A-Rod Isn't Same Hitter, 600 or Not
While most of the questions surrounding him lately have asked whether or not he is pressing to get his 600th homer, what we also may need to accept is that Rodriguez is just not the prolific home run hitter he used to be. He is too talented a player to ever count out, and I won't call this his official demise, but at 35 years old, A-Rod's swing is showing some sure warning signs of decline.
Last October, he was a superstar player as locked in as we've ever seen in the postseason. Rodriguez's swing, his balance and his timing were perfect on seemingly every pitch. His surge down the stretch and explosive postseason then temporarily erased concerns about his health, links to performance-enhancing drugs and age. But now, with the stretch run here in 2010, there are facts to be faced. Alex Rodriguez, aside from his still strong RBI total and barring a massive late-season surge, is going to be have the most pedestrian season of his career.
There will be two camps when it comes to A-Rod on this debate. Some will defend him blindly, while others will say steroids and move on. His use of PEDs, and the impact of being off of them, is a never-ending debate. But, what is hard to deny upon examination of his swing throughout the season is that it is no longer the efficient, balanced and explosive swing we are used to seeing.
To put it as simply as possible, A-Rod's bat speed is not the same, and neither is his ability to consistently generate powerful swings. Rather than debate about what caused this, let's dig into what the problem exactly is. Mechanically speaking, the questions are where has that bat speed gone and why is he not generating the same levels of power. Essentially, it all comes down to his lower half. When he's right, no hitter has the balance and strength in the lower half that he does.
If you look back at his playoff home runs when he was driving the ball out to right-center field, A-Rod's swing looked effortless mainly because of his strong base. He had what every hitter strives for, and that's a lower half providing the power and the ability to let his hands fly through the zone. The swing we see from Rodriguez now is one more reliant on his upper body, with far less explosive torque and his hips following his stride. It's more spread out and far less compact in every way. Obviously, with all that said, questions about whether his now famous troublesome hip has anything to do with his problems immediately arise, but there's really no way to know for sure.
Without creating that coiled spring effect before he releases his hands and with less drive of the hips toward the baseball, bat speed is going to suffer. And while there is no official measurement of actual bat speed available, we've seen Rodriguez get beat more often by the fastball without that powerful base from which to hit. It's just not possible to produce the same bat speed.
The key to all this is Rodriguez's leg kick, something that has been an on-again, off-again part of his swing for years. This season it's become a major part of the problem for him. With that leg kick, he is leaking much of his power to his front side, leaving much less flexion and strength on that back leg. Not only that, but the kick, which he uses as a timing device, is making it much more difficult for him to get his foot down on time and spin on the inside pitch consistently.
Last October, A-Rod was hitting in such a compact zone and staying so centered over his lower half, it became nearly impossible to get him out consistently. Now, he's more upright and not sitting on that back leg, losing that power on his front side. The result is a far less fluid and much more mechanical, clunky-looking swing in which there is less weight put on his back leg and more work done with his arms and shoulders.
The results of all that? Aside from the obvious, him having just 16 home runs in the beginning of August, both his average home run distance and exit speed off the bat on his home runs are down compared to his last two seasons. According to HitTrackerOnline.com, the average speed off the bat on A-Rod's home runs in 2010 is 101.7 mph. In 2009, the exit speed was 104 mph and in 2008 it was 106.7 mph.
For comparison's sake, only one Yankee who has gone yard this year has a lower number this season. His name? Brett Gardner.
On its own, it's difficult to know what to make of those numbers. But, with what we now know about A-Rod's mechanical issues, it gives more clarity to his problems. While there are certainly other factors in play, the biggest issue facing him right now is producing exit speed off the bat -- something that is a result of diminished bat speed.
To sum it up, A-Rod's problems are mechanical in nature. Why his mechanics have failed him is up for debate, but Rodriguez has battled problems with the timing of his leg kick before, and it has never had such an extreme impact on his power stroke like it is this season. You have to wonder if, at his age, Rodriguez is simply not as capable of having the powerful lower half and thus able to get his hands through the zone as quickly.
If you're an optimistic person, and expect the Rodriguez of old to return, what you'll see is a smaller, abbreviated leg kick where he has very little movement in his lower half before he drives his hips at the ball. You'll also see his head stay much more centered over the middle of his body and far less upper body involvement. If he can accomplish all that, we'll see his bat speed return and the more prolific home run numbers will follow.
However, the reality is that it's increasingly likely that we've seen the last of Alex Rodriguez as a dominant offensive force. The hitter he is now is far from washed up, but at his age, and with his lower half seeming to fail him at least in comparison to how it once helped him, you have to begin to wonder if those power numbers will ever fully return.
Frankie Piliere spent the last three seasons working as a scout, most recently in the professional scouting department for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He now serves as the National Baseball Analyst here at FanHouse.