The following was originally published on SI.com on February 13, 2009 under the headline “Was it the PEDs or the Park? A look inside A-Rod’s Texas numbers.” It is one of several of my older articles that was lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014. I’m republishing it here, unaltered, from my original submission, prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors. Given that this is an incendiary topic, I want to point out here that the intention of this article wasn’t (and isn’t) to absolve Rodriguez of wrongdoing, he’s very clearly guilty of extensive performance-enhancing drug use, but to attempt to discern how much, if at all, that drug use aided his performance on the field.
While others debate the sincerity and completeness of Alex Rodriguez’s confession to Peter Gammons on Monday, let’s push past the he said/she said between Rodriguez and Selena Roberts, past the garment-rending over the impact of his drug use upon the history and integrity of the game, and past the love/hate relationship baseball fans have with Rodriguez, a superstar bizarrely burdened with intense insecurities. Instead, let’s take a cold, hard look at the seasons during which Rodriguez admitted he had experimented with banned substances to see what impact, if any, those substances had on his performance on the field.
If we take Rodriguez at his word, his three years as a Texas Ranger from 2001 to 2003, were the only seasons during which he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. In those three seasons, he hit 156 home runs. By comparison, in his last three seasons with the Mariners, from 1998 to 2000, he hit 125 and in his first three seasons with the Yankees, from 2004 to 2006, he hit 119. In those six bookend seasons, he surpassed 42 homers just once, but in his three seasons in Texas he hit 47 or more every year.
So yes, Alex Rodriguez hit more home runs when he was juicing, but was it because he got his power from a pill, or were there other factors at work? Consider the fact that Rodriguez missed just one game in his three years with Texas, playing in 485 of the Rangers’ 486 games over that span. In his first three seasons with the Yankees, he played in 14 fewer. In his last three seasons with the Mariners, he played in 47 fewer. Rodriguez told Gammons on Monday that a large part of his motivation for experimenting with banned substances was his desire to be able to play every day through the hot Texan summers. In helping him achieve that goal, the drugs clearly worked.
The question then becomes, to what degree did Rodriguez’s ill-gotten ability to play every day contribute to the surge in his power numbers. Consider his home runs rates in each of the three-year spans mentioned above (expressed as plate appearances per home run):
- SEA ’98-00: 15.94 PA/HR
- TEX ’01-03: 13.92 PA/HR
- NY ’04-’06: 17.54 PA/HR
Those figures tell us that, not only did Rodriguez take the field more often during his three drug years than in the three-year periods immediately before and after, but he also went deep more often, homering more often than once every 14 plate appearances during his time in Texas. Yet, while there’s a strong correlation between Rodriguez’s drug use and playing time, the source of Rodriguez’s power surge lies elsewhere.
Safeco Park, which Rodriguez’s Mariners moved into in mid 1999, is a pitchers park, as was the remodeled Yankee Stadium, the latter of which was particularly hard on right-handed power hitters such as Rodriguez. The Ballpark at Arlington, on the other hand, is a launching pad. Factor in a year and a half of play at the similarly homer-happy Kingdome in 1998 and 1999, and those home run rates above would seem to correspond to park factors as much or more than to drug use.
To get rid of the effects of his home parks, let’s take a second look at Rodriguez’s home run rates using only his performance on the road during each of those three-year spans:
- SEA ’98-00: 13.61 PA/HR
- TEX ’01-’03: 14.76 PA/HR
- NY ’04-’06: 18.68 PA/HR
Here we see that Rodriguez was a better home-run hitter on the road during his last three “clean” seasons with the Mariners than he was during his three drug years with the Rangers. Those two periods offer a particularly strong comparison because Rodriguez spent all six years in the AL West. Thus, save for moving roughly 12 percent of his road games (10 of 81 annually) from Texas (as a visiting Mariner) to Seattle (as a visiting Ranger), his road games were played in essentially identical environments.
Rodriguez went deep on the road approximately 8 percent less often as a Ranger while playing 12 percent of his road games in a less friendly home-run environment. Given that his Ranger years coincided with his peak-age years (ages 25 to 27), during which an increase in power would have been expected even without the help of illegal substances or a friendlier home park, it’s difficult to attribute any of his overall increase in power during those years to the drugs.
In fact, glancing back at those road rates above, there’s a superficial appearance of a power decline beginning, not with his first “clean” season in New York in 2004, but with his arrival in Texas in 2001, which is when Rodriguez claimed he started using performance-enhancers. That decline may be superficial in the above numbers, but in reality it ran much deeper, as I first reported in an analysis I did of Rodriguez’s career trends for Bronx Banter following the 2004 season. That piece centered around what I referred to as, “a minor, but still unsettling downward trend in Rodriguez’s offensive numbers” that “began with Alex’s first season in Texas in 2001, but was disguised by his move from the pitcher-friendly Safeco Park . . . to the [hitter-friendly] Ballpark at Arlington.”
I detected this trend—which began with Rodriguez’s age-24 season in 2000, his last with the Mariners, continued through his three seasons in Texas, and concluded with his first season as a Yankee in 2004—in several park-adjusted, total-offense rate stats, including Baseball Prospectus’s Equivalent Average (EqA), Baseball-Reference’s adjusted OPS (OPS+), and Bill James’ Offensive Winning Percentage (OWP). Consider the following progression from 2000 to 2004, with Rodriguez’s three Texas seasons in bold:
EQA: .343, .331, .322, .320, .309
OPS+: 167, 164, 152, 148, 133
OWP: .770, .749, .705, .697, .654
I could have listed other stats that exhibit the same trend, both adjusted and non-adjusted (WARP, Runs Created, Runs Created Against Average, Runs Created Per Game, unadjusted OPS, Gross Production Average, etc.), but there was no need. The trend was real and four years running.
That analysis of Rodriguez’s performance trends was untainted by any knowledge or suspicion of his drug use while with the Rangers and, just as I have now done four years hence, wrote off the apparent surge in Rodriguez’s numbers while in Texas as park-driven while digging beneath those gaudy counting stats to reveal a modest decline in his overall production during his three years in Texas.
Since joining the Yankees, Rodriguez has enjoyed the two best seasons of his career, both of which supposedly came without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Consider how his MVP seasons of 2005 and 2007 compare with the five seasons listed above:
Put this all together, and it’s clear that, if he is indeed telling the truth about his drug use being limited to his three years in Texas, the only noticeable benefit Alex Rodriguez derived from his experimentations with banned substances was his ability to play 485 of the Rangers’ 486 games during his three years with the club. That’s no small thing. There are some who believe that the must undervalued statistic in baseball is games played. It’s irrefutable that Rodriguez’s ability to take the field every day as a Ranger enabled him to put up the remarkable counting stats he compiled in a Texas uniform, chief among them his 57 home runs in 2002. Still, there’s no evidence that the drugs made him any more powerful, and significant evidence that his rate of production actually declined during his doping years.
Rather, it was the ballpark, not the drugs, that seems to have been the key to Rodriguez’s statistical surge (34 of his 57 homers in 2002 came in Arlington where he homered once every 10.6 PA vs. once every 15.7 PA on the road in 2002). Whether or not that’s enough to convince anyone, myself included, that his statistics remain “untainted” is, unfortunately, another matter entirely and one far less likely to be settled in Rodriguez’s favor.