I hate #600
It's starting to get hugely frustrating to watch A-Rod try for home run number 600. And that frustration isn't directed at him, but rather at the whole process. It's easy for me to imagine the pressure he feels before each at-bat. A home run isn't like a hit, where even the worst slump will produce a few amid the doldrums. A hit is basic. A hit will happen by accident. A home run, on the other hand, takes a near perfect at-bat. Nobody expects a home run. The odds are too small.
The single best individual season for home runs in the history of baseball happened in 2001, when a juiced-up Barry Bonds hit 73. He connected for a long ball in approximately 11% of his plate appearances. The only other player to top the 10% mark in a full season was McGwire (another juicer) in 1998. Basically, nobody who has played without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs has ever hit a home run 10% of the time in even one season. Not Maris, not Ruth, not Aaron.
The overwhelming majority of players, even the great ones, actually hit a home run in less than 5% of plate appearances. For his career, Bonds hit one in 6.04% of plate appearances, or roughly 1 of every 20. Hank Aaron managed 5.4%. Babe Ruth was the highest ever, at 6.7%. For comparison's sake, A-Rod's current rate is 5.97%.
So to actively expect a home run in a single, isolated at-bat, like everyone does with A-Rod on the verge of 600, creates enormous pressure for a feat that is essentially pretty rare. He's stuck at 599, and the tantalizing milestone is clearly affecting his swing and his entire batting approach. And the circumstances don't help. Before every at-bat, the umpires actually switch out the regular baseballs with "marked" ones that have been prepared especially for his 600th home run. The game pauses while the exchange takes place, and creates an empty, pregnant space for the hype to develope. The PA announcers and the play-by-play men for tv and radio (both home and away) all build up the anticipation. The murmur grows in the crowd. The flashbulbs are prepared. This could be it. This could be number 600.
Try to think of something you can successfully pull off only once for every 20 attempts. I have a tiny rubber ball at work, and when I'm really bored, I try to bank it off a far wall, have it rebound onto the near wall, and go into the trash can. The throw has to be perfect. If it's well off, it sometimes won't even reach the near wall. If it's just slightly off, it might hit the rim of the can and bounce away. Needless to say, there are long droughts. When I'm on fire, I can maybe get three or four in a row.
Under normal circumstances, I can successfully get the ball in the can roughly once every 15 throws (accurate stats are unfortunately not kept). This is more frequent than A-Rod's home run rate, but for comparison's sake it'll have to do. Now, pretend that my skill at the double-wall-trash-throw (DWTT) became huge national news. The networks brought in cameras, ESPN carried every throw, and they even gave me special balls so that the event could be commemorated. An entire fan base lived and died on every throw. I just needed to make it in the can once, and it would all be over. Sweet relief would be mine. Oh, but two more things: I only have four throws per day, separated by anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour each, and thirty to fifty thousand people are watching live. Some are pulling for me with all their hearts, and some boo me before every throw and delight in my failure.
How would I fare? Answer: terribly. I guarantee my success rate would be much lower than the usual one out of 15. It might take me five years to actually make a single throw under those circumstances, even if I practiced like a madman in the off hours. The pressure in the single moment would be too great. When the cameras were rolling, and everyone held their breath, my precision would suffer. Every missed shot would be a lost opportunity, and the stakes would build for the next one. But what if that one misses too? What if this goes on indefinitely? I only have a 6.7% chance of making this shot when I'm by myself and nobody's looking. How the hell am I ever going to do it like this?
You can see how the psychological difficulty makes things worse. A home run, boiled down to its essentials, is a specialty play accomplished at extremely low rates by even the best practitioners. When all the media and spectator focus turns to A-Rod's particular prowess, and even a long RBI double is greeted with groans of disappointment, since it wasn't the milestone home run, the environment turns absurd. I want so badly for Alex to hit the damn thing and get it over with. So do a lot of fans. So does Alex. Unfortunately, that yearning only makes it more likely that the moment will be deferred over and over again. And so the circus continues, and builds on itself.
And lest we forget, it wasn't long ago that A-Rod was known as a choker. Before last season, he was a postseason pariah, at least in New York, and nobody had any faith in him to produce when it mattered. At the bottom of this whole delay in reaching 600 is the unspoken anxiety that the dormant part of A-Rod that fears pressure will be re-activated by this chase. Maybe the insecurities will come spilling forth, and maybe the clutch performer of last season will be nothing but a memory. The longer we wait, the more frightening it becomes.
Eventually, he'll hit the home run. It has to happen. But the more extended the whole thing becomes, the more his game will decline, and the more the Yankees will suffer. Since hitting #599, A-Rod is 5-for-20 and hitless in 9 plate appearances. He's knocked the ball out of the infield just twice since the road trip began in Cleveland. Pitchers are keeping the ball down and away, knowing he's chasing that elusive home run. They're reacting to the pressure and using it to their advantage. Also, nobody wants to be the guy who gave up number 600. Every pitcher is motivated to avoid that result. Almost no element in this whole fiasco favors A-Rod.
The only upside is that all the anticipation will finally reach a huge exploding point. It's sort of like soccer; we've been waiting forever for a goal, and when it comes we'll all go nuts. Or that's how the casual fan will react, at least. For my part, and the part of most Yankee fans, the home run will be greeted with a feeling more like relief. Rather than enjoyment, we'll beg the ball to get into the stands, sigh when it passes over the fence, and sink a little deeper in our couches and easy chairs. Vicarious tension will fade away. "Thank God that's over."
And see you at 700. See you at 762.