Atlas Slugged

Alex Rodriguez is one of the greatest Yankees ever. And the whole world is on his back?

Some people like to single out "late and close": the seventh inning or later and three runs or closer. By this definition, there is a wide gap between Rodriguez and David Ortiz. From 2002 through 2005 in those situations, Rodriguez has hit .276 with an on-base average of .392 and a slugging average of .553, quite respectable numbers. Still, they're not in the same league with Ortiz, who is .326, .408, and .724, though in fact Rodriguez's clutch numbers are much better than the other Red Sox slugger he is often compared with, Manny Ramirez, who was .270, .387, and .423.

Many others look to postseason games as a yardstick for clutch performance, which is a handy stick with which to bop A-Rod, who hit just .133 in the five games of last year's division series against the Anaheim Angels. Real fans, however, know that judging a player by a handful of postseason games is arbitrary and unfair. If Willie Mays's reputation were dependent on his postseason play, it would come down several notches. In 25 games, Mays batted 89 times with one home run and a BA of .247 and an OBP of only .337. Was Mays not a "clutch" player?

Actually, Rodriguez's postseason numbers aren't bad. He has appeared in 31 games, batted 118 times with six home runs for a .305 batting average and .393 on-base percentage. This puts him at least in a class with several all-time greats, including Joe DiMaggio (eight home runs, .271 BA, .338 OBP in 51 games), Reggie Jackson (18 homers, .278, .358 in 77 games), and Barry Bonds (nine home runs, .245, and .433 in 48 games—eight of Bonds's home runs came in the 2002 postseason, when he was alleged to have been pumped with performance-enhancing drugs).

There's really nothing wrong with A-Rod's postseason numbers; he has simply played fewer games than many others. Ortiz, for instance, has two more home runs than Rodriguez but has played in seven more games. A-Rod has slight edges over him in BA (.305—exactly his career average, thank you, Bill James—to Ortiz's .301) and OBP (.393 to .383). A few weeks ago, Dave Justice raised eyebrows on YES by knocking Rodriguez's ability to hit in the clutch. Just shows what a couple of World Series rings can do for a guy's ego: Justice played in 112 postseason games, with a .224 BA and a .335 OBP.

In a carefully thought-out chapter to the recent book Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver examines the evidence for clutch hitting in detail and concludes that "producing wins at the plate is about 70 percent a matter of overall hitting ability, 28 percent dumb luck, and perhaps 2 percent clutch or situational hitting skill." Clutch hitting probably exists, Silver thinks, but its impact on winning baseball games is marginal at best. "Fans tend to overrate clutch hitting," Silver told me, "because of the drama involved in a big ninth-inning hit. A three-run homer in the first inning can be just as important, but it isn't as memorable." True, but if Rodriguez starts hitting three-run homers in the first inning of playoff games, fans aren't going to complain they came too early in the game.

Considering all the hot-button issues Alex Rodriguez touches, they should call him "L-Rod," as in Lightning Rod. His recent road-trip disaster—one for 20 with 14 strikeouts and three consecutive at-bats without so much as a foul ball ("K-Rod," the Daily News headline gloated)—nearly drew more ink than the fact that the Yankees lost four of those six games. But if he plays well the rest of the way, he could still put the run on bilingual boobirds.

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