The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Shortly before 2016 Hall of Famer Mike Piazza began carving his spot as the best-hitting catcher in the game’s history, Ivan Rodriguez emerged as the new standard-setter defensively. Debuting in the majors before his 20th birthday, he quickly began winning accolades for his cannon-like arm and ability to shut down the running game. He accompanied that glove work with good-to-great offense, not to mention outstanding durability.
Prophetically nicknamed “Pudge” during his youth in Puerto Rico—for his physique, not his resemblance to Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk—Rodriguez had enough staying power to secure the all-time records for games caught and hits by a catcher, both once held by his nickname-sake. Along the way, he helped turn the Rangers into a contending team for the first time in the franchise’s history and shepherded young pitching staffs in Miami and Detroit to the World Series—the former in victory, the latter in defeat.
Late in his career, Rodriguez was among the handful of players accused of using performance-enhancing drugs by former teammate Jose Canseco, though he never tested positive and escaped mention in the Mitchell Report. The extent to which that accusation puts a damper on his support remains to be seen, though the election of Piazza—who though never sanctioned, had a less-than-pristine past in that department as well—points the way towards the eventuality of Pudge’s plaque.
Avg. HOF C
Born in 1971 in Manati, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez grew up several miles away in the hills of the town of Vega Baja. Undersized and chubby, “Pudge” played against future Rangers teammate Juan Gonzalez and future Yankee Bernie Williams in Little League. As a pitcher, he threw so hard that he scared other children with his fastball, so he was moved behind the plate. Years later, at a tryout camp, he was clocked at 93 mph throwing from home to second base. Rangers scout Luis Rosa—who had previously signed the Alomar brothers, Roberto and Sandy Jr., for the Padres and then Gonzalez for the Rangers—signed Rodriguez to a contract in 1988 at age 16.
Rodriguez climbed the ladder quickly, becoming the youngest player in the Double A Texas League by his third professional season. Though his approach at the plate was raw, he made consistent contact and showed that he was ready to catch in the majors. He debuted on June 20, 1991, at just 19 years and 205 days, and played 88 games as a rookie, catching future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage, both more than twice his age. While his bat was light, he threw out 49% of would-be base thieves, then upped that to 52% the following year, helping him earn All-Star and Gold Glove honors for the first of 10 straight times. Only four position players have made the All-Star team at an age younger than his 20 years, 230 days, including catchers Butch Wynegar (1976: 20 years, 121 days) and Johnny Bench ('68: 20 years, 215 days).
Rodriguez’s bat began to mature: He hit .273/.315/.412 for a 98 OPS+ in 1993, then .298/.360/.488 with 16 homers in the strike-shortened ’94 season, the Rangers’ first in The Ballpark in Arlington, a notoriously hitter-friendly bandbox that would boost his offensive statistics considerably. For his career, Rodriguez hit .325/.361/.530 with 108 homers in 2,514 plate appearances there, compared to .287/.325/.443 with 203 homers in 7,756 PA everywhere else. Aided by that park, Pudge hit a combined .316/.352/.521 from 1995 to 2002, topping a .300 batting average in each year—the longest streak of any catcher besides Piazza—and averaging 22 homers. A 4.2% unintentional walk rate limited his offensive contributions somewhat, but even after adjusting for the favorability of his park, Rodriguez's 119 OPS+ was second only to Piazza (156) among catchers during that stretch.
The Rangers were founded in 1961 as the second edition of the Washington Senators before moving in '71 and never reached the postseason in their first 35 seasons, but they went 90–72 in '96—their second year under manager Johnny Oates—to win the division and reach the postseason for the first time. Rodriguez hit .300/.342/.473 with 47 doubles (third in the AL) and 19 homers. Thanks to typically stellar defense (51% caught-stealing rate, 25 runs above average), his 6.1 WAR ranked eighth in the AL among position players, 2.3 wins better than teammate Gonzalez, whose 47 homers and 144 RBIs swayed voters to elect him AL MVP.
That was the first of three AL West titles in four years by the Rangers, though they fell to the eventual world champion Yankees each time. Rodriguez’s continued improvement at the plate was handsomely rewarded in late ’97 via a five-year, $42.5 million extension that made him the game’s highest-paid catcher. While Gonzalez won another RBI-driven MVP award in 1998, Rodriguez took home the hardware in 1999 via a .332/.356/.558 showing with 35 homers, 25 steals and a 125 OPS+. Among those stats, only his on-base percentage fell short of a career high, and no catcher had ever combined 25 steals with even 25 homers. His 6.4 WAR ranked sixth among position players, his fourth straight year in the top 10.
That year’s AL MVP vote created a controversy for the ages, because while Rodriguez had a great year, Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez had an historic one (23–4, 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts, 9.7 WAR) amid a hitter-friendly environment. He received eight first-place votes to Rodriguez’s seven, but two writers left him off their ballots entirely, arguing that pitchers didn’t do enough to merit consideration in such an election, despite the explicit rules of the vote to the contrary; one had nonetheless included hurlers David Wells and Rick Helling on his ballot just a year earlier. Rodriguez edged Martinez, 252–239, in points, with Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez tied at 226 with four first-place votes apiece. Though hardly the worst injustice in MVP vote history, it’s a reminder that flawed logic often underlies such awards.
Though the Rangers were floundering, Rodriguez was putting up even better numbers in 2000 (.347/.375/.667 with 27 homers in 91 games) when he fractured his right thumb via Mo Vaughn’s bat as he threw to second base. Surgery ended his season and ignited talk of a possible position switch to second base. Rodriguez landed on the DL in each of the next two seasons as well, limiting him to 310 games over a three-year span, and while his performance when available remained strong—averages of 136 OPS+ and 4.3 WAR in 103 games —his seven-week absence due to a herniated disc in 2002 cooled interest when he hit free agency as a 31-year-old.
Spurning a three-year, $18 million offer from the Orioles, Rodriguez signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Marlins in late January, and both he and the team hit the jackpot. While the tougher hitting environment took some of the sheen off his rate stats (.297/.369/.474), he played in 144 games, his highest total since 1999. Under his guidance, young(ish) pitchers Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano and Dontrelle Willis enjoyed their first extended tastes of major league success, and after a sluggish start that resulted in the firing of manager Jeff Torborg in favor of 72-year-old Jack McKeon, the team caught fire, going 75–49 to finish with 91 wins and a wild-card berth.
Rodriguez played a major role in the postseason, closing out an upset of the Giants in the Division Series by tagging out J.T. Snow—the potential tying run—at the plate for the final out of Game 4.
Rodriguez then won MVP honors in the NLCS against the Cubs, hitting .321/.424/.607 in a series best remembered for the Marlins’ rally following Cubs fan Steve Bartman’s attempt to catch a foul ball. In the World Series, Rodriguez steered the Marlins’ young hurlers through an imposing Yankees lineup time after time as Florida claimed its second championship in seven seasons.
Mindful of Rodriguez’s work to reestablish the credibility of the Marlins, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski (incidentally, the architect of Florida’s 1997 championship) looked to the catcher to do the same for a Detroit squad that had capped its 10th straight losing season with a humiliating 43–119 record, narrowly averting the record-setting futility of the 1962 Mets. He snared Rodriguez via a four-year, $40 million deal with a club option for a fifth year. In his last great year with the bat, Rodriguez hit .334/.383/.510 with 19 homers for a 137 OPS+, earning All-Star and Gold Glove honors for the first time in three years, and shepherded another young pitching staff to significant improvements; the Tigers climbed to 72 wins.
Rodriguez’s offense began its inexorable decline, but the reunion between Dombrowski and ex-1997 Marlins manager Jim Leyland, the continued maturation of youngsters Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson and the arrivals of rookie Justin Verlander and veteran Kenny Rogers helped the Tigers to 95 wins and the AL wild card in 2006. In Detroit's first playoff berth since 1987, the team knocked off the Yankees and Athletics, winning the franchise's first pennant since '84 before falling to the Cardinals in the World Series.
While Pudge had helped to reestablish the credibility of the franchise, further success proved harder to come by. The Tigers declined to 88 and 74 wins over the next two seasons; on July 30 of the latter year, Rodriguez waived his no-trade clause and was dealt to the Yankees, who needed a fill-in for catcher Jorge Posada, down for the year due to a torn labrum. Alas, he struggled after the trade, and the team’s August fade left it outside the postseason for the first time since 1993.
Thus began the migratory phase of Rodriguez’s career. As a 37-year-old free agent, he caught the eye of Astros scouts while playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and signed an incentive-laden–one-year deal, but neither he nor the rest of Houston’s roster were up to the task of contending. Fittingly, Rodriguez tied and then broke Fisk’s career record for most games caught (2,226) when the Astros visited the Rangers on June 16–17. In mid-August, he was traded back to Texas, then in the thick of the wild-card race but without starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who needed surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. Though they finished with their first winning record since 2004 (87–75), the Rangers went 20–25 after the trade and fell short of the playoffs.
Texas would win pennants in each of the next two years, but by then, Rodriguez was a National; he played 111 games with Washington in 2010 but hit a paltry .266/.294/.347, though he did catch 11 starts of phenom Stephen Strasburg. His playing time decreased to 44 games the next season as he moved into a backup role and battled injuries. When he couldn’t find a job the following winter, he signed a one-day contract with the Rangers in April and promptly announced his retirement.
Rodriguez finished his career holding several major all-time records for catchers (i.e., not including his time at other positions), some by wide margins: games caught (2,427), plate appearances (9,916), hits (2,749, 589 more than second-ranked Jason Kendall), total bases (4,314, 658 more than second-ranked Fisk), runs (1,316) and RBIs (1,290). Meanwhile, his 304 homers as a catcher rank third behind Piazza (396) and Fisk (351), and his 124 steals are second behind Kendall (182). Adjusted for his ballpark and league, Rodriguez's 106 OPS+ isn’t remarkable; it's tied for 10th among the 18 catchers with at least 7,000 PA. His longevity was something of a double-edged sword: His defense was valued enough that he kept finding work even after his bat ceased to be an asset.
As for that defensive value, Rodriguez finished with a 46% caught-stealing rate—15 points above the league average for his time—but his total of 661 runners gunned down ranks only 39th in baseball history, with most of the players above him predating World War II, or at least a couple decades ahead of him, when stolen bases were more in vogue; see Gary Carter (810), Bob Boone (731), Jim Sundberg (706) and Fisk (665). Still, via Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone system (pre-2003) and Defensive Runs Saved ('03 onward), his throwing, fielding and pitch blocking are estimated to be worth 146 runs above average, the all-time best at the position. A relatively obscure 19th-century catcher with a powerful arm, Charlie Bennett (1878–93), ranks second at +142 runs; after that, the closest is the active Yadier Molina (+112), who’s tied with Carter behind Sundberg (+114).
Note that those estimates don’t include pitch framing, as PITCHf/x didn’t come into existence until 2007. Baseball Prospectus’ framing metrics, which for the pre-f/x era use called-strike rates from Retrosheet’s pitch-by-pitch data from 1988 to 2007 in what’s called a mixed model approach, estimate that Rodriguez was nothing special in that department. Via their current methodology, he was 11 runs below average for his career. The knock on him was that he called too many fastballs so as to be better armed to combat the running game, and that he often left his crouch to ready himself for throws. Eventually, a richer set of framing-inclusive data may support the conclusion that Yadier Molina or Buster Posey was a better all-around defender than Rodriguez—just as Rodriguez challenged Bench’s supremacy—but until then, Pudge is the leader in the clubhouse.
Given that mass of accomplishments on both sides of the ball, Rodriguez ranks third in both career WAR and JAWS among catchers behind only Bench and Fisk and fourth in peak WAR behind Carter, Bench and Piazza. He’s a hefty 10.6 points above the JAWS standard for the position, and in all likelihood, he'll become the first top-three player at his position (in terms of JAWS) to be elected since Rickey Henderson in 2009.
The one thing likely to slow Rodriguez’s pace to Cooperstown are allegations connecting him to performance-enhancing drugs, though the world alleged should be emphasized. Rodriguez never failed a PED test (even the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, as far as we know), was never caught in possession the drugs and wasn’t named in the 2007 Mitchell Report or any PED-related law enforcement investigation. None of that ensures that he was clean, but given the hundreds of players identified as PED users via those routes, it’s worth noting.
However, Rodriguez was one of a handful of players fingered as PED users by former teammate Jose Canseco in the latter’s 2005 tell-all, Juiced. In addition to claiming that he injected former teammates Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi during his two stints in Oakland, Canseco claimed that upon joining the Rangers in 1993, he introduced Rodriguez, Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro to PEDs and injected them “many times” with a combination of human growth hormone, Deca-Durabolin and/or Winstrol and injectable testosterone.
The accuracy of Canseco’s specific allegations can certainly be questioned, as his relationship with the truth was always erratic; his motives are dubious due to serious financial difficulties and his own problems with the law. But many players on his “hit list” had their PED connections corroborated by other sources. Circa 2005, Giambi had already been named as a PED user via the BALCO investigation. Palmeiro soon tested positive for Winstrol in the summer of 2005. Gonzalez turned up in the Mitchell Report in 2007 via an incident in '01 involving seized luggage at the Toronto airport. McGwire publicly confessed to using steroids in January 2010. Alex Rodriguez—whom Canseco implicated in his 2008 follow-up, Vindicated—was revealed in '09 to have failed the supposedly anonymous '03 survey test, after which he confessed to using during his '01–03 run with the Rangers. On the other hand, Pudge is among a handful of other players Canseco named—Wilson Alvarez, Magglio Ordonez and Tony Saunders—whose connections haven’t been corroborated.
When Rodriguez turned up in the spring of 2005 considerably leaner than before—from 215 pounds down to 187 or 193, depending on the source—he told reporters he had “felt a little heavy last year” and chalked it up the weight loss to overhauling his training and nutritional habits. He denied Canseco’s allegations, saying, “I’ve been in baseball for 14 years not using that. I don’t need it. Whatever comments he says are not true. I’m just going to move on and concentrate for this coming season.” In 2009, a week after A-Rod had been outed, Pudge was asked if his name was on the '03 survey list. “Only God knows,” he answered cryptically.
None of that proves or disproves whether Rodriguez took PEDs. But given the time frame of Canseco’s allegations regarding Rodriguez—a point when MLB lacked a random testing and punishment regimen—and a lack of further corroboration, I don’t see anyone but the most suspicious and least due-process-minded voters leaving Rodriguez off their ballots, particularly at a juncture when Piazza was just elected and Jeff Bagwell is about to be; bothadmitted to using androstenedione in the late 1990s, when it was still legal, which slowed but did not stop their progress to election. What’s more, Rodriguez has reached eligibility at a time when the election of former commissioner Bud Selig has spurred reconsideration among several voters with regards to the propriety of excluding Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens over PED allegations that date to the pre-testing era.
It’s possible that a large enough bloc of voters will withhold their vote from Rodriguez to leave him short in 2017, but I strongly suspect that he’ll receive enough support—upwards of 60%—to make his election an inevitability. Back in January, I predicted that it would take until the 2019 ballot to elect him, but right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if he beats that timetable.