Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pudge 2.0 Calls it a Career

Yesterday, Ivan Rodriguez, baseball's best two-way catcher since Johnny Bench, announced his retirement after 21 big league seasons.  He retired as a member of the Texas Rangers by signing a one-day contract with the organization in a manner similar to how Nomar Garciaparra retired with the Boston Red Sox two years ago.  The club honored the fourteen time All-Star by allowing him to throw an unconventional first pitch before their tilt against the Yankees; he settled into his old position behind home plate and threw down to second base, where former teammate Michael Young received the throw.  He joins Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada to form a trio of impressive catchers who hung up their spikes after playing their final games in 2011, though Rodriguez is clearly the best and arguably a top five catcher in baseball history.

The 40 year-old Rodriguez last played on September 28th, 2011 as a member of the Washington Nationals against the Florida Marlins, with whom he won his only World Series ring in 2003.  His final season was a trying one for Pudge (not Carlton Fisk), who was pushing 40, struggling to bat his weight and playing as a part-timer for the first time in his career.  Even worse, he was an old man on a roster of young up-and-comers, a backup to Rookie of the Year candidate Wilson Ramos.  The veteran led off the top of the fifth with a single, the last of his 2,844 career hits (nearly 1,000 of which went for extra bases), off Chris Volstad and came around to score the go-ahead run on an Ian Desmond single.  Although he struck out looking in his last big league at-bat (against Ryan Webb), he caught a gem from phenom Stephen Strasburg, who delivered six innings of one-hit ball while punching out ten Marlins.  The Nats went on to win, 3-1, closing the books on an 80-81 season. 

It was a solid finish to a stellar career in which the Puerto Rico native caught more games than any other catcher in history posted the best caught stealing percentage in history.  The former MVP fell just short of the magical 3,000 hit mark that Derek Jeter reached last summer, but his career statistics and accomplishments are worthy of induction into Cooperstown on the first ballot.  At the time of his retirement, Rodriguez was the active leader in doubles, with 572, and double plays grounded into, with 337.  He bounced into at least ten twin killings every year except 2011.

Speaking of stats, I got plenty more where those came from (aka

-Rodriguez was well decorated and well compensated for his talents.  Starting in 1992, I-Rod made ten straight All-Star squads and won ten consecutive Gold Gloves behind the dish.  His streak was snapped in 2002 when a lengthy DL stint triggered by a herniated disk took him out of commission from mid-April to early June.  He made four more All-Star teams and earned three more Gold Gloves.  He started all but two of those 14 Midsummer Classics and the 13 career Gold Gloves are a record for backstops (Bench is second with ten).  He also collected seven Silver Sluggers, including six in a row from '94 through '99.  As a result, he raked in more than $122 million in player salaries alone during his illustrious career.  Then again, it's easy to make untold millions when Scott Boras represents you.

-From 1993 through 2009, he finished every season with double digit home run totals.  That's how he socked 311 dingers over his career despite having only one 30 home run season

-Ten times he batted over .300, but similar to Mickey Mantle (who also hit .300 ten times) he hit just .265 over his last five seasons and lost his career .300 average (it was .304 after 2006 and ended up at .296).  Interestingly enough, both wore the number seven as well...

-I-Rod had great wheels for a catcher; he stole 127 bases during his career (caught 64 times) and reached double digits in that department four times.  He was the first catcher to go 20/20 in 1999 when he swiped 25 bases to go along with his 35 long balls

-He took home an MVP award that he did not deserve for a career year in 1999.  He finished tenth three other times, but was never a serious contender for the award

-Over an eleven year stretch from 1994 to 2004, when Rodriguez was at the top of his game, he batted .315/.357/.513, good for a 120 OPS+, while averaging 21 home runs a season

-Was putting on quite an encore for his '99 MVP campaign; was batting .347/.375/.667 with 27 home runs and 83 RBI before his season was cut short on July 24th when he fractured his right thumb while attempting to throw out a baserunner, and his hand smacked into Mo Vaughn's bat. You have to figure he would have cleared 35 home runs and 110 RBI with ease, as he did the year before, and maybe could have threatened 40-120.

-After spending his first dozen seasons in a Texas Ranger uniform, he moved around a lot during the final years of his career, making stops with the Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, Astros, Rangers (again) and Nationals.  There is little doubt about which cap they'll put on his plaque, though.

-Came up big for the Marlins in the '03 playoffs, taking NLCS MVP honors and leading the young franchise to its second World Series title in seven seasons.  Fresh off a monster NLDS performance (1.038 OPS) against Barry Bonds and the reigning NL champion San Francisco Giants, he kept swinging a hot bat by knocking in ten runs during the seven game series against Sammy Sosa's Cubs with the NL pennant hanging in the balance.  He batted  an Albert Pujols esque .321/.424/.607.  This is significant because in every other postseason series outside of the '96 ALDS, he was useless with a bat in his hands.  For example, in his two World Series appearances he batted just .220/.233/.293.  He was no Mr. October, so don't mistake him for a Reggie Jackson or David Ortiz.

-Pudge rarely saw a pitch he didn't like; he only drew 446 non-intentional walks during his career and his walk rate is a measly five percent.  In 2007, his final year with the Tigers, he drew eight unintentional walks in 515 plate appearances.  Not surprisingly, his OBP that year was an abominable .294.  The free-swinger usually got his bat on the ball, though, for he never struck out 100 times in any season (but finished his career with nearly three times as many whiffs as walks).  From 2002 through 2011 he chased 34.7 percent of pitches outside the zone, well above the league average of 28 percent.

-Batted in all nine lineup slots

-Loved hitting in the Ballpark in Arlington, where he was a career .325/.361/.530 hitter

-Accumulated 67.3 bWAR, 73.9 fWAR
There has been much speculation that Rodriguez used steroids, and I'd bet that he probably used them.  Several teammates from his Texas years, notably Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco are all admitted or suspected users.  I don't mean to say that Pudge is guilty by association, but given the culture of his team and era it seems that performance enhancing drugs were readily available and probably encouraged in that clubhouse.  I find it hard to believe that any mortal human being, especially one as small (5'9") as him, could maintain the stamina necessary to catch 148 games per year in the brutal Texas heat as he did from 1996 to '99.  Catchers are lucky to play in 140 games under normal circumstances, much less in Arlington's 110 degree weather.  In addition, his physique diminished significantly during his post Texas years, and his power numbers suffered accordingly (after 2004, his home run figures decreased each year, although age and ballpark were contributing factors as well).  Obviously there's no proof, and this is merely speculation, but if you put a gun to my head I would bet that he took steroids.  I believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, but there have been enough whispers in recent years about this guy to create reasonable doubts about his integrity and cleanliness.  He's been dodgy whenever the subject is brought up, and hasn't denied that he used 'roids.

Is he still a Hall of Famer?  Of course.

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