Who was the best #Marlins number 7? Winner joins the All-Fish Team!
— Fish On The Farm (@marlinsminors) December 29, 2016
When you’re only a member of a franchise for one full season, it’s tough to warrant being named one of it’s best players of all time. That is unless you accomplish what Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez did in 2003. That season, Pudge called some of the biggest games and made some of the team’s biggest plays, making him an integral part of the leadership that brought the Marlins back atop the mountain and gave them their second World Series title in six years and thereby making him the greatest Marlin to ever wear the number seven.
Rodriguez got his start in baseball as a child in Puerto Rico as a little league pitcher. However, he was too good at it. So good that his father received complaints from other parents in the league that his arm was scaring other children and making them not want to go to games on days they knew Rodriguez was throwing. As a means of mercy, Rodriguez’s dad moved him to catcher. Little did he know later in life his presence behind the plate would strike similar fear in potential base stealers.
At age 16, Rodriguez was noticed by scout Luis Rosa, the same scout that discovered the likes of Sandy and Roberto Alomar and Pudge’s little league rival, Juan Gonzalez. Even in his teenage years, Rosa said he saw things in Pudge he had rarely seen in many others, including his ability to captain his team both tangibly and intangibly.
“Pudge was hard-nosed, even then,” Rosa has said. “He showed leadership at 16 that I’d seen in few kids. He knew where he was going.”
After signing with the Texas Rangers in 1988, Rodriguez made his minor league debut as a 17-year-old. In two full seasons and a small part of a third in MiLB, he hit .265/.296/.370 with 125 RBI on 68 XBH. Even though the numbers were decent enough for a teenager adjusting to life in both the United States and in the professional baseball ranks, a major league call-up after just 969 ABs, only 50 of which came in the upper minors and none of which came in AAA seemed a bit premature. However, upon making his MLB debut in June of 1991 at age 19, nine and a half years younger than the average big leaguer and the second youngest player in baseball, second only to Todd Van Poppel by 12 days, Pudge debunked that belief by hitting .264/.276/.354 in his first 80 MLB games. He also threw out 36 of 70 or 49% of potential base stealers making him the best behind-the-plate gun slinger in the league. At season’s end, Rodriguez placed fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Pudge spent the next ten years with the Rangers placing the building blocks of a legacy that has a lot of people today calling him one of the best catchers of all time. From 1992-2002, Rodriguez slashed .307/.345/.496 with a BA and SLG that ranked second among all of baseball’s backstops. Over that same span, he gunned down 424 of 842, or an even 50% of potential base swipers which blew away the rest of the competition in baseball (among qualifiers with 1,000+ innings played). Accordingly, in that 1,391 game span, Rodriguez posted a 499.2 RAR and a 48.9 WAR, making him the 15th most valuable player in the league and the second most valuable catcher. Those marks were made possible by a 89.4 Off rating (calculated, in short, by adding park adjusted RAA with weighted stolen base and double play runs RAA and ultimate baserunning rating and determines how good a player’s all-around offensive game (as opposed to only what he does with the bat or, in other words, his weighted OBP or runs created) is compared to a replacement level player), which ranked fifth among backstops as well as a ridiculous 209.7 Def rating (or positional adjusted runs above average) a mark that was 71.5 runs better than his next closest competitor. In each of those ten seasons, Rodriguez was selected as an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner. In six of them, he won the Silver Slugger award. His best single season over the course of his first 11 seasons (and arguably the best season of his career) came in 1999. That year, Rodriguez hit .332/.356/.558 with the seventh best AL BA and its 9th best SLG. His 35 homers were the 11th most in the AL and set a new league record for long balls by a catcher, his 113 RBI ranked 14th, and his 116 runs scored ranked seventh. Never really known as much of a base stealer, Pudge somewhat surprisingly swiped 25 bags, making him the first catcher in the then 98 year history of the American League to steal at least 20 bags and hit at least 20 homers in a single season. All of this spelled out a 20.9 Off rating, 22nd in his league and second among all catchers. Behind the plate, Pudge was his usual spectacular self that year, once again leading baseball in caught stealing percentage this time with a 55% (41/75). His 28.2 Def rating not only once again led all catchers by a wide margin, he was actually the seventh best defensive player in all of baseball. Altogether, by way of a 71.4 RAR and a 6.8 WAR, Rodriguez was the eighth most valuable position player baseball and the fourth most valuable position player in the AL. In a very close race with Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and others, Pudge won the AL MVP Award. At just 27, with his career not even half over, Rodriguez had people, including opposing managers, calling him one of, if not the single greatest catcher of all time and advising Cooperstown to get a jump-start on the carving of his Hall Of Fame plaque.
“He might be the best catcher I’ve ever seen,” Blue Jays skipper Jim Fregosi said. “He could retire right now and go into the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench had more power, but Bench never had this guy’s quickness.”
Even though he suffered a season ending injury on a freak play at the beginning of the second half of the 2000 season, Pudge still managed to hit .322/.357/.579 with the seventh best BA and SLG in baseball in his final three years with Texas. His 50% CS% and 37.5 Def rating over that span put him in very familiar territory as the best backstop in the AL. He went to two more All-Star games and won two more Gold Gloves. He should have won another Silver Slugger in 2002 when he was again the best offensive AL catcher but was somehow beaten out by Jorge Posada who hit .268/.370/.468 to his .314/.353/.542.
Following the 2002 season, after 11 professional seasons, Pudge waved goodbye to the Texas Rangers, leaving a legacy in his wake that will forever have him labeled one of the best players in their franchise history. In those 11 years, Pudge was a 49.2 WAR player, the seventh best all-around player in the AL and the best all-around player in Rangers history, a title that Pudge still holds today. He is also still the best defensive WAR player in Rangers history and appears on many of the franchise’s career leaderboards including BA (.304, 7th), SLG (.488, 9th), OPS (.828, 10th), runs scored (866, 4th), hits (1,747, 2nd), doubles (352, 2nd), triples (28, 5th), homers (217, 4th), RBIs (842, 4th) and runs created (900, 4th).
In 2003, Rodriguez brought that legacy to Miami. As one of the signings that got the season-long spending spree started that year and saw the Marlins’ payroll go from $40 million a year previous to $63 million (only to go back to $42 million on Opening Day 2004) the Marlins inked Pudge to a one year, $10 million deal, one of the higher single season price tags in team history, especially at the time. Rodriguez wound up being worth every penny. Along with contributing a .297 batting average, a mark which was fifth among NL catchers 16 homers (3rd among NL catchers) and 85 RBIs (2nd) to the lineup, Pudge served as the veteran anchor to a rotation with the average age of 25. He mentored and led that child-like rotation to a regular season 58% quality start percentage (94 QS in 162 games), tied for fourth best in baseball and an average game score of 53, third best in the game. Pudge himself didn’t make the All-Star Game that year (even though he was hit .300/.375/.515 to backup selection Paul Lo Duca’s .307/.374/.438) the work he did with rookie Dontrelle Willis got D-Train into an NL All-Star uniform.
In the 2003 playoffs, Rodriguez was not-so-arguably the Marlins’ best player in every round. In the division series, he slashed .353/.450/.588 and provided some of the most crucial clutch hits. In game three, Pudge staked the Fish to an early 2-0 lead with the first postseason homer of his career. Ten innings later in the bottom of the 11th, he strode to the plate with the Marlins’ win expectancy down to 27%, an out away from going down 2-1 in the five game series. With the bases loaded, Rodriguez singled down the right field line, scoring Alex Gonzalez from third and the speedy Juan Pierre from second, giving the Marlins a huge 4-3 win.
The very next game, Rodriguez would once again be involved in the game deciding play, this time on the other side of the ball. After the Marlins took a 5-1 lead early, the Giants clawed back with a four run 6th inning and going into the 9th, trailed by just two runs, 7-5. After a leadoff double, JT Snow plated the Giants’ sixth run with an RBI single. Closer Ugeth Urbina battled back to strike out Pedro Feliz and get Benito Santiago on a popout but then hit Rod Durham with a pitch putting the tying run in scoring position for Jeffrey Hammonds. On the first pitch of the at bat, Hammonds struck a slow sinking fly ball into left field that fell just in front of a hard charging Jeff Conine. At that point, as Snow neared third with third base coach Gene Glynn waving him home against the arm of a 37-year-old, it looked as though the Giants were going to return the favor that Rodriguez presented them with two nights earlier. However, somehow, Conine, who had made the full-time switch to the infield four years earlier and was playing in just his 75th game in the outfield over a 662 game span, somehow came up with a perfect one-hop throw to the outside of the baseline just outside of the right handed batter’s box to a waiting Rodriguez. Pudge adjusted slightly and and braced for a huge railroad hit by Snow that sent his catcher’s mask flying high in the air and his body flying across the plate into the grass behind the plate. The ball though stayed put snug in Rodriguez’s glove and the Marlins remained in the race for their second World Series title in six years. It is a play that has become synonymous with the Marlins’ title run that year and the play that Marlins fans automatically reminisce to when they hear the name Ivan Rodriguez.
But Pudge wasn’t done there. In the next round, the seven game NL Championship Series against the Cubs, he hit .321/.424/.607 with two homers and 10 RBI on his way to becoming the NLCS MVP. The first of Rodriguez’s homers of that series came in the third inning of game one, a three run bomb that helped erase a Cubs’ 4-0 lead that they built in the bottom of the 1st and sparked a Marlins’ 9-8 11 inning win. After hitting a second homer in game five, Rodriguez was a key contributor to the Marlins’ miraculous game seven come-from-behind win. After falling behind 5-3 in the third inning, the Fish led off the 5th inning with two walks, a flyout sandwiched in between. With one out, Rodriguez took the first Kerry Wood pitch he saw to deep left field, scoring pinch runner Brian Banks, drawing Florida to within two and moving Luis Castillo to third. Two batters later after a fourth Marlins’ run scored on a Miguel Cabrera fielder’s choice groundout and moved him to third, Pudge scored the tying run on a Derek Lee line drive single. Successfully jump-started by Rodriguez, the Marlins would go on to complete the rally by scoring three more unanswered runs and eventually winning 9-6 to move on to their second World Series in 2,190 days.
Again though, Rodriguez wasn’t done providing huge moments for the Marlins that year. In the World Series, he hit .273/.292/.364 and caught a pitching staff that held the New York Yankees, a team which scored the fourth most runs in baseball by way of its fourth most homers and third best OPS, to 3.21 runs per game. His game calling and the same leadership skills his scout, Rosa noticed in him as a teenager helped produce series MVP Josh Beckett who held down a 1.10 ERA in two starts and 16.1 IP. All in all in those playoffs, Rodriguez hit .313/.389/.522. After them, his Marlins tenure would come to an end but in just 155 games, Rodriguez accomplishments were enough to establish him as arguably the greatest Marlins catcher in franchise history. Among catchers who played at least 100 games, his .297 BA in ’03 was a Marlins’ single-season record as were his .474 slugging percentage, 36 doubles, 85 RBI and 10 stolen bases. His 16 homers are the third most ever in a single Marlins backstop’s season. Value wise, Pudge’s 4.4 WAR is another of his Marlins’ single season catcher records. It also ranks as the fourth best single campaign in franchise history among all position players.
Following his short but sweet Marlins’ career, Pudge moved on to a third city where he would for the third time, become a franchise MVP. For the 2004-2007 Detroit Tigers, he hit .298/.326/.453 with 114 doubles, 14 triples, 57 homers and 268 RBI. He was an All-Star selection in each of those years, won Gold Gloves in three, and a Silver Slugger in one. Defensively, he contributed a 41% CS% while leading the league in that stat in both 2005 and 2006, and a 49.5 Def rating, third among all of baseball’s catchers over that span. After a .295/.338/.417 start to 2008, Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees. His Detroit legacy is firmly cemented by way of a .298 BA, a .449 SLG, 62 homers, 300 RBI and 30 SB, marks that rank third, fourth, fifth, sixth and first in the 116 year history of Tigers catchers. WAR wise, Rodriguez is the fifth best catcher in Detroit franchise history, behind the likes of Freehan, Parrish and Tettleton, each of which have a Hall Of Fame case.
After moving from New York to Houston then back to Texas and finally to Washington in the twilight of his career, Pudge retired in 2011. In his 21 year career, Rodriguez hit .296/.334/.464. He owns the all-time MLB record for games played at catcher 2,427 and accordingly, ABs by a catcher at 10,270. His 572 doubles are also most all-time among backstops. With 311, his homer total ranks seventh most all-time among those to man the #2 position and his 1,332 RBI rank fifth. Pudge is the third most valuable catcher in baseball history (68.4 WAR) trailing only Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. He is one of just five players in all of baseball lore to hit at least .290 with 2,500+ hits, 550 doubles, 300 HR and 1,300 RBI. The others are some guys named Ruth, Aaron, Brett and Bonds.
With some of baseball’s best accolades at the catcher position over a storied 21 year career, Pudge could make the National Baseball Hall Of Fame on his first nomination this coming week. However, he placed himself in the Marlins’ Hall Of Fame long ago by having one of the best seasons in franchise history behind the plate. Even though his time with the Fish was short, fans remain grateful for the time they got with Pudge and what he gave them in leading the franchise to a title. It is for those reasons that Ivan Rodriguez makes the All-Fish Team as the best all-time wearer of the number seven.
Cast your votes on Twitter (@marlinsminors) and check back next week when I will reveal whom you selected as the Marlins’ greatest donner of the number eight.