Monday night in Arlington, the Texas Rangers honored recent retiree Iván Rodríguez, who spent most of his long and illustrious career with the franchise. It was, by all accounts, quite the shindig; after tossing a ceremonial first pitch, Pudge took his old spot behind the plate and zipped a throw to second base for good measure.
With ESPN in town for the game, Tim Kurkjian saw it all and weighed in:
Great ceremony before the game to celebrate Pudge Rodriguez. His stats warrant first ballot Hall of Famer. Ninth best C ever for me— Tim Kurkjian (@Kurkjian_ESPN) April 23, 2012
Ninth ... that's pretty good!
The thing is, though, I started thinking and had a hard time coming up with eight catchers who were better than Iván Rodríguez.
Johnny Bench, sure. Yogi Berra.
Who else, though? There are a few catchers in the Hall of Fame who are borderline, at best. Rick Ferrell and Ray Schalk, for sure. And Ernie Lombardi, you might argue. And there are a couple of catchers, Buck Ewing and Roger Bresnahan, from the Neanderthal Era; hard to compare them to anyone born in the 20th Century.
But that doesn't leave many great catchers worthy of discussion. In fact, here's the whole list: Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Gabby Hartnett, Mike Piazza.
Honestly, that's it. Well, and Ted Simmons, who's not in the Hall of Fame but maybe should be.
So that's Bench and Berra, plus eight more. And six of those eight were more valuable than Iván Rodríguez?
I don't know, man.
Campanella played only 10 seasons, and wasn't real good in the last two of those. Nobody's going to argue for Simmons ahead of Pudge.
That leaves six: Carter, Cochrane, Dickey, Fisk, Hartnett, and Piazza.
Now, it's possible that Kurkjian believes Rodríguez ranks behind all those guys. And maybe he does, if we could somehow gain a full accounting. Pudge did play a lot more than the guys from the 1930s: Cochrane, Dickey, and Hartnett. In those days, catchers just weren't expected to catch 140 games in a season, which is why the endurance lists are stacked with guys who caught in the 1970s and since.
Dickey was probably the best of those guys, though; particularly if you give him just a small dollop of credit for the three seasons he missed because of World War II (not to mention the excellence of the Yankees' pitching staff during most his career, all of which he spent with the club).
Was Dickey better than Pudge, though? It's apples and oranges, these guys. Rodríguez will always be most famous for his throwing, while Dickey and his contemporaries rarely had to worry about anybody stealing anything. In 1937, arguably Dickey's best season, only three American Leaguers stole more than 20 bases and nobody stole more than 35.
It's quite possible that Dickey called a brilliant game, from behind the plate. He certainly had that reputation. But so did Cochrane, and Hartnett too. All of them probably benefited from a halo effect; they were outstanding hitters, and observers naturally assumed they were excellent defenders, too. Which they might have been. We just don't have a great deal of actual data, one way or the other.
For that matter, it's a fact that a) the Rangers' pitching wasn't real good during most of Pudge's tenure there, and b) there have always been whispers, sometimes rising to grumblings, that he wasn't much of a pitch-caller, and in fact would sometimes call for fastballs simply to give himself a better shot at throwing out larcenous baserunners.
It's all so hazy. Maybe it's not all that important that we know more, since whether you think he's the greatest catcher ever or just the ninth greatest, you can still find plenty of room for him in Cooperstown. But forgetting, for the moment, the vagaries of measuring catchers' defensive contributions, I will report that Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement ranks Rodríguez second all-time (in a dead heat with Fisk) and FanGraphs has him third (in a dead heat with Fisk).
Johnny Bench comes out on top, both places. Thought not by much.
Those vagaries? They can get you just about anywhere you like in this debate. Even to a ninth-place finish for Pudge Rodríguez. But I suspect that's not the right answer, quite. He might not be the second-greatest catcher, if you could somehow measure everything perfectly. But the odds would seem to militate against ninth. Pressed to guess, I would place Iván Rodríguez in the top five or six, perhaps behind one of those catchers from the 1930s but certainly not behind all three of them.