October 22, 2003
Can Of Corn
The Case for Pudge
More germane to the Web site at hand is that I've always preferred Ivan Rodriguez to Mike Piazza. I know that for most of their careers Piazza has dated more Playmates and put up notably better numbers with the bat in far less accommodating environments. I'm also aware that Piazza's defensive infirmities have been overstated in many circles. If pressed, I'll probably concede that Piazza's offense has been so otherworldly that it more than makes up for his paltry glovework and establishes him as the best catcher of his generation. But I still prefer Pudge. So please allow me to try to account for this particular taste of mine.
I'm an inveterate fan of Pudge Rodriguez, so seeing him thrive on the October stage has been a thrill for me. He's a joy to watch play baseball. He's one of those rare rah-rah, dirty-uniformed types that doesn't vaguely annoy me on some level. And I'm also a devotee of catchers as a species.
The caught-stealing at second base is one of my favorite plays in baseball. It's an unmercifully long throw for the catcher, but one that still requires exacting accuracy. And lots of things must happen for it to be successful--the pitcher's timely delivery to the plate, the catcher's throw and the infielders catch and tag all must be carried off posthaste. Add to the fact that it's almost always a close play, and you'll see why I'm partial to it. I mention this because Pudge, with 476 CS, trails only Benito Santiago among active catchers.
I'm also a big fan of the snap throw. Most catchers, I think, indulge in it because of the aesthetics and preventive function of it, but on 72 different occasions Pudge has caught a drowsy base runner in just such a manner. But that's just reaching the margins of his defensive prowess.
Keith Woolner is working on something tentatively called stolen bases reduction, which measures how well a catcher inhibits the running game, relative to the league average, either by gunning down runners or preventing steal attempts by dint of reputation. Anyhow, Keith says Pudge ranks first in this measure of any catcher since 1972. Additionally, he's led the majors in said category every season since 1994 save for 1996 and 2000.
Clay Davenport tells me that Pudge also ranks first in Prospectus' career Fielding Runs Above Average. What's more is that Pudge's CS% of 0.491 is the best of any catcher in major league history with at least 100 CS.
But we know all about his defensive chops. It's his offense that often gets short shrift in analytical circles. This is mostly owing to the canard that the Ballpark in Arlington, where Pudge toiled for most of his career, is an extreme hitter's environment. In reality, the Ballpark has played most years as a rather modest hitter's park. Here are the park factors for each season of Pudge's career:
Yr. Park Park Factor 1991 Arlington Stadium 98 1992 Arlington Stadium 96 1993 Arlington Stadium 96 1994 Ballpark at Arlington 100 1995 Ballpark at Arlington 98 1996 Ballpark at Arlington 100 1997 Ballpark at Arlington 105 1998 Ballpark at Arlington 104 1999 Ballpark at Arlington 104 2000 Ballpark at Arlington 105 2001 Ballpark at Arlington 100 2002 Ballpark at Arlington 112 2003 ProPlayer Stadium 95
Other than 2002, there's not a great deal of park inflation to be found here. Some, yes. But there's hardly a need for a Chuck Klein-style recalibration of Pudge's numbers. Taking into account positional scarcity, his career line of .304/.344/.488 is highly impressive.
This season has been especially gratifying for Pudge drum-beaters. He was 31 years of age heading into Spring Training, and for the first time in his career he'd be testing his mettle in a park that reduced run scoring by at least 10%. In response to the challenges before him, he played 144 games, posted a batting line of .297/.369/.474/.293 EqA and ranked second only to Javy Lopez among NL catchers in VORP.
The next few seasons will be critical for him. As has been demonstrated by many others, catchers who can make it to their mid-30s with even a modicum of effectiveness are rare beasts indeed. If he can put together, say, four more quality seasons, I think you'll be able to marshal a persuasive case that he's one of the three best catchers ever to play the game. Here's hoping he does just that.