Ivan Rodriguez had the best throwing arm and footwork of any catcher of his era and maybe of all-time. Nine times he led the American League in throwing out basestealers, and eight times he cut them down at a rate above 50 percent. He won 13 Gold Gloves behind the plate, the most by a catcher in baseball history. He was known for his cat-like reflexes behind the dish and his snap throws to any base to catch snoozing runners unaware.
He was no slouch with the bat either, slugging over .500 six times and hitting more than 30 doubles in a season nine times. He batted over .300 for eight straight seasons from 1995 to 2002, and ten times overall. He spent 13 years with the Texas Rangers, helping that team make the playoffs three times in the 1990s – the first three post-season appearances for the franchise. He was named league Most Valuable Player in ’99 when he hit .332 with 199 hits, 35 homers, 113 RBI, and 25 stolen bases while catching 141 games. Throughout his career he was durable – catching as many as 120 games on ten occasions.
After leaving Texas as a free agent, the Puerto Rican native signed a lucrative one-year deal with the Florida Marlins, and it turned out to be one of the best such signings in baseball history. Rodriguez had a fairly typical season at the plate by his standards with the Fish in 2003, but he immediately took charge as a leader of the pitching staff and the team. His rugged play during the regular season helped the Marlins to the wild card and a spot in the playoffs. In the post-season he was superb – batting .313 with three homers and 17 RBI in 17 games as the Marlins won the World Series. He delivered three game-winning hits in the post-season and saved a game and ended the NLDS by blocking a run from scoring at the plate.
In the last few years of his career Pudge (so nicknamed because he was compared to Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk) bounced around to a few different teams. But his stint in Detroit was especially noteworthy because helped to spark a revival in that franchise after several years of losing by the Tigers. Two years after he signed the Tigers were in the World Series.
Rumors have swirled around Rodriguez concerning PEDs, with his appearance being a factor in the speculation. During his five years in Detroit he bulked up and then quickly slimmed down again one off-season. Some wondered whether he had been a steroid user. It has never surfaced that he ever failed an MLB drug test, but still the rumors swirl. He was part of the Texas teams in the 1990s, where according to Jose Canseco, steroid use was rampant.
Rodriguez retired in April of 2011 when no team would sign him to a contract. He had hoped to continue to play as a part-time catcher, his goal being to reach 3,000 hits. He retired with 2,844 to his credit, the most by any player who was primarily a catcher.
Of the great catchers, Pudge was the most consistent. The standard deviation of his top ten seasons was under 1.0 in WAR. The other most consistent catchers among the top 15 or so are Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Ted Simmons. There’s something to be said for that: a catcher who you can count on for a decade or so. Most great players have a few amazing seasons and then filler years of being an All-Star or even just above average. Bench and Carter and Berra’s careers are like that.
Some speculation exists about whether or not Rodriguez was a steroid user. I didn’t discount him here for that. His physique definitely changed throughout his career, but that alone isn’t a smoking gun. He dropped weight late in his 30s (apparently) to extend his career. He desperately wants to be the first catcher to reach the 3,000-hit mark. Whether he makes it or not, Pudge deserves a lot of credit for getting as far as he has (more than 2,800 hits as of 2011). If any catcher ever gets to 3,000 it will be by following the career pattern of Rodriguez – getting to the big leagues as a teenager or by the age of 20, racking up hits early and staying healthy, and by being a very good hitter.
His play in the 2003 post-season ranks among the very best ever in a single post-season by a catcher. He drove in 17 runs in 17 games for the Marlins that year and played like a man possessed behind the plate. Only Bench (1976 post-season), Munson (also 1976), and Hank Gowdy (1914 World Series) rival his impact in a single fall.