Pudge Rodriguez Is One Of The Top Five Catchers In Baseball History -- Despite What Tim Kurkjian Thinks
A few nights ago at the Ballpark in Arlington, ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, covering the retirement ceremony for Pudge Rodriguez, tweeted "His stats warrant first ballot Hall of Famer, ninth best C ever for me."
No problem with the first statement, but what exactly is the second based on? I think most baseball historians would pretty much agree that the two greatest catchers ever were Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench. I would rate Berra ahead of Bench, Many others would not, but that's an argument for another time. Roy Campanella presents a problem in that he did not get from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues until he was 26 years old, a couple years past his physical prime. I don't think there's much argument that at his best Campy was one of the best catchers ever.
Some combination of those guys are likely to fill out your first three selections. Then, you've got Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Gabby Hartnett among the old-timers, and Mike Piazza, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter among the moderns. Those really are the only catchers who have to be considered, right? So apparently Kurkjian is dumping one of those guys to make Pudge his ninth.
Regarding Cochrane, Dickey and Hartnett, I don't think they were as good a hitters in their time as Pudge was in his, and at any rate, they didn't have anything like his endurance behind the plate or his throwing ability. I think common sense says that if they were playing in the same era, most analysts would rate Pudge higher.
Piazza is ranked by nearly everyone as the best hitting catcher of all time; unfortunately he is also ranked as a poor defensive catcher. Maybe Pudge is not be the best defensive catcher in baseball history, but then again, he might be. He's certainly one of the best. I guess since fielding, throwing and handling of pitchers is so essential in rating a backstop, I'd say it's pretty much a toss-up as to whether you'd go with I-Rod or Piazza. I'd go with I-Rod.
Carter and Fisk? Rodriguez caught more games than either, and though he hit fewer home runs - 311 to Carter's 324 and Fisk's 376 - he had a considerably higher batting average than either - .296 to .262 for Carter and .269 for Fisk - and a slightly higher slugging average. Based on that, I think you'd have to make the argument that Fisk and Carter were better defensive catchers than Rodriguez to rate them higher, and I don't see how you could do that.
Let's stop and review. That leaves Berra and Bench on top, Campanella if you limit the argument to peak seasons, and Piazza only ahead of Pudge if you rate hitting over fielding - which I don't. I'll take Yogi, Johnny and Campy as my top three, but I'll argue vociferously that among major league greats, Ivan Rodriguez was at least the fourth best ever.
This puts me at sharp odds with Kurkjian. But I'll throw one more player into the mix who I think deserves to be mentioned - Josh Gibson, regarded by nearly everyone who saw him as the greatest catcher in Negro League history and the greatest hitter they ever saw. I mean, if we're going to cut some slack for the argument for Satchel Paige as best pitcher ever - as so many do - I think you have to make the same allowance for Gibson.
That makes Pudge Rodriguez, to my mind, the fifth best catcher in baseball history.