A year after Biogenesis bans, have Yankees missed Alex Rodriguez?
Hot on the heels of the early Tuesday morning arrest of former Biogenesis head Anthony Bosch by the Drug Enforcement Administration on charges of distributing anabolic steroid testosterone, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn is reporting that the DEA’s now two-year-long investigation has identified previously-unnamed major league players who were Bosch's clients. This news and the arrest of Bosch and nine others by the DEA comes on the one-year anniversary of Major League Baseball handing down suspensions to 13 players associated with Bosch and Biogenesis, and suggests that there may be more suspensions to come. As for Bosch, he faces up to 10 years in prison but is expected to cop a plea. Per the agreement that netted MLB the cooperation of Bosch last year, some of the league’s highest-raking officials may be called upon to vouch for him as he attempts to strike a bargain with the feds.
Among those arrested Tuesday morning was Alex Rodriguez’s cousin, Yuri Sucart, whom Rodriguez identified as supplying and injecting him with “boli” in his 2009 confession of performance-enhancing drug use. Sucart is said to have been one of Bosch’s recruiters. Rodriguez is the only one of the 13 players suspended a year ago still serving his ban, and given the strong second-half play of the team that still owes Rodriguez $61 million over the next three years, today’s events made us wonder how having Rodriguez this season might have changed the Yankees' fortunes this season.
Since the All-Star break, New York has gone 11-6 and enters Tuesday’s action in third place in the American League East, five games behind the Orioles. However, the Yankees are just one game behind the Blue Jays for the AL’s second wild-card spot and tied with Toronto in the loss column. It doesn’t take much fancy number crunching to figure out that having had Rodriguez active this season likely would have been enough for New York, not Toronto, to be occupying that playoff spot at this point in the season.
The Yankees have had so many moving parts, and Rodriguez’s attendance has been so sporadic in recent seasons, that projecting him onto the 2014 Yankees isn’t a simple task, but we can try. Rodriguez’s batting line after his return from hip surgery last year greatly resembled his line from 2012, so we can use the combination of the two as his assumed level of production: .265/.352/.428 (112 OPS+). That doesn’t look like much, but the Yankees’ third basemen this year have hit .262/.329/.394 as a group and their designated hitters have hit .234/.295/.408, so Rodriguez would obviously have been an upgrade at either position.
The Yankees largely failed to replace Rodriguez this past offseason, entering the season with Kelly Johnson, who had made just 12 starts at the hot corner in his major league career, as their primary third baseman. That may have been at least in part due to the lingering possibility of Rodriguez playing this season, as he spent most of the offseason appealing what was initially a 211-game suspension. It was reduced to 162 on Jan. 12, and Rodriguez dropped his lawsuit over the remaining suspension on Feb. 9, less than a week before the start of spring training. It seems clear that if Rodriguez’s suspension had been overturned, he would have opened the season at third base.
Projecting Rodriguez at the hot corner, rather than designated hitter, increases the likelihood of injury. From 2008-13, he averaged 111 games per season, and he played only 44 last year after returning from hip and quad injuries. At the age of 38, with third base being his primary position, it's reasonable to think he wouldn't have played more than 120 games in 2014. Prorating his Wins Above Replacement from the last two seasons, which include a poor defensive grade and the hitting line listed above, Rodriguez was worth almost exactly two wins over the course of 120 games.
If we then distribute those 120 games evenly over the Yankees’ 162-game schedule (which isn’t how injuries actually work, but we’re clearly working in estimates here), Rodriguez would have played in just 82 of New York's 111 games thus far. If we then go back and prorate his WAR over 82 games rather than 120, we find Rodriguez would have been worth 1.4 WAR to this point in the season.
However, Rodriguez isn’t taking the place of a replacement-level player in this calculation. He’s replacing the actual third basemen the Yankees have used. Johnson, for example, was worth 0.5 WAR before the Yankees traded him to Boston for Stephen Drew. Yangervis Solarte, who has made the relative majority of starts at third base this season for New York, was worth 0.4 wins before he was traded to the Padres for Chase Headley.
Of course, the argument could be made that, with Carlos Beltran unable to play the outfield but raking as the team’s designated hitter, the Yankees wouldn’t have traded for Headley if Rodriguez was on the team, particularly given how poorly his season had been going in San Diego. We can thus count out the 0.7 wins Headley has already contributed in the Bronx (most of them with his glove) against Rodriguez. However, we can’t subtract all of Johnson and Solarte’s contributions as both played multiple positions, and the three men together have thus far combined for 100 starts at third base. That's more than we have assumed Rodriguez would have to this point in the season, and he also would likely have spent some days at DH.
Still, you can see where this is going. Headley’s 0.7 wins are half of Rodriguez’s estimated value to this point in the season, and if we take even just a fraction of Johnson and Solarte’s value away as well we’re left with Rodriguez representing an upgrade of likely less than half a win. It's worth mentioning that Headley’s 0.7 wins are an unreliable figure, largely because they derive so significantly from 13 games worth of defensive statistics. A 0.7 WAR in 13 games projects to an 8.7 WAR over 162, an MVP-level performance. Headley has been good for the Yankees, but not that good. Also, given the inexact nature of WAR, slicing and dicing figures this small greatly increases the margin of error.
The point remains that Rodriguez, at this stage of his career, is a poor defender who has trouble staying healthy and is a shadow of the hitter he once was, whatever the source of his production might have been. A league-average everyday player is typically worth about two wins above replacement, which, again, seems like a fair estimate for Rodriguez. Subtract anything from that to compensate from the performances the Yankees wouldn’t have gotten from Johnson and Solarte as a result of Rodriguez’s availability, and you’re looking at Rodriguez having been little more than a one-win upgrade to this point in the season. That’s a big deal given New York's current wild-card deficit, but it’s not enough to change outlook of the division race. Here’s hoping the same is true for whatever additional suspensions may be looming.