Former Tiger Rodriguez is on the edge of immortality
As ideally happens in January when baseball Hall of Fame winners are named, there’s a bit of suspense, and a surplus of intrigue, bubbling ahead of Wednesday’s unveiling of the 2017 Cooperstown class.
Among eligible players responsible for this year’s buzz is one-time Tigers employee Pudge Rodriguez.
Just behind Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, who look like sure winners, Rodriguez is among an unusually large wave (Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman included) that has a shot at induction or rejection in something of an electoral jump-ball.
Cooperstown enshrinement requires a contestant to be check-marked on at least 75 percent of returned ballots. Rodriguez this weekend was tracking at 79.8 percent on votes that have been made public, according to Ryan Thibodaux, who oversees an online monitor known as BBHOF Tracker.
Thibodaux’s data, to date, is culled from 46.7 percent of possible ballots returned. It implies that a man who played 21 big-league seasons, five in Detroit, could be headed in July for a Cooperstown plaque.
But nothing can be assumed. Not when so many anonymous ballots haven’t yet been counted. Not when so many who might have issues with Rodriguez because of suspicions about baseball’s performance-enhancing-drug era have suggested they aren’t wild about Pudge.
“It’s too close to call,” said Jay Jaffe, a contributing writer to SI.com, and inventor of the JAWS metric that measures Hall of Famers in terms of their career Wins Above Replacement score. “We’ve got five guys on track for election, or who are very close, and that hasn’t happened since 1936.
“Common sense dictates that we probably end up with three (Bagwell and Raines were tracking this weekend at 90-plus percent). But Vlad, Trevor, and Pudge are going to be right around each other. Predicting an order for those three is a tough call.
“We’ve got a cliff-hanger here.”
In rough agreement is Dan Szymborski, another Hall of Fame chronicler who specializes in baseball analytics for ESPN.com.
“I’m going to say yes, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he falls just short,” Szymborski said, speaking of Rodriguez’s bid. “He’s at 80 percent, and would he do 9 percent worse on the other ballots (dropping Rodriguez’s percentage beneath 75 percent)?
“I don’t know. This year, it looks like a coin flip. He’s going to be right on the edge.”
He has the numbers
Few seem to quibble with Rodriguez’s career numbers. They’re spectacular, courtesy of a man from Puerto Rico who arrived as a 19-year-old big-leaguer with the Rangers in 1991.
■ More hits (2,749), extra-base hits (906), and doubles (551) than any catcher in big-league history. His overall hit total: 2,844.
■ Rodriguez made 14 All-Star teams and 13 times won a Gold Glove. He led the league in caught-stealing percentage nine times. No other catcher has done it more times than six.
■ Played the most games of any catcher in big-league annals (2,427).
■ Rodriguez’s Wins Above Replacement score of 68.9 has been beaten by only two other catchers (Johnny Bench, 75) and Gary Carter (69.9). Each has a HOF plaque.
If he’s elected this week, Rodriguez would join Bench as the only catcher in history to have won in his first shot at Cooperstown.
“That’s rarefied air there,” said Jaffe. “I don’t think you could have asked for a whole lot more from a player than Rodriguez contributed, especially in his prime. He was an excellent hitter, a great defender for most of the time, and there are leadership things that were captured there also — how he helped the Marlins (2003 championship when he played for Miami) and the Tigers (2006) get to the World Series.
“Even the Rangers — they’d never been to the playoffs until he came around.”
So, why the hitch? If a case could be made for a first-ballot inductee, it’s there, in the numbers, and in the consciousness of voters who saw him for years and saw Rodriguez’s exceptionalism.
“He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer for me,” said Nick Cafardo, a Boston Globe baseball columnist and longtime voter. “One of the greatest all-around catchers of his generation. Certainly one of the best arms. Great athlete for a catcher. And an excellent hitter for at least two-thirds of his career.
“A no-brainer for me.”
PED rumors linger
Still, there’s reticence. At least among enough to make Rodriguez’s case dicey in his first crack at Cooperstown. And it has to do with the same issue that has affected so many candidacies in the past decade, among them, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Mike Piazza (until Piazza was elected a year ago), as well as another first-time eligible, Manny Ramirez.
PEDs were on big-league baseball’s banned list beginning in 1991, a year before Rodriguez joined the Rangers. But they weren’t part of any serious testing until 2005, when year-round monitoring began. Baseball by then, from all evidence and player testimony, was soaked with steroids and enhancers that distorted season and career numbers.
Rodriguez either fairly or unfairly has been thought of as at least a dabbler. Infamous PED user Jose Canseco said in his 2005 book “Juiced” when he played for the Rangers he used steroids in tandem with three teammates: Rodriguez, Palmeiro, and another one-time Tigers star, Juan Gonzalez.
Rodriguez’s possible dalliance with PEDs was never verified. Nor would he admit to, or care to discuss possible usage, even when he showed up at Tigers training camp in 2005, dramatically thinner, which during those years was often a sign PEDs were in a player’s past. Rodriguez, though, never failed a drug test. Not that such tests were found to have been infallible.
“Some people still are reluctant to vote for him on first ballot because of his PED connections,” Jaffe said. “But I’d classify those allegations as tenuous relative to other candidates, given their timing and the extent to which they’ve been independently corroborated.”
Szymborski had a similar take.
“I wouldn’t say I’m not concerned,” Syzmborski said, referring to Rodriguez and his possible PED hang-up with voters, “but for me, that post-2004 time (when year-round testing began) is different from that gray and fuzzy era before 2004.
“As far as Pudge, if you’re going to use steroids to keep someone out (of the Hall of Fame), then it’s necessary to have it be evidence-based. I don’t think it’s right to keep him out unless you have a really good reason to.”
Arguments against will come into clearer focus Wednesday. But only if Rodriguez misses on his maiden HOF voyage.
It could be that the PEDs era’s scarlet letter is fading. Or, it could be that just enough tinge remains from a lamentable time in baseball to influence any player on any ballot when PED usage was rampant and numbers became distorted.
Or, it could be that just enough voters who saw Rodriguez play, or who have taken a fresh glance at the numbers, will say:
He belongs. PEDs might have been part of that time in baseball. But so were legitimate Hall of Famers whose artistry extended far beyond any other consideration.
Numbers don’t lie
Notable stats for Pudge Rodriguez:
■ 21 seasons (including five with Tigers, 2004-08)
■ 2,543 games
■ 1,354 runs
■ 2,844 hits
■ 311 HR
■ 1,332 RBI
■ .296 batting average
■ .334 on-base percentage
■ .464 slugging percentage
Hall of Fame
What: The Baseball Hall of Fame 2017 class will be announced Wednesday.
TV: 6 p.m., MLB Network
Induction ceremony: July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Notable: Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines are expected to be elected. Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman could join them.