When the Detroit Tigers shocked everyone by advancing to the 2006 World Series, their biggest stars were catcher Ivan Rodriguez and right fielder Magglio Ordonez. The pair helped lead the franchise back to respectability and an era of success that lasted well past their tenures in a Tiger uniform.
Both former Tigers make their debut on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year, eligible for election when results are announced on January 18, 2017.
The candidacies of Pudge and Maggs are interesting, but complicated. Ultimately it’s unlikely that either will be elected this time around, but for different reasons. In this article I will look at the Hall of Fame case for Pudge Rodriguez, next time I’ll look at Magglio Ordonez.
Why catchers have to wait their turn for the Hall of Fame
When Gary Carter retired he ranked fourth all-time in homers by a catcher. He’d been an all-star eleven times and won three Gold Glove Awards. He was the NL’s Silver Slugger as a catcher five times and was named MVP of the All-Star Game twice. He was generally regarded as one of the top five catchers to ever play the game.
Yet, when Carter’s named appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot the first time, three out of five baseball writers failed to vote for him. The next year he earned only one in three votes, and it wasn’t until his fourth time on the ballot that Carter moved over the 50 percent mark. In 2003 in his sixth try, Carter was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Objective observers still rate him easily among the top catchers to ever put on a chest protector, and statistical afficianodos place him second all-time at his position behind only Johnny Bench (according to WAR) and first in WAR7, a stat that measures peak performance. Still, Carter was made to wait.
Carlton Fisk, a man no one ever questioned as a force behind the dish, was not elected in his first year on the ballot. Neither was Roy Campanella, who won three MVP awards. It took Campy seven tries. Yogi Berra had to wait until his second year on the Hall of Fame ballot. Yogi Berra! The guy was so famous he had a cartoon character created in his honor.
Why do elite catchers have to wait to get their plaque in Cooperstown? I think there are four primary reasons: (1) due to the physical rigors of the job, catchers wear down and frequently miss time so their stats look less gaudy on a season-by-season basis and for their career; (2) catchers usually have a short peak before slowing down or moving to a different position; (3) a large portion of a catcher’s value stems from defense, a skill that’s hard to measure statistically; and (4) due to the demands of the position, catchers can be very inconsistent. Even the best catchers have had terrible seasons in the middle of their careers.
Rodriguez had the longest career of the elite catchers — 21 seasons in the big leagues. His peak was longer than just about anyone: in each of his first ten full seasons he won the Gold Glove and was an All-Star. But like Carter, Fisk, and Berra before him, Pudge will not enter Cooperstown immediately. Even without the question of steroids (which I’ll address next), his 2,700+ hits and 300+ homers would still not be enough to get Pudge past the bias against catchers.
Pudge and the steroid question
When Pudge arrived in Lakeland in February 2005 for his second spring training with the Detroit Tigers, many people did a double take. Pudge wasn’t so “pudgy” anymore. The catcher had lost more than 20 pounds, much of it muscle. His frame was smaller and his uniform was down a few sizes. But why?
According to Rodriguez it was an attempt to stay healthier for the length of an entire season. Manager Alan Trammell explained, “This is something that he started early in the off-season. His weight, I knew about it early on. He felt like last year, for over half the season, he had an injury in his hip flexor muscle that hindered him as a catcher. He did not move as well for over half the season. I think that had a lot to do with it. He’s dedicated.”
Others weren’t so sure about the timing. Only weeks earlier, Jose Canseco had released his tell-all book in which he identified players who had used performance-enhancing drugs. One of those named was Rodriguez, his former teammate in Texas. The furor over that book spurred a subsequent investigation into steroid use in baseball. It’s a stain on the game that we’re still dealing with.
Texas in the 1990s seems to have been the national pastime’s “steroid central.” Canseco was there. Rafael Palmeiro was there. So were Dean Palmer and Michael Young and Juan Gonzalez, each implicated as users of PEDs. And of course, Alex Rodriguez also put on a Ranger uniform, and we know what he did while he was in the Lone Star State. The drugs and needles were an open secret with the Rangers, and Pudge was in the middle of that.
In the nine seasons from 1996 to 2004 (his first year in Detroit), Rodriguez posted a 882 OPS. Starting in ’05, after he got smaller, Pudge had an OPS of 735 in his next four seasons. Was it the natural decline due to age? Or was it something else? Pudge said he got leaner to be more durable, but he suffered injuries in four of his five seasons after dropping the weight.
Rodriguez never failed a drug test that we know of. No one other than Canseco specifically named Pudge as a steroid user. But the suspicion is there and the circumstantial evidence doesn’t look good. How much will the Hall of Fame voters take this into account?
Mike Piazza was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013. He owns the record for most homers in a career by a catcher and posted the most eye-popping offensive numbers by a catcher in history, even better than those from Bench. But it took Piazza four tries to get into Cooperstown. There was buzzing around him about PEDs. Could a catcher stay that healthy and hit the ball out of the ballpark to the opposite field that often and be clean? Those were the questions voters asked as Piazza cooled his heels for four years.
Rodriguez had the Hall of Fame credentials before he came to Motown. He was baseball’s best defensive catcher and it could be argued that he was the best all-around defender to ever play the position.
Offensively, Pudge was similar to Mickey Cochrane, a high average, line-drive hitter with decent power who could get on base at a good clip. A rare catcher who could hit third in the lineup.
The résumé is impressive: AL MVP in 1999, 2003 NLCS MVP, a record 13 Gold Glove Awards, and seven Silver Slugger Awards. He was a 14-time All-Star and his throwing arm is considered one of the strongest ever. His 2,749 hits as a catcher are easily the most ever and he socked 304 homers at the position while hitting .297 over a 21-year career. No man ever played more games behind the plate.
But even with the gaudy numbers, Pudge will have to wait for his place in the Hall of Fame, just like Carter and Fisk and Piazza did. It just remains to be seen how long that wait will last.