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February 26, 2006

Looking Ahead to 2006 - Third Base
by SG

Alex Rodriguez is the object of scorn by people everywhere, because he has committed the crime of being remarkably talented and very well-compensated for that talent. It is my opinion that the team owners use their media mouthpieces to ridicule Rodriguez for having had the audacity to sign the most lucrative contract in baseball history, ignoring the fact that it was one of them that offered it to him in the first place, in a thinly veiled attempt at keeping other players' contract demands down. Then the unthinking masses follow suit because they have been conditioned to by the Mike Lupicas of the world. It's easy enough to attack the character of Rodriguez, because it's pretty damn hard to attack his baseball ability, which should be the only thing that matters to sports fans.

Rodriguez had a down year by his standards in 2004. Part of it was certainly the move from Texas to Yankee Stadium. Part of it was probably the controversial position change that saw him move to third base even though he is by all accounts a better defensive shortstop than the incumbent Derek Jeter. Part of it is probably just the general volatility of baseball, and maybe part of it was adjusting to being under the microscope in New York. There's certainly nothing wrong with a .286/.375/.512 line with 36 HRs, unless you compared it to his previous 6 seasons.

Rodriguez came back with a bang in 2005. He hit .304/.349/.618 in April, and then improved as the season went on. He was really shaky in the field in the first half before recovering his ability in the second half. Rodriguez's breakdown by month:

April: .304/.349/.618 with 9 HR
May: .349/.513/.686 with 8 HR
June: .337/.407/.481 with 3 HR
July: .281/.400/.552 with 8 HR
Aug: .324/.429/.733 with 12 HR
Sep: .317/.419/.567 with 7 HR
Oct: .500/.500/1.500 with 1 HR

I realize that there are stats which I had never heard of before 2005 which showed that Rodriguez put up all his numbers in blowouts, but the fact is that he hit .327/.426/.664 with 20 HRs and played Gold Glove caliber defense over the last 2 months of the season when the Yankees were fighting for their playoff lives. That's an MVP to me, and apparently to the BBWAA, as he was an easy MVP selection over David Ortiz. The WARP formula I'm using agreed, pegging Rodriguez for 9.0 WARP, compared to Ortiz's 6.7.

Rodriguez had a disappointing ALDS, but as far as I know, he didn't pitch Game 3 or Game 5. He stranded 6 runners, while Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui stranded 31 between them. The point is not that Rodriguez did well in the ALDS, it's that his teammates didn't do well either.

Rodriguez has a career line of .305/.393/.534 with 6 HRs in 118 AB in the playoffs. That's not a "choker" to me.

Which brings us to 2006, and what Rodriguez projects to do.

In this table, RARP are the offensive runs above a replacement third baseman using a linear weights -based formula. FRARP is the defensive fielding runs above a replacement player.

ZiPS says Rodriguez will hit .301/.400/.559 in 2006, with 43 HRs and would be worth 61 runs over a replacement player.

Marcel is much harsher, predicting a line of .296/.386/.543, with 35 HRs. While this is a huge dropoff from 2005, it's very close to what he did in 2004 and would make him 43 RARP. Marcel also tends to regress expected playing time, even for someone who's been as durable historically as Rodriguez has, which further depresses his projected value.

PECOTA is pretty close to ZiPS, predicting Rodriguez being worth 60 runs over a replacement shortstop.

Like I said earlier, in 2005 Rodriguez was worth 9.0 WARP.

My first thought when looking at this was that it appears that Rodriguez is going to be almost two wins worse if these projections hold up. However, the good news is that his defense was uncharacteristically bad last year. He was a +10 defender at shortstop in 2003 and a +11 defender at third base in 2004. That means that last year, Rodriguez's defense was 20 runs worse than his previously established level. And if you go by UZR, he was actually an average defender anyway.

I have no issues with expecting some offensive dropoff this year, although I think Marcel goes overboard. ZiPS and PECOTA seem more likely to me, something in the .300/.400/.575 area. If he can bring back his missing defense, from -11 back to plus 10, he'd actually be more valuable than last year. My guess is the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think it's reasonable to expect Rodriguez to be at worst an average defender next year, so if he matches his ZiPS/PECOTA, he's an 8.5 WARP player and still a legitimate MVP candidate. I'll still mark third base down for a .5 win downgrade relative to 2005. It's tough to expect Rodriguez to match his career-high tying OPS+ of 167 in 2006.

He's a great player with some flaws. To me, that makes him human, not a pariah.

With infield and catcher complete, I have the Yankees as 1 win better than last year. So far, so good.