Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Pudge Deserves First Ballot

Rodriguez might be the best catcher ever (Century21 Riverpointe)
Nineteen former players are eligible to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame for the first time this year. While a couple should be slam-dunks based on their numbers alone (Manny Ramirez says hello), it's possible none of them will be elected, especially with holdovers Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Trevor Hoffman all coming off near-misses last year (each received at least 67 percent of the vote). As such, the BBWAA may continue clearing the backlog of deserving candidates rather than welcome anyone new this year, although it's possible one lucky newcomer will break through.

Ivan Rodriguez is easily the strongest addition to this year's ballot, and an inner-circle Hall of Famer by any measure. He won an MVP and a World Series, along with seven Silver Sluggers (six consecutively from 1994-1999) and 13 Gold Gloves -- the most ever by a pitch-caller. He leads the position in numerous statistics, including games caught, runs, hits, doubles, and weighted runs created.  Fourteen times he was an All-Star.

Rodriguez was the perfect catcher. He hit for power (311 career homers) and average (.296 lifetime). He had speed (127 steals). He was also, as you may have inferred from his Gold Glove total, the best defensive backstop the game has ever seen. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both have him ranked number one, and by a considerable margin. Although his bat declined in his later years, he remained a top-notch receiver until the very end, placing fifth among NL catchers in Total Zone Runs in his final season despite playing just 44 games. Even as a 39-year-old backup catcher who couldn't hit, he was still above replacement level.

Based on defense alone, Pudge is worthy of a place in Cooperstown, but it's his contributions with the stick that make him worthy of first-ballot induction. In addition to slashing .296/.334/.464 (104 wrC+) for his career, he also approached 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, settling at 2,844 and 572, respectively. He drove in and scored more than 1,300 runs. He was an offensive force in 1999 -- the year he edged Pedro Martinez for MVP honors -- and again the following year, when he had a 1.042 OPS before a fractured thumb ended his season in late July.

Put it all together, and Rodriguez has a legitimate case as the greatest catcher in baseball history. Jay Jaffe's JAWS metric, which combines career value with peak value, ranks him third behind Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. Pudge combined Bench's defense with the longevity and offense of the previous Pudge -- Carlton Fisk. He was remarkably durable and consistent for a catcher; according to FanGraphs, he was worth at least three wins every year from 1995 through 2005 (and worth 2.9 WAR in 2006, when he batted .300 for the final time and helped lead Detroit to a pennant).

And yet, despite all that, Rodriguez will likely be barred from the Hall this year due to rumors of steroid use during his career. He never tested positive, but Jose Canseco claimed Rodriguez juiced during their time together in Texas, and Canseco's been right about these things more often than not. Some may also see Rodriguez's slimmer physique and declining home run totals during the testing era as proof, but by that point he was in his early 30s and should have been declining naturally (his last season as an above average hitter came at 32). It is suspicious, however, that he was able to catch more games than anyone in history despite spending 13 seasons in the Texas heat. He seemed especially superhuman during the late '90s, when he was putting up monster offensive numbers while catching more than 140 games per year.

Based on what happened with similar cases (Bagwell and Mike Piazza), steroid suspicion will likely prevent Rodriguez from gaining entry on the first ballot. Now that Piazza's in, however, there's no legitimate reason for keeping Rodriguez out. He was a better defender and compiled superior counting stats, plus won an MVP and was a key leader on a World Series winner. The electorate has become more forgiving of PED-associated players in recent years, but my guess is that Rodriguez may fall just short of election this year. Hopefully they prove me wrong.

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