Mike Piazza’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame last year left little doubt that Ivan Rodriguez would eventually join him. During Pudge’s career—the longest by a full-time catcher in terms of games played (2,543) and plate appearances (10,270)—he distinguished himself as a transcendent defender and consistent source of extra base hits. Even as a baserunner, he provided added value that his peers at the position rarely did (ranking third among post-integration catchers in both triples and stolen bases).
The Marlins celebrate Rodriguez for elevating their 2003 team from competitive to championship-bound during his short stint with them. But that gratitude should go both ways, because I’m not sure if he makes it into Cooperstown on the first ballot without that memorable season.
Pudge received 76.0 percent of the BBWAA vote, 336 total votes from the 442 ballots submitted (he needed at least 332 to top the 75.0 percent cut-off). Inductions are rarely achieved by such slim margins. In terms of both percentage and votes, Fergie Jenkins in 1991 is the last writer-elected Hall of Famer to “win” the vote while flirting closer to the threshold, according to Baseball-Reference. Is it possible that five or more Rodriguez voters would have withheld their support until 2018 if evaluating him only on pre- and post-Marlins production?
The arbitrary—and increasingly unpopular—10-player limit on BBWAA ballots forces voters to make some difficult and strategic choices. Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker identifies 42 Rodriguez voters who submitted full ballots while admitting there were other eligible players who they considered worthy. So the question is really if a handful of these “Big Hall” advocates would have made Pudge a lower priority without 2003’s impact on his counting stats and overall perception.
Consider how his career stats change when the Marlins campaign is removed from his regular season resume:
.296/.334/.464, 10,270 PA in 2,543 G, 311 HR from 1991-2011
.294/.332/.463, 9,692 PA in 2,399 G, 295 HR from 1991-2002, 2004-2011
The damage to Rodriguez’s career batting line is minimal, but this would undo a few significant milestones. The missing plate appearances and games played drops him below Carlton Fisk’s total, robbing him of the catcher record he otherwise holds for both categories. Also, subtracting his 16 Marlins home runs kicks him out of the 300 club. Although Pudge is mostly revered for his defense, eclipsing that round number played a role in validating him as a consistent power threat.
Let’s try the same exercise with his postseason experience:
.255/.314/.392, 170 PA in 40 G, 4 HR, 1 WS from 1991-2011
.209/.247/.290, 93 PA in 23 G, 1 HR, 0 WS from 1991-2002, 2004-2011
Outside of the 2003 title run, Rodriguez couldn’t be counted on for much more than replacement-level production when the calendar turned to October. His Texas Rangers teams in the late 1990s earned three playoff berths yet never advanced past the opening round, and his presence wasn’t felt with the 2006 Detroit Tigers, as they reached the World Series in spite of his slumping bat.
Meanwhile, he was absolutely indispensable to the Marlins during a postseason where they were underdogs every step of the way. ESPN’s Mark Simon takes us back to his heroics against the 100-win San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. In driving home every Florida run in the Game 3 victory, Pudge’s bat accounted for .717 WPA. Then the next day, his glovework sent the team to the Championship Series.
Once there, he continued raking to the tune of a .321/.424/.607 batting line and NLCS MVP honors. In a low-scoring World Series, his greatest contribution was maneuvering the pitching staff out of constant jams with runners in scoring position. A dangerous New York Yankees lineup combined to go just 7-for-50 (.140) with RISP against the Fish.
You won’t hear an argument from me—or any other sane analyst—against Rodriguez’s Hall of Fame credentials. His case was rooted in longevity and all-around excellence at the catcher position; that would still apply even without the 2003 season.
But the fact remains that he was extremely close to missing out on a first-ballot induction. Dozens of voters prioritized him over other deserving players to avoid that embarrassment, and we can credit his time with the Marlins for acting as the cherry on top of an already irresistible candidate.