Career WAR shows Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez is elite

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For the Sun-Times

Only eight hitters in major-league history have hit 600 or more home runs, including the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who passed Willie Mays for No. 4 on the all-time list by hitting No. 661 last week.

Five of the eight — Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome and Sammy Sosa — had careers that extended through 2007 or later and built their numbers in the home-run surge of the 1990s and 2000s. Only Babe Ruth (career ended in 1935), Hank Aaron (1976) and Mays (1973) played in earlier times.

The list includes four of the five all-time leaders in wins above replacement among position players, with No. 1 Ruth, (714 homers, 163.1 fWAR as a position player, plus another 20.6 fWAR as a pitcher), No. 2 Bonds (record 762 homers, 162.4 fWAR),

No. 3 Mays (660 homers, 156.2 fWAR) and No. 5 Aaron (755 homers, 142.6 fWAR).

It includes No. 34 Griffey (630 homers, 83.6 fWAR), a cinch Hall of Famer who will be on the ballot for the first time in 2016, and it includes a couple of players with Hall credentials closer to the borderline. Thome (612 homers, 72.9 fWAR) is above the 65.9 average fWAR for a Hall of Fame first baseman, but former Cub Sosa (609 homers, 58.4 fWAR) falls below the 73.2 average for a Hall of Fame right fielder without even worrying about any debate over performance-enhancing drugs.

What of A-Rod? If you set aside issues of PEDs, a strictly by-the-numbers look places him on a firm middle ground in the 600-homer group, and that’s a very strong position in baseball history. His career 116.6 fWAR ranks 11th all-time among position players. It’s 26 wins behind Aaron but 33 better than Griffey.

Rodriguez’s career .941 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) translates to a 143 OPS+. That means he produced offense at 143 percent of league average. Ruth (206), Bonds (182), Mays (156), Aaron (155) and Thome (147) were higher, with Griffey (136) and Sosa (128) lower.

Rodriguez makes up a lot of ground on defense, where he and center fielders Mays and Griffey are the only up-the-middle defenders in the group. A-Rod played shortstop for the Mariners and Rangers before moving to third for the Yankees. His 11.0 defensive WAR ranks second to Mays’ 18.1 among the 600-homer players, followed by Bonds (6.7) and Griffey (1.3). The rest are in negative numbers.

A-Rod has been criticized for his postseason drop-offs, with an .833 OPS in 326 playoff plate appearances, 108 points below his regular-season production. In the regular season, his production has been normal for a hitter of his caliber, with a .959 OPS in the high-leverage situations that add the most to a team’s win expectancy.

Rodriguez hasn’t been Ruth, Bonds, Mays or Aaron, but the only other position player to crack that group is Ty Cobb, whose 151.1 career fWAR falls between Mays and Aaron. By the numbers, though, he outranks the rest of the 600-homer club with a career that has been spectacular, if sometimes frustrating, to watch.

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