Leaner, more aggressive Alex rediscovers power to all fields
By JOEL SHERMAN
Published : April 15, 2007 / New York Post
Jason Giambi remembers chatting with Alex Rodriguez around the batting cage when A-Rod was still a Ranger. Giambi told A-Rod that when you combined his natural swing with the jetstream in right-center field in his power-friendly home park that 50, 60, maybe even 70 homers were possible.
That is why Giambi became increasingly dismayed last season as Rodriguez's opposite-field power diminished sharply, especially since Yankee Stadium, too, favors those who can use right field.
We have endlessly delved into A-Rod's mind to unearth why he did not punish pitchers in 2006 with a consistency to honor his skill. But the answer might have been more physical than mental. Even Rodriguez has conceded his swing was off last year. He routinely got trapped with his foot too high in his leg-kick mechanism as the pitch hurled toward home. That forced him to hurriedly slam the foot, open up his front half too quickly and dampen one of his most precious skills: his ability to stay on the ball and drive it with rare force to the opposite field.
Rodriguez has broken out this season with a major league-best seven homers. Most heartening in this small sample was that three homers went to either center or right.
"A-Rod does not have a swing like Manny Ramirez; he is a front-foot guy and he's a little pitchable," said an NL executive. "But he can stay in the middle of the field and have a 50-homer season. How many guys have that kind of power? When he stays to center and right-center, he's lethal."
Last season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, just 13 of A-Rod's 35 homers (37.1 percent) went either to center or right. The only lower percentage (34.8) in his career came in 1997 when he was 21 and had a disabled-list-interrupted campaign.
More revealing is that Rodriguez's two highest-percentage seasons were 2003 and 2005, his MVP years. Because the landing places of homers are somewhat subjective, we asked not just Elias, but Dave Smith of Retrosheet for the data, as well. In 2003 for Texas, A-Rod hit 47 homers and both services agree he hit a career-best 57.4 percent (27) to center or right. In 2005 for the Yanks, A-Rod hit 48 homers. Elias' data showed 23 (47.9 percent) were not pulled while Retrosheet's was 24 (50 percent).
"A-Rod can hit the ball out of the park anywhere because of his plate coverage, reach and power," a scout said. "It is clear he is best when he uses all fields."
A-Rod's most heralded homer this season was his walkoff grand slam April 7 against Baltimore. How strong is Rodriguez? Few players could homer to center on such a frigid day. A-Rod struck the front of the black. On a hot, humid day that ball is 20-30 feet into the black. All of Rodriguez's record-tying three walkoff slams have traveled to right of center field.
Yet A-Rod's most illustrative homer, to date, was his first, a two-run, eighth-inning shot on Opening Day against Tampa Bay's Juan Salas that actually traveled to left-center.
"It was a slider down and away, a perfect pitch, and A-Rod's strength is so great that he was still able to keep it near the middle of the field with power," said an AL executive who saw the homer. "When he gets his arms extended, you are in trouble."
Yes, extension. Rodriguez is 12 pounds lighter, noticeably leaner in his upper half, his body fat down from around 18 percent to 10. Last season, apparently to fit the mode of a power-hitting third baseman, A-Rod foolishly bulked up and removed the quick-twitch athleticism that had made him a marvel at his size. Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said, "the biggest factor in why [A-Rod] is having success is that he is flexible again."
The grand slam was on the kind of above-the-waist 96 mph, two-strike fastball (from Baltimore closer Chris Ray) that Rodriguez simply could not catch up to last season. That he also has homered on Salas' slider, Boof Bonser's changeup and Sidney Ponson's split emphasizes the renewed balance and range in his swing.
"He had a lot of upper-body stiffness last year," a scout said. "His swing was not free and easy. He lost quickness. Pitchers were beating him with pitches they should never have beaten him with. He saw that he was tight and stiff and acted. All you had to do was watch him take batting practice this spring to see the difference. He was launching balls everywhere."
The homer off Salas also came on the first pitch. Last season, A-Rod was guessing a lot, perhaps to counter a defective swing. He struck out a career-high 45 times looking. He has struck out just twice looking in 10 games this year. And, of the six 2007 homers, Rodriguez had hit two on the first pitch and another on the first strike.
"We talked in the offseason about attacking the strike zone," Long said. "Why give the pitcher 0-1 and have an uphill battle? He will get walks because he will fear them out of the strike zone. This way he is not behind in the count, he will decrease strikeouts and gain more chances to do damage."
So what could an A-Rod who is leaner, more aggressive and more willing to use the whole field do?
"It could be one of the best years ever," Long said. "I think it is going to be up to the caliber of his MVP seasons. If he stays even close to where he's at now, it is going to be a lot of fun to watch."