Thursday, September 08, 2011

Pudge on the Brink of Baseball History: But Will the Fates Be Kind?

Thanks to my brother Daniel, I'm the proud owner of an Ivan ("Pudge") Rodriguez bobblehead doll. I'm a big Pudge fan, and in the summer of 2010 I went to see a Washington Nationals game in D.C. with Daniel and his three sons, along with my best old high school buddy, John. Initially, there were possibilities that we might attend a game pitched by phenom Stephen Strasburg, but the schedule never worked out that way. Failing that, my fondest hope was that I might see Pudge play catcher. Alas, that never happened either. We had to suffer through an entire extra-inning game watching the legendary Wil Nieves behind the plate. Pudge never even pinch-hit. Hell, I don't think he even poked his head out of the dugout. Oh, and the Nats lost to the Phillies, of course.

Pudge is winding up a Hall of Fame career and is presently playing out a two-year contract he signed with the Nationals prior to the 2010 season. His HOF numbers were mainly put up with the Texas Rangers in the '90s and early 2000s, including a fantastic 1999 in which he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award. That year, playing the most demanding position in the game, Pudge scored 116 runs, smacked 199 hits, bashed 35 homers, drove in 113 runs, and compiled a .332 batting average. Great numbers, but particularly rare for a catcher. Just for good measure, he also stole 25 bases that year.

Pudge later won a World Series title with the 2003 Florida Marlins, and since has bounced around a bit, from Detroit to New York to Houston, back to the Rangers, and now with Washington, where he is beloved and respected, even as he heads toward his 40th birthday on November 27.

Pudge has been hurt this season. He's only appeared in 40 games and his batting average is a very un-Pudge-like .212. Just the other day he was reinstated to the roster after spending two months rehabbing an oblique strain.

Here's the thing, though. Pudge could certainly retire today and the Hall is assured. At the same time, he is not the future where the Nats' catching is concerned. That belongs to Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores.

Yet a quick check of the stats reveals that Pudge has 2,842 career hits, only 158 hits shy of 3,000. Huge baseball fact: NO CATCHER HAS EVER AMASSED 3,000 HITS. Berra had 2,150. Bench had 2,048. Mike Piazza put up big career numbers for a catcher, including 427 homers, and his career .308 batting average eclipses Pudge's current .296. Yet Piazza retired with only 2,127 hits.

The only player close to Pudge's hit tally who served predominantly as a catcher is Ted Simmons, with 2,472, and Pudge passed him by four years ago. (Come to think of it, Simmons had a helluva career, and his numbers definitely bear revisiting for HOF consideration. His lifetime BA: .285.)

To put this situation into some other perspective, consider that Minnesota Twins star catcher Joe Mauer, winner of three batting titles before the age of 28 and currently a career .324 hitter, has 1,091 hits. Even Mauer will have to stay healthy and continue to crank 'em out well into his late thirties to approach 3,000.

So Pudge is close to making history. Two big factors will determine his chances. First, someone's gotta let him play, and 40-year-old catchers are pretty rare (though certainly there are role models for that, like Carlton Fisk, who played until he was 45 and, by the way, accumulated 2,356 hits). Secondly, Pudge has to stay healthy, and that certainly brings a wild card aspect to the equation. It gets tougher to stay in shape and resist injury as the body ages, and probably no one knows that as well as Pudge.

Still, 158 hits. That's 100 in 2012, and 58 in 2013. Or 79 in each. It can be done. But it's gonna take some moxie--which Pudge has in abundance--and also some luck.

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