Baseball lost another of its all-time greats yesterday, when catcher Ivan Rodriguez decided to pack it in. “Pudge” was often seen as the premier defensive catcher of his era, when he was at his best, he was easily all least that. I’m going a step further He was the greatest defensive catcher of all-time, and even still, he was only AT LEAST just that.
While the Gold Glove has somehow become arguably the worst way to judge defensive prowess (considering how it seems like it takes 20 home runs to qualify for one these days), Pudge was one of those guys who REALLY earned it with, you know, actual defense still. Or even more, he earned it with straight out intimidation. Folk’s just plain out we’re not running on him. In my time watching the game over the last 20 years, there have been a few catchers that just have the type of arm where guys stick close to the base like youth league softball. Charles Johnson, Benito Santiago and Yadier Molina jump out the pack, but none was what Rodriguez was. He cut down 45% of potential base thefts in his career; that’s crazy. He called a solid game behind the plate for a variety of great hurlers in era, starting with Nolan Ryan and later on catching Justin Verlander’s first no-hitter.
While Pudge will always be known as a force behind the plate, I’m going a step further and paying him his full due: he was the greatest All-Around catcher to ever play the game. I say this in a talent-turned-into results perspective, for I still hold that Yogi Berra sits at the pinnacle of the Catcher’s Mount Olympus (his 10-titles & three MVPs assure him of that). But when looking at the most talented and tooled player to ever don the “tools of ignorance”, he’s peerless. Now I’m well aware of the traditional baseball rhetoric that has reserved this honor for Johnny Bench, and Johnny Bench alone, but really, where didn’t Pudge surpass him? Look at bit deeper and see the big picture for what it is.
It’s at the plate that his due should truly be reevaluated, and where his rightful due as the greatest all-around catcher ever is sealed. At a spot where offense is often sacrificed in the name of leadership, strategy and defense, Pudge shined. He’s the all-time hits leader at the position, with 2,844. His 572 doubles are tops at the spot and 21st overall all-time. He hit over .300 for eight consecutive years and 10 times total, finishing with a career mark of .296. That’s beyond outstanding for a catcher, and places him with top hitters of the strongest offensive era in the game’s history. And what’s more is he did this while grinding behind the plate at a record pace has well. He never moved positions, and the gruel of squatting down for nine innings at yet another record pace didn’t affect his record offensive output, or his legendary defense. He played over 130 games nine times, and a total of 2,427 overall; 200 more than next best total.
What more can I say? His 1999 MVP season was amazing; 35 homers, 113 RBI, .332 batting average with 199 hits against only 64 strikeouts in 144 games caught. That’s amazing while sustaining the torture that a full-season of catching can be. After he hit the scene as a 19 year old in 1991, he followed up with a Rookie of the Year award in 1992 at 20, as well as made his first of his eventual 14 All-Star appearances. He also took home the first of his 13 (earned) Gold Gloves that year, a record total at the catcher spot and ties him for the fourth most at any position. Overall, he played in two World Series, and won one in his lone year as a Florida Marlin.
Yet there is still a lack of buzz around the departure of this giant from the game. Perhaps because he didn’t speak the sharpest English or didn’t play much of his career in the league’s brightest media posts, his finish is a bit more subdued. But one of the greatest players of the last 20 years has decided to walk away, and it’s just a matter of time before his number 7 is the fourth number the Texas Rangers retire, and there’s only four years and 364 days left before he is rightfully placed in Cooperstown as the greatest catcher of many eras. And if you missed out or underappreciated that, then you really missed a beauty of a game put on, from the trenches of it.
For more on today’s underappreciated legends in the works, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.