Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pudge's Defense Slipping?

In last year's Fan Fielding Survey conducted by TangoTiger, fans rated Ivan Rodriguez as the best defensive catcher and one of the top defenders at any position in the game. As a supplement to the survey, I was asked to write a piece discussing his defense without the use of numbers. Since he was obviously a fantastic fielder, it was not too difficult for me to laud his defense.

This year it might not be so easy to write an article supporting him as one of the top defensive players in the game. While watching Tigers games this year, I've noticed that his defense seems to have slipped a bit. He is still very quick and agile and has a great arm but runners seem to fear him less and he does not seem to be blocking pitches as well. So, I decided to look at his defense statistically.

The table below (extracted from The Hardball Times database) shows that they are running on him more this year than last: 0.57 SB attempts per game in 2007 versus 0.39 in 2006. He has also been less successful throwing runners out in 2007 (23% caught stealing) than in 2006 (46%) or 2005 (44%).

Table: Ivan Rodriguez's Fielding Stats as a Tiger































More pitches have been getting by him as well. There have been 0.56 wild pitches plus passed balls per game in 2007, 0.32 in 2006 and 0.38 in 2005. Wild pitches are included in this calculation because it's really difficult to distinguish between wild pitches and passed balls and I think official scorers sometimes give Pudge the benefit of the doubt due to his reputation.

Of course, catching stats must be taken with a grain of salt. A team's pitching staff has as much influence on stolen bases, passed balls and wild pitches as a catcher. However, this year's team has many of the same pitchers as last year's team so why the drop in performance? I'm also aware that catchers have many responsibilities beyond throwing out base runners and blocking pitches. Still, I can't help noticing through both observation and statistics that Pudge seems to have slipped in both areas this year.

You may have noticed that I have not talked about 2004 up to this point. Ivan's 2007 stats look more like his 2004 stats than 2005 or 2006. Remember that Rodriguez had a spectacular year offensively for a catcher in 2004 (.893 OPS) but his defense was sub-par by his own admission that year. He was so disappointed that he made a point of losing a great deal of weight in order to regain some of his athleticism. It apparently worked as his defense improved markedly perhaps at the expense of his offense. Now, it appears that his catching skills have gone back to what they were in 2004 but his offensive production has not.

So, what do the Tigers do with him after this season? He is 35 years old and no longer has the skills of an elite catcher but he is still an above average defender and hits well for a catcher. It seems pretty obvious that they should let his 2008 option kick in and I'm pretty sure they would not hesitate to extend him through 2009. Without any future catching help on the horizon, this seems to be a given. However, what if he demands a long term multiyear deal? Can they afford to do that in light of his age and declining offense and defense? if it comes to that and I suspect it might, it won't be an easy decision for the Tigers.

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