Commentary

Can Alex get his groove back in 2011?

Yanks' hitting coach believes, despite recent decline, Rodriguez set to regain '07 form

Updated: February 11, 2011, 9:05 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

He will still be a New York Yankee when the calendar says 2017, when Derek Jeter has passed his 43rd birthday and the "new" Yankee Stadium is already nine years old.

But what kind of a player will Alex Rodriguez be six years from now? More importantly, what kind of a player will Alex Rodriguez be six months from now?

Lost in the flameout of A.J. Burnett and the decline of Derek Jeter, in 2010 Rodriguez achieved something previously thought unattainable despite a career in which he has done just about everything, good and bad.

[+] EnlargeRodriguez
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesAll was not well at the plate for Alex Rodriguez in 2010.

He became largely irrelevant.

Oh, he had some high points -- notably his 600th career home run at Yankee Stadium on August 4 and the three bombs against the Royals in Kansas City 10 days later -- and some low points, like the day in April when a journeyman pitcher named Dallas Braden ordered him not to cross "his" mound in Oakland.

And his 125 RBIs led the team.

Otherwise, it was a pretty quiet year for the Yankees' one-man attention squad.

Outhit by Robinson Cano, outhomered by Mark Teixeira and nearly matched for power by Nick Swisher, for the first time in his baseball life A-Rod was no better than the third-best hitter on his own team.

The question for A-Rod this season is -- as it is for Jeter, Burnett and Joba Chamberlain -- is this as good as it's going to be from now on?

There's little doubt that at this stage of his life and career -- he will turn 36 on July 17 -- and with his recent injury history, we have already seen the best of Alex Rodriguez.

It's highly unlikely we'll ever see a 50-plus home run season out of A-Rod again, or the 156 RBIs he put up in his MVP season of 2007, or the league-leading .358 he hit in another lifetime as a 20-year-old Seattle Mariner back in 1996, and it's useless to hope for such things.

More to the point is, what can we expect from here on out?

"It's a very solid question and one I understand considering what we've seen over the past three seasons," said Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. "I think it's fair to say that with what he's capable of doing, he could hit 40 to 45 homers this year. Of course, he needs to stay healthy and he needs to be on the field. I think he's going to be able to do that this year."

As Long pointed out, "We talk about Cano as obviously one of the best players in the game. Alex had more home runs and drove in more runs in five less weeks. So if Cano's considered one of the best, what's Alex considered? I think there's still plenty of production there."

Spring training, of course, is the season of hope, both real and imagined. And every year at this time we hear and read -- and write, if you're in the business -- far too many stories about guys rededicating themselves, rediscovering their inspiration and remaking their bodies, all with the intent of jump-starting stalled careers.

Most of those stories turn out to be complete fiction, and in fairness, Alex Rodriguez's career is not stalled, merely not up to the nearly-impossible-to-maintain standards he set over the first 12 seasons of his career (the cut-off point being his monster '07 season) as an everyday player.

Some of that is no doubt due to a lack of chemical assistance. It must be recognized that since baseball finally got semi-serious about its PED problem, power totals are way down across the board, not just for A-Rod.

And some of it has to do with injuries, notably the torn labrum in his right hip that caused Rodriguez to have surgery and miss the first six weeks of the 2009 season. And some, no doubt, has to do with increasing age.

But whatever the reasons, there is no disputing that for the past three seasons, Rodriguez has been a shell of the player he was in 2007, when he led the league in home runs (54), RBI (156) and runs scored (143) and batted .314.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireRodriguez's batting average, runs scored and on-base percentage last season were the lowest since he became an everyday player in 1996.

Since then, the home run totals are 35, 30 and 30, the RBIs 103 and 100 respectively before last year's 125, the slugging percentage steadily dropping to last year's .506, his lowest since 1997.

In fact, A-Rod posted several career lows in 2010: His batting average (.270), runs scored (74) and on-base percentage (.341) were the lowest since he became a regular in 1996. He walked fewer times, 59, than he had since 1999 when he played just 129 games, indicating he was either less patient at the plate -- or pitchers were less fearful of pitching to him, especially with the red-hot Cano hitting behind him.

According to the website FanGraphs.com, Rodriguez also made contact at a higher rate than at any other season of his career -- in nearly 80 percent of his plate appearances he put the ball in play -- but only 13.8 percent of those batted balls were line drives, by far the lowest total of his career.

The numbers only reinforce what your eyes probably told you last season, that the ball no longer jumps off Alex Rodriguez's bat the way it once did.

But the most staggering number is this: Against left-handed pitching, Rodriguez hit just .217 in 2010, with just six home runs.

It is a topic he and Long discussed last week, however briefly.

"I just said to him, 'Lefties,'" Long said. "And he said, 'I know.'"

"When you look at those numbers you just go, 'Wow,'" Long said. "I mean, those are not good numbers. Maybe he doesn't concentrate as much. I'm not quite certain what it is. But we're definitely going to address that."

Still, Long, the one Yankee coach who knows A-Rod probably better than anyone on the staff, believes his optimism for a Rodriguez bounce-back year is well-founded.

Long worked with A-Rod twice this offseason in Miami, once in December and again last week, and came away convinced the hitter we saw in 2008, 2009 and 2010 is not the hitter we will see in 2011.

"I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw," Long said. "I saw his body able to do things it wasn't able to do for the past three years. The flexibility in his lower half, his hips, his core, seemed to be back. We've had to limit his routine and his swings ever since the hip surgery quite a bit, but he was able to take more swings than he had been."

Long was surprised to see Rodriguez significantly thinner than he has been. "At first I was gonna say something but then I saw the strength and how it translated into his swing," he said. "He's thin but strong. Once I saw him up close, there's a lot of strength in his swing and a lot more explosion than I've seen."

Long attributes Rodriguez's drop-off in power less to the hip surgery than to A-Rod's lingering caution in using his lower body to drive the ball they way he had before the operation.

"That was a major surgery," Long said. "I don't know how long it takes to fully heal, and I don't know how the athlete guards it. Alex was cautious coming back, and I think for a good reason. But the things I saw in his swing last week tell me he's ready to cut loose again."

According to Long, he's only seen A-Rod at 100 percent once in his career -- during the 2007 season that earned him his third MVP. "That year, his swing was perfect," Long said. "He just could not swing the bat any better. But since then, even before the surgery, it seemed like he couldn't use his lower half the way he had in the past. That's what I saw a few days ago. He looked really, really good. Explosive.

"I really think he can have a monster season compared to last year."

Nobody, not even Long, can say what kind of a player Rodriguez will be by the time his Yankee contract runs out six years from now.

But Long thinks he can envision what A-Rod will be like six months from now. And he likes what he sees.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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