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April 20, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
Ivan Rodriguez is scheduled to announce his retirement on Monday, closing the curtain on a 21-year career in which he set standards for all-around play and longevity among catchers. Rodriguez played just 44 games with the Nationals last year, and while his name surfaced as a potential stopgap for the Royals when Salvador Perez went down with a knee injury in mid-March, the 40-year-old backstop apparently did not receive a formal offer from the club. No matter, his career is as complete as a Cooperstown résumé need be without crouching around waiting for Jonathan Sanchez to find the strike zone.
The Puerto Rico-born Rodriguez signed with the Rangers in 1988, four months before his 17th birthday, and one year before Puerto Ricans became subject to inclusion in the amateur draft (props to Kevin Goldstein, because the New York Times dated the inclusion to 1990). Already nicknamed "Pudge" at a time when the original Pudge, Carlton Fisk, was still active, Rodriguez reached the majors on June 20, 1991, at the tender age of 19, marrying on the morning of his promotion.
While his performance with the bat in his first year was nothing to write home about (.264/.276/.354 with three homers in 288 plate appearances), he threw out 49 percent of would-be base thieves, making enough of an impression to rank fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind the Twins' Chuck Knoblauch, the Blue Jays' Juan Guzman, and the Tigers' Milt Culyer. Even then, he was regarded as something special. Bill James rated him fifth among AL catchers in The Baseball Book 1992 behind Mickey Tettleton, Brian Harper, Fisk/Ron Karkovice (James included other duos as well), and Terry Steinbach. What's even more remarkable is what he wrote:
Rodriguez played 271 minor league games, which is more than most outstanding prospects historically have played, at catcher or any other position. Johnny Bench played 265 minor league games, Yogi Berra played 188, Bill Dickey 249, Mickey Cochrane 164. Fisk and Gary Carter played a few more, 346 (Fisk) and 311 (Carter). People will write that Rodriguez was rushed to the major leagues, but actually, when you have a player with this kind of ability it is abnormal to keep him in the minors longer than two years, as San Diego did with [Benito] Santiago and then [Roberto] Alomar. Abnormal, and probably counterproductive.
Bench, Berra, Fisk, Dickey, Cochrane, Carter… After just 88 big-league games, Rodriguez was placed in the context of the elite catchers in major-league history by none other than James, and over the course of his career, he fulfilled that promise. By the next year, he was closer to the top of everyone's list, kicking off streaks of 10 consecutive All-Star appearances and Gold Glove awards; he would make 14 of the former (starting 12) and win 13 of the latter, all records for the position.
Even so, Rodriguez didn't really emerge as an above-average hitter until 1994, his age-22 season. In the strike-shortened year, he batted .298/.360/.488 with 16 homers in 405 PA, good for a .280 True Average, the first of 11 consecutive seasons he would be above .260. Aided by a hitter-friendly environment in a high-offense era—not to mention good speed for a catcher—Pudge topped a .300 batting average every year from 1995 through 2004 save for 2003, when he hit .297. Over that span, he hit .311/.349/.502; he didn't walk a whole lot but showed plenty of pop, particularly given the position. In 1996, he hit .300/.342/.473 and helped the Rangers to their first playoff appearance in franchise history, and the first of three in a four-year span. Alas, those teams piloted by Johnny Oates and co-starring Juan Gonzalez ran smack-dab into the Yankees each time, never having the pitching to surmount them.
Rodriguez put together a career year with the stick in 1999, batting .332/.356/.558 with 35 homers, 113 RBI, and 25 steals, setting career highs in slugging percentage (for seasons in which he qualified for the batting title) and those latter three categories. In one of the oddest MVP votes of the wild-card era, he narrowly beat out Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, teammate Rafael Palmeiro, and Derek Jeter, making him the only catcher to win the award between 1976 (Thurman Munson) and Joe Mauer (2009)—quite an anomaly given that catchers racked up no less than nine MVP awards from 1951 through 1972.
An impressively durable receiver in his prime, Rodriguez averaged 148 games played and 140 starts behind the plate from 1996-1999, but his body began to break down by his late 20s; over the next three seasons, he dipped to an average of 94 starts while missing time due to a broken thumb (which ended his 2000 season in late July), knee surgery (which ended his 2001 in September), a herniated disc (which took away his first two months in 2002), and a bruised heel. He still hit as well as ever when available—.322/.357/.579 across the three seasons—but the Rangers didn't offer him arbitration after the latter season, and so he hit the free-agent market just weeks before his 31st birthday. At that point, with 1,427 games caught under his belt, it wasn't unreasonable to think his best years were behind him.
Spurning a three-year, $21 million offer from the Orioles, Rodriguez surprised the baseball world by signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the Marlins. He didn't miss a beat switching leagues, batting .297/.369/.474 with 16 homers as the team earned the NL wild card, and he went nuts in the postseason. In Game Three of the Division Series against the Giants, he drove in all four of the Marlins' runs via a two-run homer in the first inning and a two-run walk-off single in the 11th. After batting .353/.450/.588 in the opening round, he hit a three-run homer and drove in five runs in the NLCS opener, tied Don Baylor's record (subsequently broken) with 10 RBI, and earned MVP honors with a .321/.424/.607 showing. He was relatively quiet during the World Series (6-for-22), but he successfully shepherded a young Marlins staff headed by Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano, and Brad Penny past an experienced Yankees lineup as the Marlins won a six-game series.
The fantastic success of his season in Florida enabled Rodriguez to net a four-year, $40 million deal from the Tigers, who in 2003 had narrowly missed setting a single-season record for futility with a 43-119 mark. The Rodriguez signing restored instant credibility to the franchise in a way that few signings in recent memory have. The Tigers improved by 29 wins in 2004, as Rodriguez hit .334/.383/.510 with 19 homers. That was his last great season with the stick, but he was still an above-average asset thanks to his defense. In 2006, when he hit a still-solid .300/.332/.437, he played a significant part in helping 23-year-olds Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman develop into frontline pitchers, and he helped the Tigers to their first pennant since 1984, though they fell to the Cardinals in five games.
Despite an off season with the bat (.281/.294/.420) in 2007, Detroit picked up Rodriguez’s $13 million option, but with the team meandering around .500 as the trade deadline neared, he agreed to waive his no-trade clause for a deal that sent him to the Yankees, who had lost Jorge Posada for the season due to a torn labrum. The Yankees were just a game back in the wild-card race at that point, but their already thin rotation took a hit less than a week after Rodriguez's arrival when Joba Chamberlain hurt his shoulder while avoiding a Rodriguez throw. Soon reduced to a rotation that featured Sidney Ponson, Darrell Rasner, and Carl Pavano alongside Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte, the team slipped out of the race, missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1994-1995 strike.
At 37, Rodriguez didn't draw a ton of interest that offseason, but while playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, he impressed the Astros' scouts enough that they signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in late March. The Astros had gone 86-75 the previous year, as they continued to stave off a much-needed rebuilding effort, and they were otherwise faced with the blight of Humberto Quintero as their starting catcher. Rodriguez took over the starting job, but when the 'Stros struggled, they sold Rodriguez essentially for scrap. On August 18, he was traded back to the Rangers, who were one game up in the wild-card race but had just lost Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Alas, Rodriguez didn't hit a whole lot, and the Rangers went 20-25 the rest of the way, missing the playoffs.
The Nationals signed Rodriguez to a two-year, $6 million deal in December 2009 in the hopes that he could mentor of their pitching staff. The overall results may not have been stellar, but he did catch the 14-strikeout debut of one Stephen Strasburg, not to mention 10 of his other 11 starts before he went down with an elbow injury. Late in the year, he began yielding to Wilson Ramos, who had been acquired from the Twins in a deadline deal for closer Matt Capps, and who looked up to Rodriguez as his childhood idol. Ramos emerged as an above-average starter in 2011, while Rodriguez enthusiastically embraced a mentoring role. Felled by an oblique strain just before the All-Star break, he missed eight weeks and played sparingly in September given the return of Jesus Flores, a young catcher of some promise who had missed all of 2010 with a torn labrum.
Last spring, Rodriguez said he'd like to play long enough to collect 3,000 hits, which would have made him the first catcher to attain that milestone. At 2,844, he fell short of that goal, but the 2,765 he collected as a catcher is nearly 600 more than his nicknamesake or any other catcher. His 9,974 plate appearances as a catcher are also a record by a mile (Fisk is second at 8,961), and his 306 homers as a catcher (311 overall) rank fifth behind Mike Piazza, Fisk, Bench, and Berra. His .297/.334/.466 line didn't set any records, but his .321 batting average on balls in play, owing much to his respectable speed (he stole 127 bases in his career), ranks second among catchers since 1901, behind Joe Mauer, whose .342 stands to fall considerably by the time his career is done. Rodriguez's .265 True Average, while not remarkable, was a solid 16 points above the major-league average for catchers over the span of his career, and his 582.5 VORP ranks ninth at the position.
Pudge's defensive numbers are even more impressive. He threw out 46 percent of potential base-stealers over the course of his career, leading the league nine times. Including our still-unpublished Arm rankings (which account for opposing baserunners, as opposed to the fielding of balls which is represented on our player cards), his 98.6 Fielding Runs Above Average ranks first, 42.1 runs ahead of the second-ranked catcher, former Ranger Jim Sundberg. Sadly, we don't have PITCHf/x data from the bulk of his career, though Mike Fast's work shows that he was slightly above average at pitch framing during his emeritus years, and Max Marchi's work shows that he was solidly above average at pitcher handling by around 40 runs, 68th all-time.
Those numbers aren't incorporated into JAWS, but he scores quite well with respect to the system nonetheless:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
Rodriguez ranks sixth among catchers in career WARP, but just 17th in peak WARP; as good as his 1999 season was from a counting stats standpoint, at 4.8 WARP, it was less than a full win better than his seventh-best season (4.1). There's no shame in that kind of consistency; he ranks eighth all-time here, solidly above the JAWS standard. He should go into Cooperstown easily.
The question is whether he will. Rodriguez was among the numerous players whom Jose Canseco linked to performance-enhancing drugs in his 2005 book, Juiced. The game's Johnny Applesyringe claims to have educated Rodriguez, Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez in the dark science of PEDs and to have even injected them when they were teammates from 1992-1994.
Rodriguez denied the allegations. "I'm not a homerunner," he said. "What was I going to use that for? To keep hitting doubles?" Unlike Palmeiro, who tested positive in 2005, or Gonzalez, who was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007, Rodriguez was never linked via any official means or implicated by any other route. Asked in 2009 if he was on the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey testing list—the one from which Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez have been outed—he responded, "Only God knows."
In the kangaroo court that is the BBWAA Hall of Fame voting, that non-denial may well be considered tantamount to an admission. Then again, the similarly overqualified Jeff Bagwell's denials haven't gotten him any traction, and he wasn't named by Canseco, never tested positive, and never turned up in the Mitchell Report, so establishing what the voters might do based upon the ambiguity of Rodriguez's statement becomes harder. At least Bagwell did reach 56.0 percent on the most recent ballot, suggesting there must be some kind of way out of here.
What we do know is that the voters will have a good, long time to set a precedent before Rodriguez reaches the 2017 ballot. While Palmeiro and Mark McGwire have been punished by voters for their links to PEDs, they're more easily (if inaccurately) dismissed as one-dimensional players. Coming candidates such as Sosa (2013) and Gary Sheffield (2015) may find themselves stewing on the ballot in their company as well. The 2013 arrivals of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Piazza, all among the elite at their positions (or at any), and all linked to PEDs, will force the voters to reckon with the potential irrelevance of a Hall of Fame shorn of some of the era's standard-setters. A Hall of Fame without Pudge, who has nothing implicating him besides the word of Canseco, is no easier to imagine than a Hall without any of those three. Here's hoping the voters will realize that, for he surely deserves his bronze plaque.