#MLBRank: We put A-Rod at No. 21, but his true rating is a PED puzzle

ByWallace Matthews ESPN logo
Friday, July 22, 2016

The collective baseball minds at ESPN have determined that only 20 players in the history of Major Baseball have been better than Alex Rodriguez.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the online encyclopedia of the sport, that encompasses some 18,485 players who have appeared in at least one major league game.

And yet, a case can be made that A-Rod was better than that, better statistically than at least two of the hitters ranked ahead of him -- Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe DiMaggio --and perhaps more than that, given that only three players in history have hit more home runs than Rodriguez's 696 or driven in more runs than his 2,084 and only nine had a higher career OPS than his .932.

Rodriguez's career WAR of 118.3 is higher than that of all but eight position players. It is nearly 10 points higher than that of Mickey Mantle and six points higher than that of Lou Gehrig. It is 35 points higher than that of Griffey Jr., his former teammate on the Seattle Mariners, who sits higher in our rankings, despite retiring with 66 fewer home runs, 248 fewer RBIs and a career batting average 11 points lower than A-Rod's .295.

That brings us to the essential problem with, and the tragedy of, Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez. No one knows how good he was or is or could have been because of what he once termed "the pink elephant in the room."

That curious animal, of course, was a euphemism for performance-enhancing drug violations, a crime against baseball that Rodriguez has copped to twice. And that is why, despite his incredible numbers on a baseball field, his number in our all-time rankings is a bit lower than you might expect.

Rodriguez's misdeeds off the field left many voters scratching their heads over where he belongs in baseball history and how many of his gaudy numbers can be trusted.I wrote a column about this in June 2015 on the occasion of his 3,000th hit. It is worth reading again, if only to remind us of what Rodriguez is and, more importantly, what he might have been.

Interestingly, strong indications of PED use were not enough to work against Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, who finished ahead of A-Rod. In both cases, the numbers are both too impressive to ignore and too ridiculous to fully trust -- for me, anyway.

For some reason, A-Rod's numbers did not work in his favor the same way. Perhaps after he retires and another 20 or so home runs are added to his total, a younger and presumably more permissive generation will see fit to rank him higher. Maybe he'll even, along with Bonds and Clemens, get serious consideration for the Hall of Fame, which at one time seemed to be the destination of all three.

There are other curiosities in the final voting, some of them no doubt generational. Were Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux really better pitchers than Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver? Was Mike Piazza, at No. 99, truly one of the 100 greatest ball players who ever lived? Was Griffey Jr. really a better player, by a considerable margin, than Rodriguez? Clearly, our voters put more trust in Griffey's numbers than in those of A-Rod, who bests him in virtually every offensive category.

Arguments such as that are what make lists such as this so popular and entertaining. They're the reason these polls will be done again and again by numerous outlets. No doubt, ESPN will do another one sometime in the future.

When we do, it will be interesting to note what a future generation sees when it looks at Rodriguez's career. Greatness? Artifice?

Or simply an unsolvable mystery, which, it seems, is how many of us view him now.