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Deleted Scenes: Crunching the numbers on A-Rod’s initial PED confession

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:

  2005 2007
EQA .351 .353
OPS+ 173 177
OWP .787 .780

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.

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Deleted Scenes: The Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips extensions

When Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips signed extensions on the same day, April 10, 2012, I wrote an analysis of their deals for SI.com. However, after discussion with my editor, I reworked the initial draft, dumping the nuts-and-bolts analysis of the two players and their contracts in favor of expanding my points about the impact of those extensions on the market for second baseman going forward. The published article can be read here. However, in light of the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade and news of the Reds’ interest in trading Phillips, I thought it would be worth posting the original draft here.

Tuesday was a bad day for any team hoping to fill an organization hole at second base by making a big free agent splash in the next couple of years as two of the top second basemen in baseball, Ian Kinsler of the Rangers and Brandon Phillips of the Reds, both signed contract extensions that will keep them under the control of their current teams through 2017. With those contracts, just two of the top eight second basemen in baseball over the last three seasons (per Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement) are due to become free agents before 2015, and of those two, one, the Phillies Chase Utley, has been diminished by a degenerative knee condition, and the other, the Yankees’ Robinson Cano, seems like a lock to be extended by his current team before reaching free agency after the 2013 season. That alone works in favor of both extensions, which were handed out by teams whose time is now, the two-time defending American League pennant winning Rangers and 2010 NL Central champion Reds.

On the surface, the extensions and the players who signed them are very similar. Both men are slick-fielding second basemen who have averaged in excess of 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases over the past six seasons, thanks in part to their hitting-friendly home ballparks. Phillips’ deal was for $72.5 million over six years. Kinsler’s was for $75 million over five years plus a club option for a sixth season. A closer look reveals a larger gap between the two men and the money they’ll make, though the difference in the latter corresponds appropriately to the former.

First, the contracts. Phillips’ extension is being reported as a six-year deal, but the first year of that deal is 2012, and he’s making effectively the same salary on his new deal as he was making on his old one, which was set to expire after this, his option year. Phillips’ 2012 salary increased from $12.25 million to $12.5 million with his new deal. When you’re talking about big money contracts in major league baseball, a quarter million dollars is a rounding issue, so, really, Phillips’ contract is for $60 million over five years, significantly less than the $75 million Kinsler is guaranteed over the next five seasons (which includes a $5 million buyout for his team option in 2018, or year six of his new deal). Indeed, if you lop off that buyout, Kinsler’s average salary over the next five seasons will be $14 million, while the top salary of Phillips’ contract will be the $14 million he’ll earn in 2017, the result of a series of $1 million increases starting from his $10 million salary in 2013.

So, Kinsler will make more, but he’s also the better player, and the gap in quality between the two appears larger than the gap in their contracts. From that alone it seems safe to say that the Rangers will get more bang for their buck than the Reds. One of the ironies about the comparison between the two is that, while Phillips has won the Gold Glove in three of the last four seasons, advanced stats have shown Kinsler to be the better fielder in each of the last three years. Ultimate Zone Rating has Kinsler leading by a little, but John Dewan’s plus/minus system and the historical stats published in volume three of his Fielding Bible have Kinsler in front by a lot, having saved 47 runs to Phillips’ 18 over the last three seasons.

On the other side of the ball, the gap is easier to see. Over the past three seasons, Kinsler has averaged a .262/.352/.465 line with 24 home runs and 25 stolen bases, while Phillips has averaged a .284/.338/.445 line with 19 homers and 18 steals. Over that span, Kinsler leads Phillips in on-base percentage and slugging percentage despite hitting for an average 22 points lower. That shows you how much more patient and powerful Kinsler is at the plate. In two of those seasons, Kinsler hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases, and in the last two combined, he walked more than he struck out, setting a career-high with 87 unintentional walks in 2011. Phillips, meanwhile, has topped out at 20 homers, 25 steals and 45 unintentional walks over the last three years.

What’s more, Kinsler is one of the highest-percentage basestealers in the game. In 160 career attempts, Kinsler has been caught just 24 times, an 85 percent success rate. Phillips, by comparison, as been caught 21 times in the last two seasons in just 51 attempts. His resulting 59 percent success rate is poor enough that he would help his team more by never attempting another steal than he would by continuing to run into outs 31 percent of the time.

Add up Kinsler’s advantages at the plate, on the bases, and in the field, and it’s clear that he’s a significantly better player than Phillips despite being comparable on the surface. Using Baseball-Reference’s WAR (hereafter, bWAR), Kinsler has been worth an average of 4.7 wins above replacement to the Rangers over the last three years compared to an average of just 2.9 wins above replacement for Phillips over that same span. That’s not meant as a knock on Phillips. Only six second basemen in all of baseball have averaged more wins above replacement over the last three seasons: Cano, Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist, Kinsler, and Howie Kendrick, the last of whom is in a dead-heat with Phillips at 2.97 bWAR per year since 2009. Remove Utley, and that means there are just four second basemen in baseball who are clearly better than Brandon Phillips. As for Kinsler, who ranks fifth on that list, he’s closer to the top dog, Cano, than he is to Kendrick and Phillips.

Kinsler also has the advantage of being almost exactly a year younger than Phillips, who will turn 31 at the end of June, though with Kinsler’s option, both could turn 36 before their contracts expire. That pushes both contracts right up against the danger zone for middle infielders in terms of decline, but that isn’t a major gamble given the potential for both men to earn their keep in their early 30s. However, because Kinsler is a better player, he has more room for decline, again not only justifying his larger price tag but making his larger deal, which would be worth $80 million over the next six seasons if his $10 million option for 2018 is picked up, the better bet to earn out on the field.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Deleted Scenes

 

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