Baseball 85: Ivan Rodriguez

There’s a mystery about the career of Ivan Rodriguez that I’ve spent a day or two trying to solve. It’s not a big deal, and I’m not even sure that it’s very revealing. But this is how it goes in baseball. Sometimes you go down a rabbit hole, and you’re not at all sure what you'll end up with. But, hey, if you don’t write about it, the whole thing feels like a waste of time.

First, a few facts about catchers.

Only three catchers in baseball history have started 2,000 games behind the plate. I asked my pal Mike this trivia question and he instantly said “Fisk, Pudge, Boone,” which is exactly right and tells me that it’s not a great question at all. But here is a decent trivia question: Who is fourth on the list?

While you think about that, yes, Ivan Rodriguez (2,346 games), Carlton Fisk (2,097) and Bob Boone (2,091) are the only three players to start 2,000 games as a catcher, and let’s take a moment to gasp at the absurdity of the achievement. Think of the equipment and all that crouching, knees aching, shooting pain in the back, and now think of all those collisions and fastballs in the dirt and curveballs bouncing into your chest and batters clanking you with their follow-throughs. Sports are sports, games are games, but that to me feels like the closest thing baseball has to working for a living.

And Pudge did it more than anybody by far — by more than a full season. There really has never been another player quite like him.

Fourth on the list, by the way, is Jason Kendall. That’s right. Jason Kendall started 1,990 big league games behind the plate — more than Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Mike Piazza, etc. He caught more games than Elston Howard and Joe Torre combined. So that’s something.

OK, so that’s the first point. I-Rod spent more time behind the plate than anyone in baseball history. The second point is that through it all, he was an above-average hitter. He wasn’t a WELL-above-average hitter, no. He wasn’t Bench or Berra, but understand that only eight catchers in baseball history got 7,500 plate appearances in the big leagues and finished with an above-average OPS+.

  1. Mike Piazza, 142 OPS+

  2. Johnny Bench, 126 OPS+

  3. Yogi Berra, 125 OPS+

  4. Ted Simmons, 118 OPS+

  5. Carlton Fisk, 117 OPS+

  6. Gary Carter, 115 OPS+

  7. Ivan Rodriguez, 106 OPS+

  8. Lance Parrish, 106 OPS+

So there are six Hall of Famers in there … and a guy who I think more and more of us see as a terrible oversight in Ted Simmons. We’ll get back to him later in the show.

I-Rod was an amazing defensive catcher, maybe the best ever. How about another list? Here are the Top 5 defensive catchers by fielding runs above average:

  1. Ivan Rodriguez, 147 runs

  2. Yadier Molina, 125 runs

  3. Jim Sundberg, 114 runs

  4. Gary Carter, 112 runs

  5. Bob Boone, 105 runs

That’s a pretty good list. There will be some who are outraged that Bench is not in there (he’s eighth), but Bench played many fewer games behind the plate than those five. In any case, we're learning all the time about defensive things that a catcher can do (such as pitch framing), but for the basics — catch and throw, blocking balls in the dirt, handling a pitcher, etc. — it’s hard to imagine that anyone in baseball history was better than I-Rod. So, that’s just there -- his defensive genius -- even though we won’t mention it again.

As a hitter, Rodriguez did some red-letter things that got noticed. From 1995 through 2002, he hit .300 every year. He hit double-digit homers 15 seasons in a row, topping out at 35 in his MVP season of 1999. He stole 127 bases, making him one of just six catchers to steal 100 bases in a career.* I-Rod had a handful of big offensive years, such as 2004 for Detroit, when he hit .334/.383/.510, and 1996, when he scored 116 runs, or, most famously, that MVP season, when he hit .332, slugged .558 and drove in 116 RBIs.

*The most surprising of those, at least to me: Carlton Fisk, with 128 stolen bases. That probably shouldn’t be too surprising, since Fisk was an incredible athlete, a former basketball star. But every time I see Fisk with 128 stolen bases, it throws me just a little.

So this is where the mystery comes in. There’s a statistic that we talk about sometimes here called Win Probability Added. It can be a problematic stat if you try to put too much into it, but I think all stats are like that. With Win Probability Added, as the name suggests, you add up how much win probability the player added. I don’t know if I have to explain it better, but I'll give an example: If your team is trailing by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, chances are you will lose. Then, let’s say someone scratches out a walk. Well, the chance that your team will win went up — not an overwhelming amount, but still it went up. Drawing that walk increased that player’s win probability added.

Then, let’s say you come up next and hit a homer to win the game. Your WPA just exploded, because you took a team from an almost certain loss to a sure win. That’s WPA. And at the same time, the pitcher’s WPA just nose-dived — that’s one of the cool parts of WPA. Every weight has a counterweight. But we’re focusing on offensive WPA here.

OK, so I looked at players who had the highest career WPA for games in which they were behind the plate. Remember, this is just hitting, but still: Of the 14 catchers with the highest career WPA, 11 are in the Hall of Fame. One, Joe Mauer, is not yet eligible. And two are not in the Hall. Here’s the list, with the non-Hall of Famers in bold.

  1. Mike Piazza, 38.3 WPA

  2. Yogi Berra, 36.6 WPA

  3. Ted Simmons, 29.1 WPA

  4. Johnny Bench, 26.5 WPA

  5. Mickey Cochrane, 25.6 WPA

  6. Bill Dickey, 24.9 WPA

  7. Carlton Fisk, 21.7 WPA

  8. Joe Mauer, 20 WPA

  9. Ernie Lombardi, 18.3 WPA

  10. Jorge Posada, 17.1 WPA

  11. Roy Campanella, 16.8 WPA

  12. Gabby Hartnett, 16.1 WPA

  13. Joe Torre, 16.0 WPA

  14. Gary Carter, 14.1 WPA

Now, remember, WPA is not everything, not close to everything, but two things stand out on this list. One is, again, holy cow, can we get Ted Simmons into the Hall of Fame already? And while we’re at it, maybe we didn’t give Jorge Posada the sort of look that he deserved. I mean, that’s less egregious — the Hall of Famers surrounding him generally had short careers and, well, Joe Torre is not in the Hall of Fame as a player. He’s there as a manager.

But Simmons. Sheesh. I’ve long thought that Lou Whitaker is the biggest non-PED or gambling omission from the Hall of Fame, and he is indeed a big omission. But Ted Simmons might be even more stark.

The second thing, as you no doubt asked yourself: Where is Ivan Rodriguez?

So you go down the list. Buster Posey is 17th. Bill Freehan is 25th. The great Manny Sanguillen is 32nd. Keep going. Yadi Molina is 43rd. (Remember, this is just offense.) Ron Hassey is 54th. Bob Brenly is 60th. OK, keep going. Earl Battey is 69th. Salvy Perez is 76th. Mike Scioscia is 86th. Mike Scioscia was not a very good hitter. How much longer do we have to go?

Francisco Cervelli is 91st. Famously shaky Hall of Famer Ray Schalk, who slugged .316 for his career, is 97th. Derek Norris is 116th. This is getting ridiculous. Milt May is 127th. Alan Ashby is 159th. Scott Servais is 171st.

And there, finally, at No. 177 — with a minus 4.6 WPA — is Ivan Rodriguez.

[caption id="attachment_23700" align="aligncenter" width="475"] When it comes to defense behind the plate, I-Rod might be the best ever.[/caption]

Now you tell me: How is this possible? We have established that I-Rod was an above-average hitter. He played in more games than any catcher ever. How is it possible that he actually subtracted five wins in probability added?

This was the rabbit hole. And, thanks to Win Probability Added guru Tom Tango, it led me to two answers. I’m telling you up front that I’m not sure how interesting either answer is. But, as the line goes, it’s 100 floors of frights, they’re not all gonna be winners.

The first answer is that while I-Rod was an above-average hitter in general, he was not in high-leverage situations. In medium- and low-leverage plate appearances, he hit .297/.335/.473.

But in high-leverage, he hit .290/.329/.423. The big difference is obviously slugging percentage, he slugged 50 points worse in high-leverage moments, and in a game of winning and losing, that’s a big deal.

Look again at the guys on the list and what they slugged in high-leverage.

— Piazza slugged .538.

— Berra slugged .528.

— Simmons slugged .482 (in a tougher hitting environment).

— Bench slugged .475 (again in a tougher hitting environment).

So that’s part of the deal here. I-Rod didn’t hit the ball with as much authority in those big moments when there was WPA to be had. Let’s look at it another way: individual seasons.

Simmons had eight years with a 2.5 WPA or better. So did Yogi Berra.

Piazza and Bench had seven of those seasons.

Cochrane had six, Torre five, Mauer, Cochrane and Fisk four.

For those engaging in the argument, Molina and Posey each had three. So did Posada, Carter, Lombardi and Dickey.

I-Rod had ZERO. Yeah, that’s right. He had zero seasons with 2.5 WPA. His best WPA season was 1997 — 2.1. He had only three seasons in which he managed even one full win of probability added.

I don’t know if that’s interesting or revealing (it probably isn’t), but it is striking. Again, we’re only talking offense — there’s no doubt that I-Rod added a ton of value with his incredible defense. But, I mean, that’s really weird, right?

The second answer is more obvious and probably more telling: I-Rod kept playing catcher long after he could hit. Through age 34, which is generally a catcher’s full career, he hit .304/.342/.483 and had a positive 5.2 WPA. It’s still lower than you would expect, but it’s positive.

After age 34, though, he just kept going and going — he got almost 2,000 more plate appearances. He hit .265/.295/.384, pretty dreadful offensive numbers, and he had a negative WPA every year. By that stat, he cost his teams 11 wins as a hitter over those seven seasons.

What you find with most great hitter/catcher combinations is that they stop catching at a fairly young age. Bench stopped catching at 33. Carter’s last full season as a catcher was at 34. Same with Berra. Torre became a full-time first-baseman at 28 (and moved to third at 30), and we know that because of concussions, Mauer’s last full season as a catcher was at 27.

There are a few who kept going, like Fisk (100 games caught at age 43, which is superhuman) and Boone (129 games caught at age 41), but most of them don’t. In the case of I-Rod, he was so good defensively and so widely respected as a leader that teams kept signing him and kept putting him behind the plate.

In some ways, that negative WPA represents a legacy all its own. It’s a funny thing about great players. They all age, obviously. They all decline, obviously. Some walk away before things get bad. Some have a brilliant final moment. Most, though, well, we talk about Willie Mays falling down in the outfield with the Mets or Johnny Unitas getting sacked repeatedly for the Chargers or Michael Jordan firing up fadeaway jumpers for a going-nowhere Wizards team, and we wonder: Can a great player have a great ending?

And maybe, if you look at it from a different point of view, I-Rod offered that great ending because even as the money diminished and the opportunities began to narrow, he kept coming back, to the Yankees, to the Astros, back to the Rangers, to the terrible teams in Washington, still he kept on playing. He wasn’t much more than a replacement player by then, but he was still out there, for the love of it all.