When it came out in late January that Alex Rodriguez had been working out with Barry Bonds in California in preparation for his return, the report was met with a reaction of mostly bad steroid jokes and indifference from writers and fans alike. When Bonds piped up recently in support of A-Rod, saying that MLB and its fans should celebrate him reaching and passing Willie Mays' mark of 660 home runs, that story was met with a similar reaction. Today, coming off a red hot week that has earned him a boatload of mostly begrudging praise and may earn him AL Player of the Week honors, it may be time to stop ignoring the A-Rod-Bonds offseason connection.
After yesterday afternoon's series finale in Tampa, A-Rod is hitting a robust .316/.447/.711 in 47 plate appearances. He ranks inside the top 10 in MLB in R (10), HR (4), RBI (11), and SLG, and inside the top 5 in BB rate (19.1%) and ISO (.395). To say he's exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for his production would be a gross understatement. He's been the unquestioned best position player on the Yankees through 12 games, the undeniable MVP of the team. Sample size being what it is, it's been incredible to see what he's done at his age, with his injury history, and with as much time away from the game as he's had over the last year and change.
It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to say we haven't seen a performance like this from a hitter at this age since the final years of Bonds' career, which brings us back to that connection. Could there have been more to those offseason workouts than just getting into shape and getting back into a hitting routine? Could Bonds have imparted some wisdom on A-Rod on how to be an effective and even dangerous hitter at this age? Knowing what we know about Bonds' late years, from a strictly baseball production standpoint, there are some parallels that can be drawn.
Bonds was a ridiculously good hitter. Those elite natural hitting skills, both mechanically and approach-wise, are part of what made him a great 5-tool player early in his career and such a devastating power threat even in his final years as he played into his early 40s. While his batting average dipped below .300 and his slugging percentage below .600 in those last few years, a likely byproduct of the natural physical skill deterioration and loss of bat speed that always comes with a player in his 40s, Bonds maintained the ability to be incredibly productive by using his great hitting instincts to become more selective.
If Bonds couldn't get to every pitch the way he used to, he was going to make sure he got to the pitches he knew he could still hit and made those swings count. Look at this final year in 2007. He had 28 homers, a 27.7% BB rate, an 11.3% K rate that was below his career average, and a minuscule 4.4% swinging strike rate. The PITCHf/x numbers don't go back far enough to do multi-season comparisons, but in general Bonds swung less at pitches in and outside of the strike zone than he did earlier in his career. His approach was based around out-thinking the opposing pitcher, getting himself into a count where he knew he was getting the pitch he wanted, zeroing in on a spot where he knew he could crush that pitch, and if he didn't get it there taking a walk and not wasting swings. When you look at the numbers he put up in his final season, it sure seems like that approach was working for him.
Compare that approach and Bonds' results to what we're seeing from A-Rod today. Like '07 Bonds, A-Rod is swinging at far fewer pitches than he ever has before. His 39.9% swing rate is well below his career average of 44.0%, and his 23.0% swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is his lowest personal rate since PITCHf/x started tracking that stat. His 19.1% BB rate would be a new career high by a wide margin if it held out over the course of the whole season, and between the high LD and FB rates (combined 73.9%) and the force with which he's hit a lot of his home runs, the circumstantial and statistical SSS evidence adds up to suggest A-Rod is following the same approach of zeroing in on a certain pitch in a certain location, unleashing when he gets it, and taking the pitch and working a walk if he doesn't.
Look at his swing plot so far. That's incredibly disciplined and indicative of a hitter who's making a conscious effort to limit his swings to good hitter's pitches. There's the breaking stuff down and out of the zone that's being swung at and missed a lot, but that's something that happens to every hitter no matter how old he is. What's important to note here is the fact that A-Rod isn't expanding on the corners and isn't chasing up in the zone. He isn't playing into whatever pitchers are trying to do to get him out. Instead he's staying focused on the meaty part of the zone, forcing them to throw strikes there, and making them pay when they throw him the pitch he's looking for.
To be fair, it is worth noting that A-Rod has not matched Bonds in the low strikeout/low whiff departments. Alex does sport a pretty hefty 31.9% K rate and a 14.7% whiff rate that is 3+ points higher than his career high. This could be attributable to natural decline in physical skills and bat speed, extended rust from being away from the game for so long, or a combination of both. There is also the possibility, based on these numbers, that A-Rod may even be doing a little guessing up there. If he's up there looking for something and doesn't get it, it would make sense that he'd be swinging and missing at that pitch, especially if it's something offspeed and he was thinking fastball.
If we want to try to draw any meaningful conclusion from those SSS numbers, perhaps they suggest that A-Rod doesn't have quite the natural hitting skills still intact that Bonds did in his later years. He can certainly work counts, identify pitches, and do damage on bad ones like Bonds did, but maybe he just doesn't have the ability to make contact like he used to or to recognize and lay off those pitches down and out of the zone that are not ideal. There's certainly nothing wrong with not being as good as Barry Bonds, not when you're producing at the level that A-Rod has been over these first 12 games. It will be interesting to see how this early trend develops as the season goes on though. If A-Rod really is trying to follow the teachings of Bonds, we should continue to see the high walks and high power output. If that comes with more strikeouts, so be it.
There's no way to know for sure if there really is any connection between A-Rod's workouts with Bonds and his blazing hot start. Only those 2 know what they talked about and worked on, and I'm sure A-Rod isn't going to tell the media exactly what he's trying to do at the plate and expose his approach to the competition. This is admittedly me making the connection based on the numbers fitting the idea and we'll need more than 12 games of numbers to say anything with any kind of decisiveness. But considering how low the bar was being set for Alex before ST started and how fantastic he's been, it seems like as plausible an explanation as any. If A-Rod really did take some tips from Bonds and apply them as another guy trying to stay productive into his 40s, that's pretty cool.