How do you resurrect a downtrodden baseball franchise? Does it take a fiery manager, one hell-bent on changing the clubhouse culture the minute he walks in the door? Or does it take a superstar middle-of-the-order bat who can carry the offense and change a game with one swing? Or does it start before that? Maybe it starts with another star, one who took a chance on a team long on history but short -- very short -- on wins the season before. Maybe the answer to the Tigers' turnaround doesn't rest with Jim Leyland or Magglio Ordonez, but rather Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez? We will probably never know. Regardless, Pudge's efforts in a Tigers uniform landed him the #46 spot on our countdown.
*Played for the Texas Rangers from 1991 to 2002.
**Played for the Florida Marlins in 2003.
***Played for the New York Yankees from July 2008 to October 2008.
****Played for the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers in 2009.
*****Played for the Washington Nationals from 2010 to 2011.
Ivan Rodriguez Torres was born on November 27th, 1971 in Manati, Puerto Rico. He grew up in nearby Vega Baja, where he became a catcher at a young age because he threw so hard as a pitcher. His father, concerned for the safety of other players, stuck him behind the plate. He signed with the Texas Rangers as an amateur free agent in 1988, just 16 years old at the time. He began his professional career in 1989 and played the better part of three seasons in the minor leagues. While his offensive numbers were far from dazzling, he was extremely young for the levels he played in. He was named an All-Star in the Advanced-A Florida State League in 1990 at 18 years of age.
Still a teenager, Pudge made his big league debut the next season. His first game was on June 20th, 1991, a 7-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox. Rodriguez hit a two-run single and threw out a pair of would-be base stealers. He would quickly become known for the latter, as he threw out baserunners at a 49% clip during his rookie season and picked off a pair of runners. Despite his defensive prowess, his offensive tallies were below league average and he finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
Rodriguez cemented himself as one of the best young players in the game in 1992. In 123 games, he hit .260/.300/.360 while throwing out 52% of all base stealers, which led the American League. He made his first All-Star team and won a Gold Glove. His power began to develop over the next few seasons as his homer totals climbed into double digits. He won his first Silver Slugger during the strike-shortened 1994 season, which coincided with his first above average offensive season according to both OPS+ and wRC+.
Pudge continued to blossom into one of the game's premier talents in the mid-1990s. He hit .300 for the first time in 1995 and earned his first MVP consideration in 1996, finishing 10th in the voting. He eclipsed the 20-homer mark for the first time in 1997 and slugged over .500 for the first time in 1998. All the while, he continued to strike fear into baserunners around the league. He led the league in caught stealing percentage in 1996, '97, and '98. The 1998 season also marked his seventh consecutive All-Star and Gold Glove selections.
Widely considered to be the best catcher in baseball at this point, Pudge took things to another level in 1999. He hit .332/.356/.558 with 35 home runs and 113 RBI. He also scored 116 runs and stole 25 bases, both of which were career highs. For his efforts, he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player, but even that doesn't tell the whole story. He is one of nine catchers to both score and drive in 100 runs in the same season, and the only catcher to do so while stealing at least 10 bases. His 6.8 WAR is the 19th best total by a catcher in MLB history, and likely would have been much higher if not for his 3.8% walk rate.
Pudge didn't hit as many home runs in 2000, but his rate stats improved across the board as he hit a career-best .347/.375/.667, good enough for a .428 wOBA and 149 wRC+. The wRC+ would have been the 15th best total in history had he not been limited to just 91 games after a thumb injury suffered while throwing a ball to second base. He recovered and was his usual self in 2001, but an early injury in 2002 ended his 10-year streak of All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves, as he played in just 108 games. However, his .314 batting average kept his streak of eight consecutive .300+ seasons alive.
Despite all his accolades by this point, interest in the 31 year old free agent catcher was scarce following the 2002 season. Rodriguez had to wait until January until a serious offer came his way, and he signed a one year, $10 million deal with the Florida Marlins. Hoping to resurrect his value, Rodriguez helped backbone a talented Marlins team to a Wild Card appearance. After an easy series win over the San Francisco Giants, the Marlins looked like they would be a footnote to the resurgent Chicago Cubs, who held a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS. Rodriguez hit a home run in Game 5 to force the series back to Chicago. In Game 6, his RBI single was the first blow in an eight run eighth inning highlighted by the Steve Bartman incident. He also hit an RBI double that ignited a comeback in Game 7 to take the series. The Marlins would go on to win the World Series over the New York Yankees in six games.
After the season, Pudge surprised many by signing a contract with the Tigers, who were fresh off a record-setting 43-119 season. His contract was worth a total of $40 million, but less than half of that amount was guaranteed due to various clauses that provided the Tigers a cheap way out were Rodriguez to suffer any more injuries. He didn't, and the club improved substantially. They won 72 games in 2004 while Pudge hit .334/.383/.510 with 19 home runs and 86 RBI. He made his 11th All-Star appearance and won another Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, marking the seventh time he had accomplished all three feats in a single season.
Pudge's offensive numbers slipped in 2005, but his defense returned to its usual dominant form. After throwing out a then-career-low 32% of runners in 2004, he gunned down 51% of base stealers in 2005. Meanwhile, the Tigers allowed 57 fewer runs than the season before, though they still finished with a 4.51 ERA. Pudge did not win a Gold Glove -- his only full season in Detroit without one -- but he was the Tigers' lone representative at the All-Star Game, which was held at Comerica Park. He also participated in the Home Run Derby, finishing second to Philadelphia's Bobby Abreu.
Rodriguez was instrumental in the Tigers' resurgence in 2006, hitting .300/.332/.437 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI. He also helped quarterback a pitching staff -- led by Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander -- that had the lowest ERA in baseball. He drove in a pair of runs in Game 4 of the ALDS as the Tigers cruised by the Yankees, but did not hit particularly well in the ALCS or World Series. His numbers started to decline in 2007 when he hit just .281/.294/.420. It marked the second time in three years that his on-base percentage dipped below .300.
The Tigers traded Rodriguez to the New York Yankees in the middle of the disappointing 2008 season, where he hit just .219/.257/.323 in 101 plate appearances. Things did not go much better for the aging catcher over the next few years. He played in 276 games for three clubs -- including a return trip to the Rangers for 28 games -- from 2009 to 2011, but hit a lowly .252/.286/.360 with 16 home runs and 115 RBI. He set the record for most games played by a catcher in 2009.
Pudge's place in Tigers history is still up in the air. Some see him as instrumental to the franchise's recent turnaround, being that he was the first marquee name to join the team following the disastrous 2003 season. Some see him as a cheater due to his involvement with the Mitchell Report and presence in Jose Canseco's tell-all book that was released two years prior. Others are more ambivalent, citing his pedestrian numbers in a Tigers uniform. His best offensive seasons were in Texas and he ranks 47th in franchise history with 14.3 WAR, tied with Brandon Inge.
Regardless of his place in Detroit lore, Rodriguez is one of the best catchers to ever play the game. His 70.7 WAR ranks second all-time, behind Johnny Bench. He threw out 46% of all base stealers during his career, the best rate in history. He was a 14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner (including three in Detroit), and won seven Silver Sluggers. He is one of eight catchers to ever win the AL MVP award, and one of two to win it since the mid-1970s. His career also spans several generations: he caught Nolan Ryan in the second game of his career and was behind the plate for Stephen Strasburg's electric big league debut in 2010.