Friday June 19th, 2015

Alex Rodriguez’s next hit will be the 3,000th of his career, making him the 29th player in major league history to accumulate that many and the first to do so since former teammate Derek Jeter reached the milestone four years ago. More than that, though, Rodriguez will also become one of just three players in MLB history to reach 600 home runs and 3,000 hits in his career, joining Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Rodriguez has already reached several other notable career milestones this season. On May 7, he passed Mays’ landmark career home run total of 660 to move into fourth-place on the all-time home run list. On June 13, he became just the fourth major leaguer ever to drive in 2,000 runs (and, officially, just the second). Roughly a week prior to that, he entered the top 10 all-time in runs scored (though, again, MLB’s official record keeping had him there sooner). He also entered the top 10 all-time in total bases earlier this year and currently sits eighth on that list. With all those accomplishments, it would seem clear that Rodriguez, who will turn 40 next month, is capping off one of the greatest careers in the game's history. That reality, however, is clouded by his extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs.

We know from his own confessions that Rodriguez used PEDs throughout his three years with the Rangers (2001–03) and during the 2010–12 seasons. Individuals interviewed by Selena Roberts for her 2009 biography of Rodriguez alleged that he was using PEDs as early as high school and continued using after being traded to the Yankees in '04. That combination of confessions and allegations is enough for some to doubt the legitimacy of Rodriguez’s entire career.

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I understand that perspective, but there are two reasons that I find it difficult to dismiss Rodriguez’s accomplishments. The first is that he was one of hundreds of players to use PEDs over the last 20 years, but the only other players in that group to have comparable career accomplishments are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom were widely regarded as all-time greats long before their alleged drug use began. The other reason is that MLB did not punish Rodriguez after his first confession in 2009. Instead, the league welcomed him back into the game both that year and this season in the wake of his one-year Biogenesis suspension, and it has made no effort to cast his feats as illegitimate. Did Rodriguez cheat? Yes. But according to MLB, he has served his punishment and returned to the game in good standing. Outside of the length of his suspension, which an independent arbitrator ruled was appropriate to his violation, Rodriguez hasn’t been treated any differently than any other player who was caught cheating by any other means.

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Of all of Rodriguez’s accomplishments, his 3,000th hit may best drive home that point. Thanks in part to his chemically-assisted–late-career surge, Bonds hit more home runs and accumulated more total bases than Rodriguez, and, thanks in part to the overreaction to his increased production by opposing managers, Bonds scored more runs. Yet even Bonds fell shy of 3,000 hits. That was largely due to his record-setting walk total (Bonds has reached base 1,152 more times than Rodriguez, with his advantage in intentional walks accounting for more than half of that difference). Still, of the 28 players to precede Rodriguez to 3,000 hits, only one has ever been convincingly linked to PEDs: Rafael Palmeiro, who failed a drug test. He finished his career with 3,020 hits, a total Rodriguez will likely pass this year.

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We know very little about how, or even if, PEDs actually do enhance performance. When Rodriguez confessed in 2009 to using while with the Rangers, I attempted to isolate the impact of that use in his numbers, based on the assumption that he was clean both before and after those three seasons. What I found was that there was no change in his performance that couldn’t be explained by the improved hitting environment in Arlington. If the drugs had any impact, it was that they allowed him to play all but one game over those three seasons, but they didn’t appear to alter his level of production at all. In fact, one could track a gradual decline in Rodriguez’s production from his final year with the Mariners in '00 to his first year with the Yankees in '04 without any variation from that trend in his three years in Texas.

Similarly, Rodriguez’s 2010–12 seasons were also marked by decline. His relationship with Biogenesis head Anthony Bosch began in the second half of the '10 season, and while his performance did improve that September, he was lousy in the postseason. Rodriguez then played just 166 games in the '12 and ’13 seasons combined due to a variety of injuries while his production continued to decline.

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When Rodriguez was approaching Mays’s home run mark in April, Jay Jaffe attempted to figure out what his career home run total might have looked like had he not been a regular on the disabled list from 2008 to '13 and not been suspended for the entire '14 season. Jay calculated that Rodriguez had missed 405 games due to injury and suspension since '08. Even if we assume that he did gain some marginal benefit from his PED use, it would seem that missing what amounts to 2 1/2 full seasons worth of games due to his suspension and injuries—some of which may have also resulted from the effects of the drugs on his body—would counterbalance that benefit.

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Taking a closer look, Jaffe projected that Rodriguez, accounting for an age-related decline in playing time, would have had 699 home runs coming into this season if he hadn’t missed those 405 games. Add his 12 homers from this season and that’s 711. Even if you think PEDs made Rodriguez 10% better over the course of his career, shaving 10% of that projection would leave Rodriguez at 640 home runs, just 24 fewer than his actual total.

We can play the same game with his hits. Using Jay’s plate appearance projections for 2008–14, we can estimate how many hits a healthy Rodriguez would have had each season from '08 to '13 based on his actual hit rate those seasons, as well as his '14 total based on his average rate from '11 to '13. If you do that, Rodriguez would have had 3,206 hits coming into this season. Add his actual hits from this season (60) and shave off 10% and it puts him at 2,939 hits, giving him a solid chance to reach 3,000 this year with continued health.

One is certainly free to have a moral objection to Rodriguez, just as one is free to have a moral objection to the game’s litany of other scoundrels. But to consider his accomplishments illegitimate strikes me as an overreach which has no support from the game’s leadership and no basis in fact. Whatever you might think of Rodriguez personally, and no matter how disgusted you might be by the taint of steroids on baseball’s record book, you can’t pretend Rodriguez’s hits and home runs never happened. Even if you discount his accomplishments—something his suspension has already done to his numbers—Rodriguez has still had one of the most impressive careers in major league history—and let’s not forget that he accumulated many of those totals as a Gold Glove-quality shortstop. That may not necessarily be cause for celebration, as it was when Jeter reached 3,000 hits, but it will still be worth appreciating.

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