November 19, 2007

There's not much room for argument: Alex Rodriguez was the best player in the American League this year. He lead his league in home runs (54), RBIs (156), runs scored (143), total bases (376), slugging percentage (.645) and OPS (1.067). He also led his league in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), topping Magglio Ordonez by a score of 96.6 to 87.8. And he accomplished all of this while playing a more difficult defensive position than Magglio Ordonez, and playing it fairly well.

What might be more surprising is that A-Rod's numbers were even more impressive than they appear at first glance, because of one area for which he's traditionally had a poor reputation: his performance in the clutch. Rodriguez hit .333, with 98 RBIs and a 1.138 OPS with runners in scoring position. He hit .357 in "close and late" situations. He hit .500 with a 1.286 slugging percentage in 14 plate appearances with the bases loaded. At he hit .362 in September, as the Yankees climbed back to reclaim their spot in the postseason.

Rodriguez, of course, renewed doubts about his clutch ability with his relatively poor performance against Cleveland in the ALDS, when he hit .267 with just one RBI. In other words, he had a bad series. On the other hand, over 162 games during the regular season, he was the one guy you wanted up there when the game depended on it. Which performance do you trust more: 583 at-bats in the regular season, or 15 in the playoffs?

Yes, Rodriguez has disappointed in the playoffs in the past. But the bottom line is this. Firstly, clutch performance is mostly about luck: the same player who is clutch one year can be a choke artist the next. And two, the Yankees ought to have every bit of confidence that Rodriguez can not only get them to October, but win them a title once they're there. Rodriguez is the MVP -- and the highest-paid player in baseball -- for a reason: no player provides his team with a bigger head start toward winning a World Series.

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