This is the fourth segment in a series on players we've watched for a long, long time who we might get to enjoy in 2012 for the last time. In the first three segments, the players covered have a definite home in 2012 and can count on playing time. The fourth player in our series is still a free agent, he's still unsigned and it's not guaranteed that he'll catch on with a team in 2012. His name is Ivan Rodriguez.
If you put two serious baseball fans in the same room and told them they had to argue the merits of Ivan Rodriguez's career, the two would have a lot to talk about. And one would probably sound a lot like Fred Flintstone with a lot of "yeahbuts" thrown in the conversation. Rodriguez does that to people. You are either wildly impressed by his career or thrown cold by certain aspects of it. Here's a sample of how that conversation might go:
- Fan1: Ivan Rodriguez is the only catcher (80% at that position) in history with more 500 doubles for his career!
- Fan2: Yeahbut, he's also the only player in history who has more than 500 doubles that has more career doubles than walks.
- Fan1: Seriously? Well of all catchers who have ever played, I-Rod has 500 more hits than the nearest guy.
- Fan2: Yeahbut, he's played the last six years without being a league average hitter.
And on and on it would go. There are three things that cloud the career of Ivan Rodriguez. First, he has played long past his prime. Many would argue that he should have retired five years ago. Second, the catcher's allergy to taking walks have lead to some very famous numbers. Lastly, he's been implicated in the great PED debate. Let's talk a bit about all three.
First, when a player retires should be based on the market and on the player's desire to play. Many will say that Willie Mays hung on too long. Many will say that Greg Maddux hung around too long. To those arguments, this Fan says, "Bull." Baseball players have been playing the game since they were little boys. It's all they have ever known. If their enjoyment for the game far outstrips their ability and teams are willing to pay the player to do what they still love to do, then who are we to tell that player he shouldn't play? But what if they are just hanging on for the paycheck? Well, geez, does that make them any different from those of us who stay at our jobs long enough to collect our retirement? Why the double standard?
Plus, there is a value/payment proposition involved here. As long as the team doesn't pay the player too much money and the player adds some value to the team, why is there a problem? If you go to Willie Mays' B-R page, look at his Player Value section. Are there any negative WAR numbers for Willie Mays? Nope, not a single one. Are there any negative WAR numbers next to Greg Maddux's Player Value section? Nope. The same holds true for Ivan Rodriguez. He has provided value in every one of his seasons.
Our problem is that we want our superstars to only keep playing as long as they are superstars. As soon as they are physically unable to perform at their previously high level, we want them to get out of there. Jason Giambi is 41 and is still playing long past his prime. Many fans hate that. Why should they? The guy is enjoying himself and getting paid. Why shouldn't he?
The walk issue for Ivan Rodriguez is a problem we can't talk around. It's certainly a fact well documented. He does have more doubles than walks for his career. His 2007 season was record breaking. It is the only documented season ever where a catcher had more than 500 plate appearances and less than ten walks. The only other position player to have less walks in a season with more than 500 plate appearances since 1949 to have less walks than I-Rod that season was Shawon Dunston who famously only had eight walks in 1997. So yes, this writer will grant that Ivan Rodriguez didn't like to take a walk.
As for the last argument against Ivan Rodriguez that he was implicated (by Jose Canseco) as a user of PEDs, you already know that this writer doesn't care. He certainly wasn't alone. You can all have your fun if you want and poke holes and call him a cheater if you want. Not this guy.
As most of you know, value also comes from other places than hitting. There is also base running and fielding. Base running is something that has only been calculated since 2002. Ivan Rodriguez had already been catching and squatting for eleven years to that point. That he's only cited by Fangraphs as a -3.8 runs in base running since that time isn't half bad for a guy who has been getting into the crouch that long. But fielding? That's another story entirely.
According to Fangraphs, nobody has saved as many runs defensively as a catcher than Ivan Rodriguez. According to that site, he has saved 159 runs for his career. The closest to him is Jim Sundberg at 115. Baseball-reference agrees, giving Rodriguezz 167 runs saved for his career to Sundberg's 114. Rodriguez has the most assists of any catcher since 1961. Of all modern catchers, he has the highest career caught stealing rate which sits currently at 45.68. His only modern rival is Yadier Molina who sits at 44 percent. Even at the age of 39, Ivan Rodriguez threw out 52 percent of those that tried to steal against him. It was the ninth time in his career that his percentage was over 50 percent.
Mike Fast's work on how effective catchers are at getting strikes for their pitchers covered the years when Ivan Rodriguez was between the ages of 36 to 39. And even so, Fast rated Rodriguez above average in that category. An earlier study on the subject by Dan Turkenkopf rated Rodriguez even higher.
Plus, Ivan Rodriguez has been just fine at limiting passed balls over his career. All facets of his defense lead this writer to believe that Ivan Rodriguez was the elite defensive catcher of his generation. Add that to his offense, which up until six years ago, was among the best at his position, and you have what this writer believes is a Hall of Fame career. He was the lead catcher for two World Series champions, his arm was a cannon (and still is) and he's always been great fun to watch.
We don't know if Ivan Rodriguez will find a job in 2012. If he does, celebrate his career. There have been few we've seen better at his position. This writer will celebrate him, warts and all.