DUNEDIN, FL - AUGUST 12: Designated hitter Alex Rodriguez of the Tampa Yankees doubles in the third inning against the Dunedin Blue Jays August 12, 2011 at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Florida. Rodriguez played during a rehabilitation assignment. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
As a baseball player and figure, Alex Rodriguez is different from the norm, but not totally unique. Almost equally reviled and celebrated by casual fans and sportswriters, he is a no-doubt Hall-of-Famer based on his stats and a consistent lightning rod for controversy among talking heads. He's the pre-eminent power hitter of the 2000's and a person who has constantly struggled to appease fans and their mountainous expectations. Just about everything that can be written about Alex, known worldwide by the less-than-clever sobriquet of "A-Rod," has already been written.
But, for the sake of argument, say you've never had any interest in baseball, or were trapped in a Chilean mine for the past eighteen years. Here's a recap of Alex Rodriguez's career, albeit a heavily abridged one:
First overall draft pick at shortstop! Sunny Miami to drab Seattle! Lives up to the hype! Best player in the AL in his first full season! Phenom! Homers, steals, defense, the whole package! The 40/40 club! Ken, Randy, and Alex! Whoops, not any more! 2000 ALCS vs. New York, so close to a pennant! Greatness! Goodbye Seattle! Everything's bigger in Texas, including the contracts! A quarter of a billion dollars and a decade! Living up to expectations with three of the best seasons by an infielder in history and an MVP! Can't make the playoffs in Arlington! Traded to the Red Sox! Just kidding! Traded to the Yankees! Moving to third base! Best friends with Derek Jeter! Glove-slapping and a broken Curse of the Bambino! Another MVP! Criticisms in '06! Only 4.3 fWAR! Now it's a rebound year! Third MVP! Yet another ridiculous season! Another Red Sox World Series! Another ridiculous contract! A-Rod and Jeter break up! A-Rod and wife break up! Madonna! Excellence! Hits! Secrets revealed: PEDs back with the Rangers! Finally wins the World Series! Centaur paintings! Home runs! Injuries! 600 homers! More injuries!
That's about it, right? With all the stuff that surrounds Alex Rodriguez, all the narratives, all the comments and criticisms and the mountains and mountains of offensive statistics, it's tough to see the forest for the trees sometimes. So, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk briefly about something that took up a grand total of two characters in my history of Alex's career (one instance of the number "40"), yet was a continued point of overlooked excellence for much of his career: his base-stealing ability.
The shock of it may have worn off in time, but we should all remember that Alex Rodriguez was (and is, in many ways) a physical marvel. Much is made of "five-tool" players, but early in his career, Alex didn't have tools. He had jacked-up power tools like laser saws and nuclear hammers and cosmic-vampire speed.
One of those tools, but never the most prominent, was his speed on the basepaths. Alex could run, and he used this ability to steal more than a few bases, including a career-high 46 in 1998.
It's generally accepted in sabermetric circles that the break-even point for stolen base efficiency is around 75%, based on win expectancy charts and total return on the risk of getting caught.
In his seven years with the Seattle Mariners, Alex Rodriguez stole 133 bases in 169 attempts. That's good for a 73% stolen-base percentage. In his three years with the Texas Rangers, A-Rod stole 44 bases in 54 attempts, and that's good for a 77% stolen-base percentage. And in nine years (to date) with the New York Yankees, Alex Rodriguez stole 139 bases in 167 attempts, for an 83% stolen-base percentage.
(For what it's worth, Alex also has been 8-for-11 in stealing bases in the postseason, a 73% success rate, but you all know the narrative about him folding in the playoffs. That's still a pretty great number compared to other players.)
That puts him on the leaderboards with a total SB count of 316, and a total stolen base percentage of 81% or so. To put this in perspective, among currently active MLB players, Alex's 81% lifetime SB% is good enough to put him in the Top 20. He resides in a group with players who are actually known for their basestealing prowess, guys like Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn. He's in the same class of success as a basestealer as guys like Ichiro, Crawford, and Ellsbury. He's also 11th among active players in total stolen bases, which isn't just a product of his longevity in the league. Alex has averaged 21 stolen bases per 162 games on the field, and as any fantasy baseball player will tell you, that's a pretty great amount. Especially for someone who's characterized as a power hitter.
Most tellingly, I think, is that Alex Rodriguez has improved as a basestealer as his career has gone on, at least in terms of efficiency. He may be a long ways away from his single-season high of 46 steals, but he no longer costs his team runs by getting caught too often either. in 2012, his 19th major league season, Rodriguez stole 11 bases, and was caught exactly once. For those of you calculating at home, that's about a 92% success rate. Any good baseball fan worth his salt can tell you how valuable that is, whether from a saber standpoint (that's a heck of a lot better than 75%) or from an old-school standpoint (mixin' it up and takin' the extra base and causin' havoc with the pitcher).
Beyond basestealing alone, Alex has been worth 56 runs as a baserunner according to Baseball-Reference's Rbaser ... which, I think works out to about five and a half wins ... just as a runner, over his career. Non-stolen-base baserunning has never been Alex's forte, and according to UBR, Alex has been below-average over his last four seasons. Nevertheless, as his foot speed diminished, he's become a smarter and more efficient base-stealer with the Yankees, and it helps make up for his shortcomings as an overall baserunner at the age of 36.
Alex Rodriguez was a good base-stealer early in his career due to his speed, and he's increased his efficiency over time, to a very high level. I don't mean to say that Alex Rodriguez's running accomplishments are world-shattering or narrative-breaking on their own. What I do mean to say is that when a player of Rodriguez's caliber is so outstandingly great offensively, and so incredibly divisive and analyzed personally, sometimes a particular skill or part of his game is lost to the story. Alex Rodriguez isn't as good of a baserunner, historically, than say, Rickey Henderson. But he's been a more efficient basestealer than Derek Jeter and more prolific than Carlos Beltran. And that's pretty cool, too.