Is Ivan Rodriguez the greatest catcher in major league history?
When Ivan Rodriguez announces his retirement on Monday it will mark the end of one of the greatest catching careers in major league history. One needn't search hard for evidence of Rodriguez's place in the game's history. He holds the major league record for most games caught (2,377) and most hits as a catcher (2,749, nearly 600 more than the next man on the list). He has more Gold Gloves than any other catcher (13), has started more All-Star Games as a catcher (12) than any other man and is tied with Yogi Berra for most All-Star appearances as a catcher (14). His seven Silver Sluggers are second only to Mike Piazza's 10 among backstops. He was one of the greatest throwing catchers ever, leading his league in caught-stealing percentage nine times and the majors five times, eight times throwing out more than half of the men who attempted to steal against him during an era when the league was throwing out just 31 percent. He won the 1999 American League MVP, was a pivotal player on the 2003 world champion Marlins, was the starting catcher for the pennant-winning Tigers three years later and helped propel the Rangers to their first-ever postseason appearance. The question isn't whether or not Rodriguez had a career worthy of first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame; he clearly did. The question is whether or not he was the greatest catcher in major league history, and if not, where does he rank among the all-time greats.
The first question is actually fairly simple. No, Rodriguez wasn't the greatest catcher in major league history, though the only man who clearly outranks him is Johnny Bench. Both are considered among the best defensive catchers of all time (Bench is second in Gold Gloves with 10), but Bench, playing in a far-stingier offensive era, still outhit Rodriguez in the two most important ways: he got on base more often (.342 career on-base percentage to Rodriguez's .334) and hit for more power (.476 slugging percentage to Rodriguez's .464).
Digging deeper, we can start with the all-time leaders in Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) which combines offensive and defensive contributions:
1. Johnny Bench, 71.3
2. Ivan Rodriguez and Carlton Fisk, 67.3
4. Gary Carter, 66.3
5. Yogi Berra, 61.9
6. Mike Piazza, 59.1
Bench has the edge there, and it's not nearly as close as it looks. Both Bench and Rodriguez broke into the majors at the age of 19 and were full-timers at 20. Bench, however, effectively stopped catching after his age-32 season. In those first 14 seasons (1967-1980), Bench was worth 69.7 wins above replacement. In Rodriguez's first 14 seasons (1991-2004), he was worth 57.1 bWAR. Rodriguez caught for nine more seasons, but that wasn't enough to catch Bench, in part because Rodriguez was only meaningfully above replacement level for two more seasons after his age-32 campaign.
In fact, Rodriguez's longevity added very little to his career beyond that games-caught record. Had he retired at age 36 after his steep drop-off in 2008, his legacy would not have been significantly altered. Looking then solely at the impact portions of their careers, Bench was clearly superior.
Looking below Rodriguez on that list there's Gary Carter, who arrived in the majors at 20 and spent the majority of his first full major league season, at age 21, playing right field. Like Bench, he was essentially finished as an impact player after the age of 32 (though, like Rodriguez, he never moved back out from behind the plate). Taking those 11 seasons from age 22 to 32 (1976-1986), Carter was worth 59.1 wins above replacement, giving him a higher peak value than Rodriguez, whose best 11-year stretch was worth just 52.8 wins above replacement.
The question here is how much you value Rodriguez's longevity, essentially four extra seasons as an impact catcher, and how you rate the two defensively. Carter's defense has been underrated by popular memory. He won three Gold Gloves, led his league in caught-stealing percentage three times (only one of those coming in a Gold Glove season), and was heralded in his day as much for his work behind the plate as beside it. Rodriguez is considered one of the greatest defensive catchers of all time, but was not without his detractors.
Yogi Berra presents a more difficult comparison as he was more of an offense-first player, spent a significant amount of time in the outfield (245 starts) and didn't have to worry about opposing base runners all that much. Over the course of Berra's career, the league was caught stealing 45 percent of the time compared to 31 percent during Rodriguez's career, and in the American League in the 1950s, only four men stole more than 100 bases over the entire decade. Berra was arguably the greatest major league catcher in the first century of professional baseball and was a better hitter than Rodriguez, but it's difficult to see him as a better overall catcher due to his clearly inferior defensive impact. Piazza, meanwhile, was the best-hitting catcher ever, but also the worst backstop of the lot above, and not by a little.
That leaves us with Rodriguez and the man whose nickname he swiped, Carlton "Pudge" Fisk. It's eerie that these two ended up with identical bWAR totals by Baseball-Reference's math. Rodriguez played 21 seasons. Fisk, the greatest old catcher of all time, played 24, putting up a five-win season as late as his age-42 season (Rodriguez won't be 42 until November 2013). Further complicating things, unlike Bench, Rodriguez, and Carter, Fisk's value didn't rise and fall in a neat arch, but rather lurched all over the place over those 24 seasons. Take, for example, his age-35 to -39 seasons in which he put up sequential bWAR totals of 4.5, 1.2, 3.8, -1.5 (yes, negative), and 3.1. Injuries played a role in that inconsistency, but that doesn't make our comparison any easier.
If we sort the seasons of both men by bWAR, we find that Fisk's 1972 season was the best by either player, but both had three seasons above six wins and four seasons above five wins. Both also had six seasons below one win. Rodriguez had more seasons above four wins, but Fisk had more above both three and two. However, Rodriguez never had a season below replacement level like Fisk's 1986 campaign. Take their top 17 seasons, and it's 66.8 wins above replacement for Fisk, 66.2 for Rodriguez, making it too close to call.
Again it comes down to how you want to treat their defense. Do you put Rodriguez ahead for being more effective against the running game (Fisk was actually one percent below the league average caught-stealing percentage on his career), or put Fisk ahead for having a better reputation for handling pitchers? Yes, defense is already factored into bWAR, but catchers' defense is particularly difficult to quantify.
If forced, I might rank Rodriguez third all-time, just behind Carter and just ahead of Fisk and Berra, but exactly how you want to order those four isn't as important as the fact that a solid case could be made that Rodriguez is the second greatest major league catcher of all-time and that he's absolutely one of the top five. Rodriguez didn't deserve that MVP award in 1999 (Pedro Martinez would have won it if two writers didn't leave him off their ballots entirely, and a handful of other players led by Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez also had better seasons for playoff teams than Rodriguez's), and the rumors of his performance enhancing drug use (he was among those Jose Canseco claimed to have injected in his book Juiced) are all too easy to believe. However, with regards to the former, the MVP is inessential to Rodriguez's Hall of Fame case, and he did come within five stolen bases of the only 30/30 season ever by a catcher that season. With regard to the latter, his production followed a natural arch over the course of his career without any unusual jumps or drops and with a natural decline around the same age as Bench, Carter, and Berra (who, obviously, aren't suspected of performance-enhancing drugs). Looking at what he did on the field, Rodriguez is an inner-circle Hall of Famer, a clear first-ballot selection, and one of the five greatest catchers in major league history. The only question that remains is if the voters will allow what they think he did off the field cloud their vision of what he did on it.