Pudge Looking at the Decline

Point blank, Ivan Rodriguez is one the best catchers in the history of baseball. You would be hard pressed to find someone with a legitimate argument to that statement, and chances are most people would put Rodriguez and his 12 gold gloves and 48% caught stealing percentage at one or two all time. But so far this season Rodriguez has not been his usual self and opposing teams have taken notice.

In the 9th inning of Wednesday's night game against the Angels, manager Mike Scioscia sent the runner at first base. He was safe, just as most runners who have attempted to run on Pudge this season have been. The trend started in the first series of the season against the Blue Jays, who ran on Pudge with great success, stealing three times in the two games of the series.

That slow start, following a very sub-par first quarter of the season, has left Pudge with a 22% caught stealing percentage. Although there are many factors that contribute to a base being stolen (such as the pitcher not holding the runner on) those excuses never needed to be used before with Rodriguez, who has been the most feared catcher in the game for more than a decade.

The caught stealing percentage isn't the only stat that is turned upside down for Pudge this season, as he already has three passed balls - only one less than all of last season. There have been many other instances this season when balls he should have blocked or caught have lead to the runners advancing, and though these mistakes don't show up on his stat sheet they have to be a concern.

It's a waste of time to debate Rodriguez's future in Detroit. He's here this season, and will in all likelihood be here next season with a club option for the 2008 season which will, and should, be picked up. He's one of the game's greatest players and will continue to be a great major league catcher, but the question has to be asked: exactly how great will his play be?

Going into the 2009 season Rodriguez will be a 37 year old catcher with 19 years of experience. Will he want to continue playing? It's as good of a bet as any that the answer to that question is a yes, but will he continue to wear the Old English D? That is up to Dave Dombrowski, and after the faith Pudge put in the Tigers in 2004 I have a hard time seeing Dombrowski let him walk, especially with no viable replacement option in sight.

Two years is quite a long look ahead by the fan's view, but for management it's a perfect window to have a relative plan in place. The slight decline in Pudge's play behind the plate this season is noticeable this season, but thankfully a slight decline in Ivan Rodriguez still puts him among the league's upper echelon of catchers. Time will only tell what the next two years has in store for Rodriguez, who like all players will see his quickness slowly fade, just as his power numbers have, but what will happen is anyone's guess.

Will a down year force him to work harder in the offseason and become better than ever? It's tough to say, especially when that body working out everyday is one with 36 years of age. But one thing is clear, it's not the same Pudge Rodriguez behind home plate. A far above average Major League catcher? Clearly. But, the 12 time gold glove winner of the past decade and a half? Not quite. Either way, Pudge is starting the downward side of his career and hopefully the Tigers notice and go out and get a young catcher to start to develop for two or three years down the road.

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