Alex Rodriguez has reached another major milestone. With one swing of his bat in Friday night's Yankees win over the Red Sox, A-Rod picked up the 660th home run of his major league career, tying Hall of Famer Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list.
Beyond the historical significance of A-Rod's blast, the homer was a timely one, as well. With the score tied at 2–2 in the top of the seventh with no one on and one out, Rodriguez stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter against reliever Junichi Tazawa, taking Garrett Jones's spot in the lineup. Rodriguez ran the count to 3–0, then took a 94-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball from Tazawa and launched it to leftfield, hitting a screaming line drive that cleared the top of the Green Monster in Fenway Park to give New York a 3–2 lead. The blast was no cheap shot: According to Yankees beat reporter Bryan Hoch, the ball left A-Rod's bat at a scorching 117 mph and went 419 feet.
Amazingly enough, that was the first pinch-hit homer of Rodriguez's entire career; before Friday, he had collected just one hit in 19 previous at-bats in that role. It also snapped a 1-for-12 skid since his last homer, including a miserable 0-for-6 day with four strikeouts in his last start on Wednesday. The homer was the 54th of his career against the Red Sox, fourth-most behind the Angels (70), Orioles (62) and Blue Jays (57). It's the 25th he's hit at Fenway Park, and just the third he's ever hit on a 3–0 count, according to Baseball-Reference.
For Rodriguez, the home run marked his sixth bomb of the season in what's been a terrific comeback campaign for the controversy-plagued slugger. Absent for the entirety of 2013 due to a season-long suspension for performance enhancing drugs, Rodriguez has provided some much-needed right-handed punch in the Yankees' lineup, slugging .557 on the year. His six home runs are two behind Mark Teixeira for the team lead, and his 15 RBIs are second on the team, also to Teixeira. And while he's more than likely to fall off his current season pace of 48 home runs, his unexpected power display has been a welcome addition to New York.
Rodriguez has produced admirably on the field, but with 660 now in the books, the attention will turn to his upcoming fight with the Yankees' front office. Since the start of the season, New York has made endless noise about five $6 million bonuses for each of home runs Nos. 660, 714, 755, 762 and 763. Back in January, the New York Daily Newsreported that the team was "preparing for a battle" to avoid paying A-Rod for his milestone homers, with the argument being that his numbers were tainted by his repeated steroid use.
It's worth noting that those bonuses were not part of Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million deal with the team signed in 2008, as the standard player contract cannot contain statistical incentives beyond games played or finished. Instead, he and the team agreed to a separate marketing contract in which the money would be paid in accordance with Rodriguez taking part in promotional and media appearances for each of the record-setting homers.
The Yankees, however, have argued that Rodriguez's reputation was tarnished by his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic and his suspension, making those marketing deals essentially impossible. The team has gone as far as to ignore Rodriguez's pursuit of Mays in its media notes, apparently to bolster its contention that there is no milestone (though the team did tweet about A-Rod tying Mays).
Don't expect a resolution of this matter any time soon, however. The New York Postreports that the team and Rodriguez will likely require an outside arbitrator to settle the matter, perhaps in the off-season. We'll know for sure within the next couple of months. As the Post notes:
According to two sources familiar with the situation, when Rodriguez goes deep with number 660, the Yankees will have a precise period of time—two weeks, as per one of the sources—to declare this as a marketable milestone. If they were to do this, then Rodriguez would sign over the rights to his image and associated branding for the price of $6 million. ... Once the Yankees formalize this decision, then A-Rod has a set period of time—30 days, according to one source—to file a grievance. Though Rodriguez has shied away from publicly discussing this, every indication is that he will challenge the Yankees’ interpretation of the side deal.
The Post adds that, if A-Rod were to file a grievance, he'd have the full backing of the Major League Baseball Players Association—a potentially awkward pairing, given that just over a year ago, Rodriguez was in the process of suing the players' union over what he claimed was inadequate defense of his season-long suspension. That lawsuit was dropped last February, however, and according to MLBPA president Tony Clark, the union and Rodriguez are now on good terms.
Regardless of how the battle between A-Rod and the Yankees plays out, and no matter what the team does and does not consider a milestone for financial purposes, there's no denying the historic weight of Rodriguez's homer. The 39-year-old (40 in July) now has just three names ahead of him in the record books: Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (762). Barring a truly titanic season, there's no way Rodriguez will catch Ruth for third in 2015, but a strong campaign this year and next will put him within striking distance of the Bambino by the end of '16 (and set off what should be a truly vicious fight with the Yankees over the passing of arguably their greatest player).
Catching Aaron and Bonds, however, would seem to be a dream too far. Had Rodriguez not missed so much time in the last four years due to injuries and his PED suspension, there's a chance that he'd already be closing in on Ruth and taking aim at the Hammer. But given that he is unlikely to reach the start of the 2017 season with any more than 700 or so home runs—assuming he stays perfectly healthy and productive through this season and next—his pursuit of baseball's most legendary sluggers will likely stop there. His contract with the Yankees ends after '17, by which point Rodriguez will be 42. He offers little to no defensive value for a team, leaving his only role as an aging designated hitter whose only selling point will be a futile chase of home run glory.
Of course, all of that assumes that Rodriguez manages to get through the rest of this season and next in one piece. Even before his MLB-mandated year off from the game, various injuries, most notably left hip surgery in 2013, had limited him to just 265 games from 2011-13. Being a more or less full-time designated hitter will limit the wear and tear on his body, but at 39, Rodriguez certainly isn't the spry athlete of his heyday. There's also the matter of just how legitimate his production is. Going into Friday night's game, A-Rod was striking out in 27.4% of his plate appearances this year, his highest mark since his rookie season in 1995, and his swinging-strike percentage sits at 14.2, worst in his 21-year career. His home run-to-fly ball ratio, meanwhile, is a gaudy 25%, and he's putting the ball in the air a career-high 43.5% of the time, suggesting he's gotten some luck on that front.
• Bonds: Baseball should celebrate A-Rod's 660th home run
However, there's been nothing cheap about any of the homers that Rodriguez has hit this year. By true distance, he owns the longest home run of the year, a staggering 477-foot blast off of the Rays' Nathan Karns in Tampa on April 17, and the average true distance of his homers (not counting Friday's shot) is 416 feet, or nearly 20 feet farther than MLB's average of 397. According to ESPN's home run tracker, A-Rod is also tied for the major league lead in "no doubt" home runs—balls that cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet beyond the wall—with three.
All of that hard contact suggests that, while A-Rod may not be making contact like he did in his prime, he's still capable of punishing a ball when he gets one in his wheelhouse. What will be interesting to watch is how pitchers approach Rodriguez as the season continues. All but one of his six home runs have come off a fastball, and against four-seamers, A-Rod was slugging .679 before Friday's game. Contrast that to his work against different kinds of fastballs, as well as offspeed and breaking pitches: a .222 slugging percentage against sinkers, .333 against changeups, .222 against sliders. A-Rod has shown that he can still handle a heater, but the real challenge will come when opposing teams start mixing up their offerings.
Regardless of what he does going forward, however, Friday is a day for Rodriguez and for baseball fans to celebrate. He's added another chapter to the strange yet fascinating book that has been his career, and while he may not get his due from the Yankees or from the Hall of Fame, that won't change what or how much he's produced over the last two decades.