Will Ivan Rodriguez make it in to the Hall of Fame? The case for and against him
Rodriguez is one of the best catchers in history, but will PED suspicions keep him out of Cooperstown?
Leading up to the announcement of the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame class on Jan. 18, we're examining each of the 34 candidates on this year's BBWAA ballot. By way of reminder, a candidate must be named on at least 75 percent of submitted BBWAA ballots in order to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
We've already looked at the numerous candidates who are certain to fall off the ballot after only one year (candidates receiving less than five percent drop off the ballot). Now we're looking at those hopefuls who figure to have meaningful support and perhaps even earn induction at some point. Up this time around is the two-way brilliance of catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who played 21 seasons in the big leagues from 1991-2011, spent most of his career with the Rangers before moving on to the Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, Astros, and Nationals. He was arguably the second best hitting catcher of his generation behind Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, and he was the game's premier defender during his heyday. Rodriguez's arm is regarded as one of the best in history, if not the best:
From 1991-2002, Rodriguez's first stint with the Rangers (he returned to the team briefly in 2009), opposing teams attempted only 1,552 stolen bases against Texas, second fewest among the non-expansion teams. That was all Rodriguez. His arms was so great the other team didn't even bother to try to steal most games. He shut the running game down without even having to make a throw.
Let's now dive a little deeper into Rodriguez's Hall of Fame candidacy.
The case for Rodriguez
Simply put, Rodriguez is one of the greatest two-way catchers in baseball history. He retired as a career .296/.334/.464 (106 OPS+) hitter with 2,844 hits, 572 doubles, 311 home runs, 1,332 RBI, and 68.4 WAR. (WAR is still lacking when it comes to catcher defense.) During his peak from 1997-2004, ages 25-32, Rodriguez hit .320/.363/.530 (127 OPS+) and averaged 36 doubles, 26 homers, and 94 RBI per season. He also threw out an unfathomable 51 percent of attempted basestealers those years. The league average is around 30 percent.
Rodriguez is a 14-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove winner -- he went to 10 straight All-Star Games and won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1992-2001 -- who was named AL MVP in 1999, his age 27 season. That year he authored a .332/.356/.558 (125 OPS+) batting line and set career highs in home runs (35) and RBI (113). Rodriguez earned top 10 finishes in the MVP voting in three other seasons as well (1996, 1998, 2004).
Catchers are rarely productive deep into their 30s and Rodriguez's career is defined by his longevity. His bat didn't slip for good until his mid-30s, and it wasn't until 2011, his final season as a big leaguer, that he became a backup catcher. Rodriguez's career is defined by longevity. Here is where he ranks among catchers in MLB history. These stats are as a catcher only. Not as a DH or any other position.
- Games Caught: 2,377 (first)
- Hits: 2,749 (first, Jason Kendall is a distant second with 2,160)
- Doubles: 551 (first, A.J. Pierzynski is a distant second with 394)
- Triples: 51 (tied for first with Tim McCarver)
- Home Runs: 304 (third behind Piazza and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk)
- Runs Batted In: 1,290 (first)
- Total Bases: 4,314 (first, Fisk is a distant second with 3,656)
Yes, Rodriguez's huge edge in counting stats like hits and doubles and total bases is thanks largely to the fact he caught more games than anyone else, but that's kind of the point. He played so many games at such a demanding position. Rodriguez's career totals are impressive, no doubt, though they'd be less impressive if he were, say, a first baseman or corner outfielder. He did all that as a catcher, the most brutal position in the game.
Rodriguez won one World Series in his career, with the 2003 Marlins. He was named NLCS MVP that year after hitting .321 with two home runs and 10 RBI in the classic seven-game series against the Cubs. During the 2003 NLDS, Rodriguez had a walk-off two-run single in Florida's Game 3 win over the Giants:
Rodriguez hit a two-run home run earlier in that game as well. At +.717 win probability added, his Game 3 performance was the 16th most impactful game in postseason history.
Then, the very next night in Game 4, Rodriguez held on to the ball for the series-clinching out after being run over by J.T. Snow on a play at the plate:
Rodriguez was a great hitter, especially relative to his position, and he was an all-world defensive catcher. Retroactive analysis show he was truly an elite defender. Very few catchers has as much impact on both sides of the ball during their careers as Rodriguez, especially over such a long period of time.
The case against Rodriguez
There is basically no statistical argument against Rodriguez as a Hall of Famer. Even if you want to harp on his generally underwhelming career .255/.314/.392 batting line in the postseason, that's still only 170 plate appearances, less than two percent of his career total. A drop in the bucket.
Any case against Rodriguez revolves around one thing: performance-enhancing drugs. Jose Canseco identified Rodriguez as a PED user in his 2005 book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, And How Baseball Got Big. Canseco claims to have personally injected Rodriguez with anabolic steroids while teammates with the Rangers from 1993-94.
After the book was released, Rodriguez said he was "in shock" about Canseco's claims and denied them vehemently. From Bootie Cosgrove-Mather of the Associated Press in 2005:
"I'm in shock," Rodriguez told local El Nuevo Dia newspaper for Tuesday's editions. "He is saying things that aren't true, and it hurts me a lot that he would say things like that because I've always had a lot of respect for him, and I've even helped him many times when things weren't going well for him."
"I'm not a homerunner," the 14-year Major League veteran said. "What was I going to use that for? To keep hitting doubles?
Rodriguez never did test positive for PEDs or serve a suspension during his playing career. He also was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report, baseball's investigative report into PED use, which was released in December 2007. At this point, any PED suspicion involving Rodriguez is based on Canseco's book, and, to be fair, Canseco's other claims have proved to be true. Rodriguez never did fail a test, however. There's no hard evidence.
Will he make it?
Yes, and possibly on the first ballot as well. As of this writing, Rodriguez has appeared on 84.8 percent of the publicly available ballots according to Ryan Thibodaux's tracker, well above the 75 percent needed for induction. That said, fewer than one-third of all Hall of Fame ballots are public at this point, so there are a lot of ballots unaccounted for at the moment.
Either way, Rodriguez is polling strongly enough right now that even if he doesn't get into the Hall of Fame this year, he figures to make it at some point in the future. His credentials are undeniably worthy of induction -- Jay Jaffe's JAWS system rates Rodriguez as the third best catcher in history behind Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Gary Carter -- with PED suspicion the only potential roadblock to Cooperstown.
The fact Piazza got into the Hall of Fame last year and Jeff Bagwell is likely to get in this year bodes well for Rodriguez. Those two both dealt with similar PED suspicions despite never failing a test. Rodriguez was, without question, one of the most productive catchers in baseball history, both offensively and defensively. He's not a borderline candidate. His career is first ballot Hall of Fame worthy.