Alex Rodriguez's return from a one-year suspension has been one of the most intriguing stories of the 2015 baseball season. Rodriguez has assumed the role of full-time DH for the New York Yankees and has immediately become one of the best hitters on that team. His OPS+ of 152, 10 home runs and 19 walks are the second highest on the Yankees. Rodriguez has also found himself in the middle of another controversy, albeit this time not one of his own making. The Yankees ownership has balked at paying Rodriguez a bonus, for which they are contractually obligated, for hitting his 660th home run, tying Willie Mays on the all-time home run list.
While Rodriguez's exploits with the bat have been impressive, his success in winning back the affection of Yankee fans, and even some fans who hate that team, has been even more impressive. Rodriguez has learned that clashing with, and showing up, the Steinbrenner brothers is something that many baseball fans appreciate. For Yankee haters in particular, Rodriguez's success this year, and the embarrassment that success has caused Yankees management, is probably very dissonant.
Rodriguez's 2015 season is also significant because it is another strange new chapter in baseball's steroid era. Although dozens of players were involved with PED abuse in the years from roughly 1994-2010, the three biggest names associated with PED use from that era were Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rodriguez. These three were among the very best players of the postwar era, and if PED use is not held against them, probably the three best players of the last 40 years. Bonds's WAR of 162 is the highest during that period, followed by Clemens at 139 and then Rodriguez at 117.
Although they all have impressive numbers, all three of those players have been vilified by MLB and most fans. Their extraordinary numbers are viewed as inflated by PED use, despite playing in an era when PED use was extremely widespread, meaning they played against players who were also juicing, as well as some evidence that PED use does not influence performance as much as widely assumed. In recent years, these three players have born much of the brunt of steroid related anger. Clemens and Bonds both retired after the 2007 season, but after three years on the Hall of Fame ballot, neither has received even 40 percent of the votes. Seventy-five percent is needed to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez was, until this year, broadly disliked by fans, even by Yankee fans. He was constantly derided as a steroid uses, called names like "A-Roid," and in New York often described as not a true Yankee -- whatever that means.
Not only did Rodriguez miss all of 2014, but from 2010-2012 was at best an above average, but not star level player. In an injury-shortened 2013, however, Rodriguez was terrible, hitting .244 with only seven home runs in 181 plate appearances. Rodriguez is now on pace for his best season since 2008, when he was 32 years old. Rodriguez's strong 2015, assuming he continues to hit for the rest of the year, will force fans and writers to rethink much of what they think they know about PED use.
Essentially given the numbers he is putting up, there are two possible conclusions. Either Rodriguez is back on PEDs, which would be an extraordinary stupid decision by the controversial slugger, or he is as good a hitter as many thought he was before he was linked to PED use. If the former is found to be true, Rodriguez would probably be banned from baseball for life and take his place as one of the most hated figures in American sports. Rodriguez knows that, so it is unlikely he would take such a foolish risk.
If, as is more likely, Rodriguez is not back on PEDs, but is simply a great hitter who has worked hard at his craft for most of his life, then things are different. If this is is the case, then the decisions by Bonds, Rodriguez, Clemens and so many others to break the rules and use PEDs were still mistakes, but should not cloud our awareness of just how good those players were. If a 39-year-old, PED-free Rodriguez -- after a year without playing -- can still hit this well, that should be taken as evidence that he is as good a player as his numbers suggest. It also forces thoughtful fans to rethink their dismissals of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and others. Someday in the not-too-distant future, Clemens and Bonds may make it to the Hall of Fame. If that happens, they will owe Alex Rodriguez and his 2015 season just a little gratitude.