Friday, April 8, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #23: Ivan Rodriguez

Some positions in baseball have what feel like a prototype. The prototype first baseman isn't a tremendous defender and may not hit for a great average, but he's got a ton of power at the plate, and posts big home run totals. The prototype shortstop is the opposite, a player without much power, but who can slap some singles, steal a few bases, and make tremendous defensive plays. The prototypical catcher has some pop in his bat (though not enough to lead the league in home runs or anything like that), but doesn't have great speed. He isn't know  for his offense though. He's known for his toughness, his leadership, his ability to call a good game, and for exploding out of his crouch to nail runners at every base with strong, accurate throws to any base. In my lifetime, the best prototypical catcher has been Ivan Rodriguez.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Perhaps because of the leadership that is usually thought to be an important part of playing the position, catchers tend to get called up a bit later than players at other positions. Ivan Rodriguez was only 19 years and 205 days old when he made his MLB debut in June of 1991, making him more than a year younger than any other catcher at the time of their first game during my three decades as a baseball fan. Pudge, as he was known, didn't hit much that season, but he threw out 49% of the runners who tried to steal, and placed 4th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting on the strength of the defensive reputation he was quickly building.

In Rodriguez's second season, he was named to the All-Star team for the first time, and after that season he won his first Gold Glove. He'd go on to claim both of those honors in ten consecutive seasons, and ended his career with 14 All-Star appearances and 13 Gold Gloves. Pitchers Greg Maddux and Jim Katt, third baseman Brooks Robinson, and shortstop Ozzie Smith are the only other players who won baseball's most famous defensive hardware more than a dozen times. The Gold Glove isn't always given to a legitimately great defender, but more sophisticated measures of defensive quality agree that Pudge was elite. Over the course of his career, he threw out a higher percentage of attempted base runners than any catcher with even half as many innings behind the plate.

During his first few seasons and during the slow decline that took place during his mid to late 30s, Rodriguez's offense wasn't great, but during his prime, he was a lot more than just a defensive force; between 1997 and 2004, Rodriguez hit .320/.363/.530, which is a great batting line for any player, much less the top defensive player at the game's most demanding position. Rodriguez's best season came in 1999, when he hit .332/.356/.558, with career-highs of 36 home runs and and 25 stolen bases. (He didn't steal more than 10 in any other season.) The Rangers on the AL West, and Rodriguez was voted American League MVP.

His rate stats remained just as impressive in the years that followed, but from 2000 to 2002 Rodriguez spent close to a quarter of the time on the DL, and when his contract was up, the Rangers decided they didn't want to keep the best player in their franchise's history. He eventually settled for a one-year deal with the Marlins. He stayed healthy, and was the best player on a team that went to the postseason. He clinched the NLDS for the team by holding on to the ball in a series-ending collision at the plate. Then he had a huge NLCS and was named series MVP. Six games later they defeated the Yankees to win the World Series.

Rodriguez wound up playing another decade after Texas let him walk, with four more All-Star appearances along the way. In 2009 he broke a record held by Carlton Fisk (the original Pudge), but most games as a catcher. He also hold's the position's mark for most hits, doubles, and runs scored. Everything you imagine a catcher doing, Ivan Rodriguez did with excellence.


  1. When Pudge joined the Tigers (my hometown team) I was immediately amazed at what he was able to do defensively. I'd never seen a catcher control a game like he did -- managing pitchers, throwing out baserunners, snap throws to first to pick off a distracted runner. For me, watching Rodriguez was always must-see TV. He'll always be remembered in Detroit as the linchpin of the Tigers' turnaround from a 100-loss laughingstock to a perennial playoff contender.

    1. Most fans are primarily drawn to big offensive numbers, but there is something incredibly satisfying about having a player who is a defensive ace, especially at such an important position. I'm an Indians fan, and watching Omar Vizquel was a pleasure; watching Vizquel and Roberto Alomar together was a delight.