The role of Adam Dunn will be played by Alex Rodriguez

Coming into the 2015 season Alex Rodriguez was one of the most difficult players in baseball to project. He was clearly one of the best talents of all-time, but that talent was tainted by his checkered past. Father Time was catching up to him, but he had also been forcibly given a year off to rest and heal.

The smart money was on Rodriguez faltering considering his age, injury history, and his failure to impress as a 37-year-old in 2013. However, he looked good in the spring and there was some optimism he could be a real contributor for the Yankees as opposed to an overpaid anchor/PR nightmare.

It is too early to make broad statements with any kind of confidence, but at the very least it appears that A-Rod has something left to give. So far he’s produced a .267/.411/.600 line and leads the American League in walks. It would be unfair to expect that kind of production going forward, but he’s demonstrated the ability to get on base and hit monster home runs and those are both excellent signs. In short, the tools are mostly still there.

I say mostly because there is one concern with Rodriguez early-his ability to make contact. So far he has posted a 28.6% strikeout rate which would be by far the highest of his career if it stood up. There’s no guarantee that it will, but the ability to get the bat to the ball is something that can drop off later in a player’s career, and it also stabilizes relatively early in the year.

Rodriguez has actually never been an elite contact hitter. He hasn’t posted a strikeout rate lower than 15.4% in any season of his career and his contact rate has never reached 80% (since 2002 when those numbers first became available). What he has done is do a great deal of damage whenever he manages to square up the ball.

As a player ages his skills are bound to erode, but this erosion is more problematic in some areas than others. Because Rodriguez’s has such unbelievable power, when some of it is stolen from him there is still plenty left. However, when some of his contact ability abandons him, the void left behind could carve out a major hole in his game.

In order to help conceptualize where A-Rod’s problematic whiffing so far in 2015 could take him I chose to compare his plate discipline numbers this year to Adam Dunn, a known master of swinging at air. The chart below compares Rodriguez this year to Dunn in 2014, his last year in the MLB.

Player Swing% Outside-the-Zone Contact% In-the-Zone Contact% Total Contact% Swinging Strike %
Adam Dunn (2014) 40.2% 46.3% 79.1% 68.8% 12.3%
Alex Rodriguez (2015) 41.9% 45.2% 76.3% 65.6% 14.6%

Last year Dunn went on to post a .219/.337/.415 line and a 112 wRC+, which is pretty respectable for an aging slugger on the way out. Before the season there are plenty of Yankees fans who would have happily taken that from A-Rod.

It’s important to note that the comparison here is based on what happens at the plate alone. Rodriguez could reasonably be expected to create more hits on balls in play and he is even a threat to best Dunn’s .196 ISO based on what we’ve seen thus far.

Perhaps we should not be surprised to see a 39-year-old five-time home run leader sell out for power in his twilight years. That kind of approach helped extend Raul Ibanez’s career far longer than anyone would have predicted.

Nonetheless it is rather alarming to see baseballs elude the bat of A-Rod as consistently as they did one of the greatest all-or-nothing sluggers of this era. It’s still early enough in the year for this to turn to some degree, but it’s also fair to assume that the version of Rodriguez on display today is more three true outcomes guy than he used to be.

When Rodriguez returned to baseball in 2015 it was inevitable that he was going to be a different player, but it was hard to foresee exactly how that would manifest itself on the field. Most people expected him to change, it’s unlikely anyone expected him to change into Adam Dunn.

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