We are now reaching the era of Hall of Fame voting when it’s much more difficult to simply write off a player due to noise of potential PEDs that floated around their name at one time or another. One of the best examples of this question now facing Hall of Fame voters is Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, most commonly thought of as one of the best catchers of all time.
Pudge is an interesting case. He’s beloved in almost every city he played in, and beyond his numerically-incredible résumé has continued to put his name toward good work in baseball. However, his name did come up in Jose Canseco’s “tell-all” book, where the former Rangers’ muscle man claimed to have “personally injected [Rodriguez] with steroids.”
Canseco, now a performance artist of some sort, made many such claims about players who were never tagged with positive tests, even as testing grew more rigorous and frequent. Pudge himself was evasive on the subject, never outright saying that he had never taken any kind of PED, but the fact that his name has only appeared publicly in connection with someone now known for showing up to indy league games and trying to hit baseballs isn’t exactly the damnation that some might think.
Offensively, Pudge’s peak years happened exactly when you’d expect any player’s peak years to happen — around his age-27 season. Between ages 25 and 29, he hit for a combined line of .324/.359/.553, including his MVP season, where he hit .332/.356/.558 with 35 homers. He aged fairly normally, too, with his power trailing off after his age-30 season, first translating into doubles and then disappearing entirely.
When he was good, though, he was incredible, even in an age of, admittedly, abetted sluggers. Some of that is due to his natural ability to hit the ball, a specific talent that’s hard to ascribe to hypothetical drugs, and when combined with the power that few expect from the position, as well as above-average speed for the position, Pudge was an incredibly effective offensive threat, especially for the Texas Rangers, for whom he had his most productive years.
Defensively, at the time, Pudge was thought to be one of the best defensive catchers (for the amount we, collectively, thought about defense in the late 1990s and early 2000s). Now, with retroactive metrics, we’re able to more finely dissect his catching abilities — and what emerges isn’t quite as glowing a picture as we’d hoped.
Pudge’s arm and ability to throw out runners is still legendary, but he wasn’t quite the framing or blocking catcher that teams consider valuable today. This doesn’t take away from his value at the position, though, as he had a reputation for being an excellent game-caller and master of understanding the game from behind the dish. Plus, there was that arm. No one ever has thrown out runners quite like Pudge, whether it was back-picking at first, or a strike to second, or catching a runner at third unawares.
So where does this leave us with his Hall of Fame vote?
Well, he’s likely a good litmus test for those with vague PED accusations or suspicions lingering around their name. There’s little question that at face value, he absolutely deserves to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, as do many in the upcoming classes. There has been a noted thawing amongst some Hall of Fame voters regarding PEDs, though not toward some of the biggest names in the “scandals” like Barry Bonds.
Will someone like Pudge, who was never officially a PED user, make it in? If he does, then we can possibly expect Andruw Jones (or even admitted PED user Andy Pettite) to also have a better-than-average chance at inclusion. The more ballots Pudge is on without making it, though, the less likely the chances of making it will be for many other members of upcoming classes.