For a 39-year-old coming off a full-season suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, Alex Rodriguez has already defied expectations with his hot start. As he approaches his 660th home run—he is two away from reaching that milestone, which will tie him with Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list—it's tempting to wonder how much higher he might have climbed if injuries and poor decisions had not gotten in his way. A bit of back-of-the-envelope math suggests that under better circumstances, scenarios exist in which the 2015 season might have been the one in which Rodriguez surpassed Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and possibly even Barry Bonds (762) to become baseball's all-time home run king.
Admittedly, this is an exercise in speculation and extrapolation. It's not going to dwell on the morality of Rodriguez's performance enhancing drug usage, which is known to have occurred at least during his time in Texas (2001–03) and his final few years with the Yankees ('10–12) leading up to his unprecedented suspension, and which casts a shadow over the rest of his career. Plenty of other columnists are primed to continue shaming Rodriguez as he passes one of the sport's hallowed icons and attempts to catch up with others (though note that Mays is taking it in stride). The world doesn't need one more pile-on, and that's not my interest here. A reckoning with what might have been is enough to get a sense of what's been lost.
While many believed Rodriguez would never wear Yankees pinstripes again after his suspension was upheld in January 2014, thus far, he has hit an eye-opening .265/.419/.571 for a 175 OPS+ with four home runs in 62 plate appearances. He had a two-homer game against Tampa Bay on April 17, one that included the season’s longest home run by any hitter, estimated at 471 feet by MLB Advanced Media’s new StatCast, and 477 feet by ESPN Home Run Tracker. Regardless of the official distance, that drive that suggests that Rodriguez's physical capabilities at this stage have been underestimated.
In addition to his power numbers, Rodriguez enters play on Friday leading the AL in walks (13). The Yankees, now 9–7, might well be at the bottom of the AL East without him, rather than tied for first, as they are. And for all of the team brass' attempts to pretend that he's unmarketable—and thus attempt to avoid paying him a contractually-mandated $6 million milestone bonus for reaching Mays—the reality is that he's as watchable as any of their players right now. New York is said to be confident it can avoid making not only that payout but also the ensuing series of $6 million bonuses that come with tying Ruth, Aaron and Bonds, as well as surpassing Bonds to claim the all-time record.
Had things worked out differently, it's not too hard to imagine that by the end of this season, Rodriguez could have banked all of those checks. Doing so, however, would have required him steering clear of the disabled list, which he hit once a year from 2008 to '13, costing him a total of 243 games—a season and a half—according to the Baseball Prospectus injury database. He missed 17 games in '08 due to a right quad strain, 28 in '09 due to surgery on his right hip labrum, 14 in '10 due to a left calf strain, 38 in '11 due to surgery to repair a meniscus in his right knee, 36 in '12 due to a fractured metacarpal in his left hand and 110 in '13 due to surgery on his left hip labrum.
Throw in the full-season suspension last year, and that's 405 games missed, or 2 1/2 full seasons. Given that Rodriguez has averaged 41.3 homers per 162 games played over the course of his 21-season career, that's 103 missing home runs, enough to push him to 761, exactly one shy of Bonds' record. In other words, this season could have seen us crown a new home run king for the second time in eight years.
Of course, that scenario doesn't allow for any kind of decline as Rodriguez has aged, and the likelihood that he could have maintained that breakneck pace across those missing games from his age-32–38 seasons is slim. But even if one presumes that he could have put up 30 homers per 162 games over the course of those 2 1/2 missed seasons—in fact, he averaged 33.2 per 162 during that span but missed roughly one-third of those games—that's 75 additional home runs. Put those on his ledger and it would push him to 733, past not only the Say Hey Kid and the Bambino, but also putting the Hammer in sight before the end of the 2015 season, and Bonds on tap for '16.
Both of those scenarios depend upon extrapolating flat rates of production across the missing games without any concession to aging patterns or Rodriguez's very real pattern of decline, which has seen him go from a 176 OPS+ in his AL MVP-winning 2007 campaign to successive OPS+ marks of 150, 138, 123, 119, 111 and 113. If instead I scale his actual annual production from '08 onward—as if the injury bug hadn't bitten him so hard and the steroid issue never arisen—to a more substantial but still slowly decreasing amount of playing time, using his rate of home runs per plate appearance instead of per game, it might look something like this:
For Rodriguez's 2014 projection, I took a straight average of his 2011–13 rate. By that scenario, A-Rod would have passed Mays near the very end of the '12 season, had he been able to stay healthy, and positioned himself to pass Ruth sometime this year; catching Bonds by the time his contract expired following the '17 season, however, would have required a bit of a rebound. Coming into '15, sitting at 699, Rodriguez would have needed to average 21 homers a year, a level he otherwise hadn't reached since '11. More likely, he would have left himself a handful of homers shy of 762 by the the end of 2017, but he might have been in striking distance during his age-42 season in 2018, whether with the Yankees or another team. With no steroid allegations to his name, and a less dire injury history, finding a suitable contract for that season wouldn't have been a tall task.
Rodriguez can't undo what's done, of course, and he's unlikely to maintain his current pace, which projects to 40 homers over 162 games, or 32 over 500 plate appearances. It's still probably unrealistic to expect more than 20–25 homers this year even if he stays healthy, though that at least gives him a fighting shot at reaching Ruth's 714 before his career ends. Aaron and Bonds would seem to be beyond his reach.
As Rodriguez has gotten off to his flying start at least one columnist has voiced the opinion that his robust showing means that he must be using PEDs again. While there's no reason to give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt based upon his past words and actions, it's worth remembering that because he is a past offender, under the Joint Drug Agreement, he's now subject to extra testing for the remainder of his career, in the form of six unannounced urine tests and three unannounced blood tests per year, beyond the two or three annual tests to which all players on 40-man rosters are subject—that from a program whose sophistication continues to increase. If he were to be caught again, he'd almost certainly be banned for life and thus forced to forfeit the roughly $60 million guaranteed by his contract—money that he, his lawyers and the players' union have fought tooth and nail to protect, and that even the Yankees' high-priced legal squad can find no way to eradicate. It takes an extreme vacation from logic to believe Rodriguez would choose a recidivist route, regardless of his past actions.
In the meantime, he remains a compelling player, some combination of cheater, villain, entropic force and cautionary tale, not to mention an unlikely pillar of the Yankees' lineup and Comeback Player of the Year candidate. For all that we could have imagined for A-Rod a few years ago, before the injuries and the steroid saga began, who could have possibly pictured that?