Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 3/13/12

As we approach the midpoint of spring training and cast a wanting eye towards opening day, it is probably fair to wonder about the status of currently unsigned free agents. One such free agent is future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, whose dalliances with the Mets a week or so ago proved fruitless, and thus may be pushing the legendary backstop towards retirement whether he wants to or not.

He reportedly still has the itch to play, but to be honest, Rodriguez hasn’t been particularly useful with the stick since the first administration of the second Bush. From 2005 henceforth, Rodriguez has hit .274/.301/.404 while amassing over 3000 plate appearances. Thus, despite making three All Star appearances, winning two gold gloves, and even participating in a home run derby in the interim, it’s probably fair to wonder if he’s still on anyone’s speed dial.

So with Rodriguez’ future firmly in limbo, it seems fair to consider where his place is among all-time great backstops.

One interesting tidbit that I noticed when researching for a previous piece was how the leaderboard of runners thrown out at Baseball Reference was ripe with catchers of yore. To clarify, by my eyeballing only six of the top 200 listed (by caught stealing percentage) have played in the past 40 years or so. Number 200 on that list is Ron Karkovice, the 12-year vet of feast-or-famine fame. The Officer nabbed just over 41 percent — about two in every five — of attempted base thieves against him. A cursory glance up the list shows only the following catchers having played in the past 30-40 years: Henry Blanco (43.1 percent), Johnny Bench (43.5 percent), Yadier Molina (44.0 percent), Thurman Munson (44.5 percent). On top of the list? Today’s subject, I-Rod — I won’t call him Pudge out of respect to Carlton Fisk — who checks in at 76th on the all-time list by nabbing 45.7 percent of those who tried to cross him.

To me, that hardly seems possible; 75 more guys were more prolific at throwing out baserunners than the great Rodriguez? The great Roy Campanella, who’s proven to be an inspiring tale for my paralyzed brother for what it’s worth, is the all time leader at 57.4 percent, but it still boggles my mind that A. 75 men were more prolific than Rodriguez at nabbing base thieves and B. only six catchers in the last 40 or so years — a mere three percent of the top 200 — match up against catchers of all time. I actually posed the question to our FanGraphs experts, and some suggested it was a case of bigger, faster, stronger — though I think that applies to both sides — or perhaps a case of the running game just not being as big of a part of the game’s society — maybe it really IS just society — but nonetheless, I’m still seeking a good grasp on it.

But I digress. Throwing runners out isn’t all a catcher can do to to prove his mettle, and since we can’t quantify defensive merits quite as well as we’d like, I don’t want to belabor the point much longer. By our defensive metrics, he’s 165.2 runs above average, a good 20-plus runs above next-nearest competitor Charlie Bennett, and about 50 runs better than Jim Sundberg, who checks in at third. Rodriguez revolutionized the position, for the sake of brevity. Obviously, this is why he was permitted to Pedro Feliz his way around the league with his bat over the past seven or so years.

And while we don’t have a good grasp on whether or not veteran mentorship from a catcher has intrinsic value or not — apparently GMs feel it does — let’s take a glance at some of the staffs that Rodriguez has caught since his bat went by the wayside.

Year Team ERA Young Catcher “Mentored” 2005 Tigers 4.51 (8th AL) N/A 2006 Tigers 3.84 (1st AL) N/A 2007 Tigers 4.57 (9th AL) N/A 2008 Tigers/Yankees 4.90 w/ DET (12th) – 4.28 w/ NYY (8th) Dusty Ryan/Francisco Cervelli 2009 Astros/Rangers 4.54 w/ HOU (13th) – 4.38 w/ TEX (8th) J.R. Towles/Jarrod Saltalamacchia 2010 Nationals 4.13 (11th NL) Wilson Ramos 2011 Nationals 3.58 (6th NL)* Wilson Ramos

*Rodriguez only caught 304.2 innings in 2011.

I put mentored in quotes because I don’t know if that’s an actual thing, or if I really buy into it. Similarly, we can’t be sure if he even had much of a relationship with each young catcher — newspaper quotes aside — but I think it’s still slightly interesting to note. Nonetheless as we can see, it’s really hard to pull any of the sort of ‘intangible value’ that one might try to sell themselves on if they were to sign Rodriguez at this point in his career. Obviously a catcher isn’t responsible for the execution of pitches, but to be on just a pair of teams (and he didn’t play much of a part in the latter one, hence the asterisk) in the past seven seasons that was above the middle of the pack certainly has me wondering if there was even any tangible value.

But that only really might explain why he’s sitting at home right now, and that’s not what I’m out to do today. Over the first 14 years of Rodriguez’ career — up until the 2005-on tailspin — he amassed an incredible .306/.347/.490 triple-slash. When coupled with his legendary defense, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, at least in my view.

But the hangover from the past seven years have hurt his overall numbers significantly. His career OPS is nearly 40 points lower, and his OPS+ had nearly 10 points shaved off as well. Indeed, pretty much all players have that end-of-career decline in statistics, but it at least seems to me that Rodriguez’ is more stark than others. It almost seems as though Rodriguez is a cautionary tale for those who hang on too long.

Historically speaking, Rodriguez grades out quite favorably among his catcher peers offensively.

Statistic All-Time Rank Games Played 1st Hits 1st Home Runs 7th RBI 5th Isolated Power* 15th wOBA* 25th wRC+* 30th WAR 3rd

*Among catchers with 5000 or more PA. 

But from this table we can obviously see the effects of a couple poor terms in office for Mr. Rodriguez, as he’s tops on the counting stats lists, but has tumbled on the rate stat ranks.

So where exactly does this rate Rodriguez overall? Well, WAR would suggest that Rodriguez is the third best backstop of all-time, and that’s probably a good place to start. In essence, Rodriguez’ biggest shortcoming was that he didn’t walk. But he didn’t really have to; he was that good of a hitter and a competent, if unspectacular baserunner. Joking aside, he was the best catcher of this era by a healthy margin — sorry, Mr. Piazza — and for my money, the second best backstop of all-time. What can I say, I just love the defense.


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