, do not expect Rodriguez to continue his .300 batting average. In 2012, the last close-to-full season Rodriguez played for the Yankees, he did not show much ability to handle anything but a fastball. Fangraphs shows Rodriguez to be below average in runs created for sliders and curveballs, and barely above average against changeups. In limited action in 2013, Rodriguez was below average against changeups. With a full season away from Major League Baseball, there is no reason to expect Rodriguez to be able to stem the gradual erosion of his ability to hit anything but a fastball or cutter.
The rest of the season is still a mystery to the Yankees when it comes to what value they will see from Alex Rodriguez’s bat. There is a good enough chance that he will continue to hit fastballs well enough to justify a spot in the lineup as a designated hitter, especially against lefties. The ability to hit a fastball is a matter of timing, and even a full season away from the game does not appear to have dulled Rodriguez’s ability to do that. The seven swings-and-misses on sliders and changeups are troubling, especially given the gradual decline in his ability to handle those types of pitches even before his time away from the game. A healthy set of hips may help Rodriguez’s swing, but if his pitch recognition skills have declined as the swings and misses indicate, there is a very good chance pitchers will eat him alive with their secondary pitches.
Given enough at-bats, Rodriguez will probably muster 20 home runs. That being said, there is no way anyone in the Yankees organization should expect to see the .300 batting average continue. Once the league reacquaints themselves with Alex Rodriguez and the holes in his swing, his average will slide back down into the .250 range, and the Yankees may begin finding ways to shuffle his at-bats around to more productive players.