Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, you might be surprised to discover, is just the 2nd catcher ever to attain the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, the other being Johnny Bench. You read that correctly: Yogi Berra went in on his second try, as did Carlton Fisk (the original Pudge). Rodriguez, joining Mike Piazza from 2016 in the Cooperstown catcher class, is just the 7th man to don the tools of ignorance since 1948 to make it into the Hall of Fame. The others are Berra, Roy Campanella, Bench, Fisk and Gary Carter. With Jorge Posada falling short of 5% in the balloting this January and thus becoming ineligible for future ballots, there is no retired catcher coming up in the next five years who is a Cooperstown candidate.

Rodriguez is the best player in Texas Rangers history to enter the Hall and also the best ever for the Florida Marlins (for his lone campaign of 2003, which resulted in a World Series title). What you might not have known is that he is the first alumnus of the Detroit Tigers to make it into the Hall of Fame since Al Kaline, who retired after the 1974 season. I-Rod spent 4 1/2 seasons in the Motor City, winning three of his 13 Gold Gloves in Detroit. Also, Pudge finished his career with the Washington Nationals and is the first man to wear that uniform to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Cooperstown Cred: Ivan Rodriguez

Elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 76.0% of the vote

  • 13 Gold Gloves (most ever for a catcher)
  • 14-time All-Star
  • 7-time Silver Slugger (best hitting catcher)
  • .296 lifetime batting average, 311 HR, 1,332 RBI
  • Career: 2,844 hits, 572 doubles, 1,354 runs scored (all categories best all-time for MLB catchers)
  • Most games caught (2,427) in MLB history
  • 68.4 career WAR (3rd best for catchers behind Bench and Carter)
  • 1999 MVP with Rangers (.332, 35 HR, 113 RBI)
  •  2003 NLCS MVP with Marlins (.321, 2 HR, 10 RBI)
  • Led league in runners caught stealing% 9 times
  • Career: threw out 46% of all would-be base-stealers

Rodriguez, the fourth Hall of Famer who was born in Puerto Rico (Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda), learned how to play the position of catcher from his father, who played the position as an amateur. As a kid, I-Rod’s idol was Bench. Rodriguez was signed by the Rangers at the age of 16, moved quickly through the minors and made his debut with the big club on June 20, 1991, at the age of 19, and became an instant starter. In his first game, he threw out two base-runners attempting to steal and drove in two runs with his first major league hit in the 9th inning. For the season, he threw out 49% of all runners attempting to steal, which was good for 2nd best in the American League.

In 1992, Pudge made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove, both at the age of 20; he and Bench are the only catchers ever to win the Gold Glove at the age of 20. Again, as it was with Bench, Rodriguez would make 14 All-Star teams and surpassed his idol’s 10 Gold Gloves with a whopping 13.

By the age of 22, Rodriguez became a plus hitter as well as the sport’s best defensive catcher. He won 7 Silver Slugger Awards for being the league’s best hitting catcher (2nd most all-time to Mike Piazza’s 10). Note: the Silver Slugger Award was created in 1980 so Bench and Yogi Berra were not eligible during their careers. 

In 1995, Rodriguez hit .303 for the season, the first of 8 consecutive seasons batting .300 or above (he did it 10 times overall). In 1999, his lone MVP season, had posted career highs with 35 home runs and 113 RBI. He was doing even better in 2000, hitting .347 with a 1.042 OPS (156 OPS+) but broke his thumb on July 24th and missed the rest of the season.

scout.com

After the 2002 season, the Rangers (feeling the sting of Alex Rodriguez’ $252 contract) decided to cut payroll and let Rodriguez walk as a free agent. Having battled injuries that season and now being a catcher in his 30’s, I-Rod had to settle for a one-year deal for $10 million, signing with the Florida Marlins. In his 12 seasons in Texas, the Rangers made the playoffs three times but got bounced in the ALDS every time. In Florida, Pudge was an integral part of a magical season; the Fish won the N.L. Wild Card and ran all the way through the playoffs, winning the World Series in 6 games against the modern New York Yankees’ dynasty. Between his hitting, fielding and leadership, I-Rod was unquestionably the season-long MVP of the Marlins.

The Marlins, perennial penny pinchers, weren’t interested in signing Rodriguez to a long-term deal so he left for the Motor City, inking a 4-year, $40 million free agent contract with Detroit. He had a solid first season with Tigers (hitting .334 with 86 RBI). Defensively, he won his 11th Gold Glove but advanced metrics pegged 2004 as the worst defensive year of his career to date. To whatever degree you trust those metrics, what is easy to comprehend is that he threw out “only” 32% of base-runners attempting to steal, the lowest percentage of his career to that point.

In 2005, Pudge began the decline phase of his career, at least offensively. He was 33 years old and it’s pretty normal for a catcher to start declining at that age. Take a look at the last 7 years of I-Rod’s career, compared to his first seven and the previous seven seasons when he was a preeminent offensive threat.

Average season for each of the three seven-year periods in Ivan Rodriguez' career.
Average SeasonAgeHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPSOPS+
1991-199719-251360.290.330.439.770101
1998-200426-322383.322.363.538.901129
2005-201233-39947.274.301.404.70685
Courtesy Baseball Reference

Rodriguez spent 4 1/2 seasons in Detroit. When he signed, the team had come off a brutal 43-119 season. By his third season in Detroit, the Tigers were in the World Series (ultimately losing to St. Louis) and I-Rod was credited with being responsible for nurturing Detroit’s young pitching staff, including the ’06 Rookie of the Year, Justin Verlander.

In July 2008, Rodriguez was traded to the New York Yankees, where he finished the year. Rodriguez spent his last three campaigns shuttling from Houston, back to Texas and finally in Washington for his final two seasons.

 

Rodriguez has a no doubt Hall of Fame resume for sure except for the one big doubt, the potential that he took PEDs. His case is nearly identical to Piazza’s in that there are suspicions but no tangible evidence. Rodriguez never tested positive and he was not named in the Mitchell Report but, unlike Piazza, he was named by former teammate Jose Canseco in his two books “Juiced” and “Vindicated.” There is no proof that I-Rod used PEDs, none whatsoever. The only “evidence” against him is the written testimony of Canseco in the two books.

There is, however, one other factor that many writers have noted. Once MLB started implementing stringent drug testing in 2005, Rodriguez showed up at training camp 20-to-25 pounds lighter than he had been in the previous year. And, as we can see in the chart above, it’s a fact that he was never a prolific offensive player again. In 2004, he hit .334 with 19 home runs, 86 RBI and a 137 OPS+. The leaner Rodriguez, in 2005, hit just .276 with 14 homers, 50 RBI and a below-league-average 95 OPS+.

Now, Rodriguez was 33 years old in 2005 and that’s an age when most catchers start or are already in the decline phase of his career so it’s hard to put too much stock in that but his days as a significant offensive force were over. On the other hand, after three consecutive years of throwing out less than 40% of all base-stealers, I-Rod gunned down over 50% of would be thieves in both 2004 and 2005 so his leaner physique might well have helped him with his primary function as a top-flight defensive catcher.

Should Canseco’s words and some weight loss have been enough to deny Pudge a place in the Hall of Fame? Based on the collective verdict of the writers the answer was “no” and he didn’t have to serve a “suspicion punishment period” since he made it on the first ballot. Ultimately, without a tangible link to PED’s, I-Rod’s 13 Gold Gloves and 14 All-Star games were the types of no doubt credentials that a generalized “old school” writer likes to see.

Regarding the steroid question, I personally have no reason to believe that Canseco was lying about Rodriguez’ drug use. If you asked me to say “yes or no” about whether Rodriguez used PED’s, I would have to say “yes.”  However, I don’t feel that Canseco’s word alone is a sufficient reason to hold back one of the greatest defensive catchers in the history of the game from the Hall of Fame and it’s clear that a a super-majority of the writers agreed. Also, I don’t think that being Canseco’s teammate (and thus named by him) is fair when you consider that many other players (including, maybe, Piazza) were likely users as well but, because they didn’t play with Jose, were never named.

Currently enshrined Hall of Fame players, especially old-timers, generally take a hard line against PED users. A great feather in I-Rod’s cap is that he had the endorsement of the man considered the greatest man to don the tools of ignorance in the history of the game, his idol Johnny Bench.

“He should be a lock. Thirteen Gold Gloves. As complete a catcher as I’ve ever seen. He was intimidating behind the plate, a real solid hitter and incredibly durable. He is everything you’d hope for at the position.”

Johnny Bench (on Ivan Rodriguez, as told to the Dallas Morning News)

If Ivan Rodriguez is a Hall of Famer in Johnny Bench’s eyes, he’s a Hall of Famer in mine as well.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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