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PUDGE FACTORS
Johnette Howard
August 11, 1997
By signing him to a rich contract, Texas admits that catcher Ivan Rodriguez is irreplaceable after all
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August 11, 1997

Pudge Factors

By signing him to a rich contract, Texas admits that catcher Ivan Rodriguez is irreplaceable after all

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PLAYER

YEARS

AVG.

HRS

RBIS

SLUG PCT.

TOTAL BASES

MAHHY SANGUILLEN

1973-75
1976-78

.297
.278

9
4

64
37

.408
.358

227
141

GENE TENACE

1975-77
1978-80

.246
.239

22
18

71
59

.445
.427

200
168

BOB BOONE

1977-79
1980-82

.284
.237

11
7

62
46

.428
.329

182
129

CARLTON FISK

1977-79
1980-82

.293
.274

19
13

77
57

.486
.416

231
179

JIM SUNDBERG

1978-80
1981-83

.275
.242

7
5

62
34

.377
.337

191
133

GARY CARTER

1979-81
1982-84

.274
.272

24
15

77
89

.504
.426

262
210

LANCE PARRISH

1982-84
1985-87

.262
.259

31
22

100
76

.468
.452

260
202

TERRY KENNEDY

1984-86
1987-89

.254
.241

12
9

63
37

.374
.345

186
130

JODY DAVIS

1985-87
1988-90

.243
.194

19
4

61
19

.416
.285

199
49

TONY PENA

1986-88
1989-91

.259
.251

8
5

49
47

.367
.336

171
154

Edgar Martinez knows that the best catcher in baseball is behind the plate. Still, something unexpected is about to happen. Martinez, the Seattle Mariners' slow-footed designated hitter, takes a short lead off first base. Ninety feet away at home plate, Jay Buhner has just swung through a fastball. Before Buhner has finished his backswing, Texas Rangers catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez springs to his feet, cocks his arm back like the drawstring of a crossbow and fires the ball toward first, where Martinez is pawing his way back to safety. Clods of dirt are flying from Martinez's cleats as he gropes for the bag. The play happens so quickly that the crowd at The Ballpark in Arlington has no time to react. Martinez hears the ball snap into first baseman Will Clark's glove, but Clark's sweep tag is a split second late.

When Martinez stands up and straightens his cap, he blinks and smiles vacantly, the way a guy might if he'd just walked out of a plane crash unscathed, unable to believe his good fortune. "I was laughing because I told the umpire, 'You were going to call me out, weren't you?' " Martinez says. "Then the ump laughed too."

Martinez was laughing because he's aware that others have not been so lucky when Rodriguez has gone after them. On Opening Day against the Milwaukee Brewers, Rangers righthander Ken Hill, who has since been traded to the Anaheim Angels, was clinging to a 4-2 lead in the top of the fifth inning when he bounced a slider that caromed off Rodriguez's shin guard. As the ball skidded away, Hill thought, All right, runners at second and third, two out. Then, boom! Rodriguez fired a BB to second base and nailed Jose Valentin, trying to advance from first. Inning over, lead preserved. "Not many catchers can make that play," Valentin said later. To which Texas manager Johnny Oates said, "No other catcher can make that play."

Rodriguez is told of this praise and says, "If you're going to take a lead on me, I'm going to throw it. I am not afraid." Told that he makes the confrontation sound personal, Rodriguez smiles and says, "Yeah. It is."

If Rodriguez's wondrous arm were all he brought to the game, he would be a remarkable talent. But in the past two years he has become more than just the best catcher in the game. At 25 he's arguably the most irreplaceable player in baseball, and the Rangers know it. After protracted negotiations Rodriguez, who would have been a free agent at season's end, signed a five-year, $42 million contract extension last Thursday that made him the highest-paid catcher in history. "If he stays healthy, I guarantee he'll be making an acceptance speech someday," says Oates, referring to the Hall of Fame ceremonies. "In my 30 years in baseball, the closest total package I've seen to Pudge is Johnny Bench."

Since breaking into the big leagues at 19, Rodriguez has won five Gold Gloves (Bench holds the record for catchers, with 10) and has been named to the American League All-Star team six times, including this year. At week's end Rodriguez was ninth in the league in batting, with a .326 average, and among the leaders in hits (135) and doubles (29). Although he spends considerable time in the weight room—he stands only 5'9" but is a well-muscled 210 pounds—Rodriguez has averaged just 11 home runs per season in his big league career. But Oates insists that Rodriguez could sacrifice average for power and end up with 30 homers one year. Moreover, says Oates, if Rodriguez, who usually bats second, didn't have hitters like Rusty Greer, Juan Gonzalez and Clark hitting behind him, he could steal 20 bases. There's no telling how many more RBIs he'd have if the Rangers' rotating leadoff men weren't batting a paltry .249, third-worst in the league through Sunday.

Most important, there's no telling how many runs Rodriguez's defense prevents. As Brewers manager Phil Garner has said, "There's no reason to run on Rodriguez. It's not worth the risk." Even on a night he goes 0 for 4, Rodriguez changes a game. His arm keeps some runners from attempting to steal and makes others reluctant to even take a sizable lead.

Oates says Rodriguez's arm allows Clark to play off the bag when a runner with average speed is on first, closing the hole a lefthanded hitter would otherwise enjoy. The Rangers' pitchers say that with Rodriguez behind the plate, they get more double plays and fewer opposing runners who go from first to third on a single or first to home on a double. "I call it the Drop Anchor Effect," Clark says. "Guys get to first. Drop anchor. Then wait till it's safe to go to second."

As a teenager, while playing for the Double A Tulsa Drillers, Rodriguez was timed throwing the ball from home to second base in 1.78 seconds—"Two seconds is considered good," says Bobby Jones, the Tulsa manager then and now. In addition to his quick release, impeccable footwork and pinpoint accuracy, Rodriguez throws so hard that the ball appears almost misshapen as it speeds toward second.

To his prodigious arm, Rodriguez has now added a sense of gamesmanship. "If the pitch is, say, a slider away, I've seen Pudge whip his head around and pretend the ball went to the backstop just to see if he can trick a base runner far enough off the bag to throw him out," Rangers pitcher Bobby Witt says. "Sometimes you can see Pudge smiling about it behind his mask."

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