<
>

Don't expect Pudge to flourish

It's been reported that the Tigers slipped a special clause in the four-year, $40 million contract that Ivan Rodriguez just signed, allowing them to void Rodriguez's contract if he suffers a particular sort of back injury.

That's sensible. But Pudge's back isn't the only thing the Tigers should be worried about. What they should really be worried about is the distinct possibility that Rodriguez will suffer the fate of nearly every other great-hitting, Hall of Fame-quality catcher in major league history.

At his peak -- his mid-20s, basically -- Rodriguez averaged 26 Win Shares per season (a Win Share is one-third of a win, so 26 Win Shares is roughly nine wins). Roughly speaking, 30 Win Shares is an MVP-quality season and Rodriguez never quite reached 30, but then the standard's not quite the same for catchers because they generally don't play as many games as first basemen and outfielders. When Pudge was named the AL MVP in 1999, he totaled 28 Win Shares (his career high) and certainly deserved strong consideration (though I'd have voted for Roberto Alomar, or Derek Jeter, or Nomar Garciaparra).

Due largely to injuries, Rodriguez was nothing like an MVP candidate from 2000 through 2002, totaling only 48 Win Shares in those three seasons, bottoming out with 11 in '02. He bounced back last season, of course, with a healthy and productive season that added up to 23 Win Shares (not to mention a great postseason).

Of course, in spending $40 million for four years of Rodriguez, they're obviously expecting the Pudge of 2003 rather than the Pudge of 2002. While they can't expect him to win another MVP Award, they certainly must believe he's capable of both staying in the lineup and remaining a productive hitter, right? Just using round numbers, we might translate that into 80 Win Shares: 20 per season, which is significantly lower than what Rodriguez produced in his peak years, and even slightly less than what he did last season.

Is it reasonable to expect 80 Win Shares from Pudge over the next four seasons? Below is a list of (arguably) the 10 greatest hitting catchers in major league history -- nine Hall of Famers plus one -- and their Win Shares in their Ages 32-35 seasons (with ages figured on July 1 of each season), along with what they did in the four previous seasons:

Win Shares
28-31 32-35
G Hartnett 65 89
M Cochrane 107 35
B Dickey 105 68
E Lombardi 70 56
Y Berra 117 83
R C'nella 110 61
J Bench 83 39
C Fisk 86 76
T Simmons 80 53
G Carter 118 50

Immediate, straight-to-the-gut reaction: of the 10 catchers listed, only two managed at least 80 Win Shares over the course of their Age 32 through 35 seasons, and six fell far short of 80.

Gabby Harnett aged particularly well, and enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1937, when he was 36. (Hartnett's 28-31 figure is somewhat deceptive, as he hardly played in 1929, when he was 28.)

Mickey Cochrane did not age particularly well, but we can't directly attribute Cochrane's decline to the ravages of catching. He was severely beaned in 1933, his Age 33 season, and was never the same afterward.

Yogi Berra's 83 Win Shares look impressive and were impressive. But there are a couple of caveats. One, he played 70 games in the outfield in those seasons (and 121 games was the most he caught in a season during that span). And two, 83 Win Shares, as you can see, represented a real decline for Berra.

Ted Simmons is not, of course, in the Hall of Fame. But his career hitting stats rank right up there with any Hall of Fame catcher you care to name, so I thought it appropriate to include him, if only to balance Cochrane.

Here's a short table summarizing the 10 catchers mentioned above, less Cochrane:

WS,28-31 WS,32-35 Change
834 575 -31%

I should hasten to mention that severe injuries were not significant factors in the declines of these catchers, as a group. In fact, the only debilitating injury I know about is on the other side of the equation (Hartnett's 1929 arm injury). I'm not saying that Rodriguez's numbers will decline by 31 percent over the next few seasons; he wasn't healthy in three of his last four seasons, so those four might not be representative. What I'm saying is that if the Tigers think they're getting the Ivan Rodriguez who won an MVP Award in 1999, or even the Ivan Rodriguez who batted .297 with 16 home runs in 2003, they're probably going to be disappointed. Because unless the doctors and the nutritionists and the strength coaches have figured out how to change the rules, Rodriguez is entering his sunset years as a dangerous baseball hitter.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.