I really planned to address this question after the season was over. But with a blog posting at D-Town, a Detroit News article by Lynn Henning and reaction at the MotownSports forum, now seems as good as any time.
Economics up front
The Tigers have a $13 M club option for Pudge Rodriguez with a guaranteed $3M buyout. That’s money they owe him either way, so think of the cost of Pudge in 2008 as $10M, not $13M, so 10M is the figure I’ll use in the rest of the post. The question put forth by the News’ headline writer: “Is Pudge WORTH IT (sic)”? This is not just a baseball skills question.
- Are Pudge’s baseball skills worth it?
It seems to me, no. Catchers age hard, and many baseball people thought Pudge would see his baseball abilities decrease long before the fourth year of the contract.
Now, his defense is waning. His caught stealing rate is 26.2 percent, sixth among regular starters in the A.L. (”Regular starters” is my estimation. Mauer is not “qualified” but started 76 games. That seemed regular enough). The number of passed balls + wild pitches (I combine those because it’s up to the scorekeeper to decide who gets the blame, it’s up to the catcher to stop as many pitches as possible. Some wild pitches were obviously uncatchable, some I’ve observed I thought many catchers would corral). And he has the second most errors in the AL. However, his range factor is second best.
At the plate, Pudge has an OPS+ of 84 and a VORP of 8.5. His OPS+ number is compared to a baseline average of 100 (average) since 2004. He is 16% worse than it. His value above replacement being just 8.5 does not make me think he’s significantly all that good. He refuses to take a walk, so his avg/obp/slg is .274/.286/.417. You can see his splits yourself, but there’s no magic bullet in there that says his stats are lying to you.
Compared to others in MLB
To put this into perspective though, his defensive stats make him appear slightly worse than Cleveland’s Victor Martinez and about the same as NY’s Jorge Posada. Both are significantly better hitters. Posada has an OPS+ of 153. This season is a career high, however, I wouldn’t predict that into the future much. His VORP is 57.8.
Comparing costs, Jorge Posada (who is a free agent after this season) cost $12M. VMart, who is under club control still, cost $3.2M, a real bargain. Oh, and Boston’s Jason Varitek, better defensively than Pudge all around, cost $11M.
Compared to teammates
Last year, Vance Wilson has an OPS+ of 91 in 56 games. His defense did not make me think he sucked at it. And sabermetrically, saying a catcher makes a pitcher better is not based on stats. Mike Rabelo has an OPS+ of 76. (.263/.306/.358). Yes, Rabelo gets on base more often than Pudge, although his power is less right now.
Wilson’s Catcher ERA in 2006: 3.91. Pudge’s: 3.82). CERA may not be perfect, but in this case, it shows pitchers did well no matter who was the backstop. In 2007, Pudge’s ERA is 4.64 and Rabelo’s is 4.82. In both cases, Pudge was better. But I don’t see it as a significant difference.
It seems to be, from a baseball dollars sense, Pudge’s value relative to his $10M cost is way, way less. He is not in Posada’s class. Not in VMart’s class. I’m not sure I’d want to put him in Varitek’s class. He’s hardly above his teammates. And Pudge is declining. And remember the direction we must continue to look is forward. Will Pudge be better than Rabelo and Wilson next season? Wilson is coming back from surgery on his elbow and probably can’t keep a starter’s workload. Most people don’t want to see Rabelo as an every day starter. And yet… Pudge is not significantly better. So how is he the one worth $10M?
This also helps answer the question of whether there are alternatives. Compared to the sunk cost contract of Wilson (in other words, Wilson is here either way next year, so he’s 0. Pudge is either going to cost 0 to not return or 10 to return), Pudge is definitely too costly. Compared to Mike Rabelo (who can return at likely little more than league minimum) Pudge is also way too costly.
On the free agent market, the cost of a name catcher would be several million dollars and multiple years. But, it’s my belief Pudge’s skills are declining such he should be compared to a backup, not a name starter. From that sense, I would not want to pay him $10M.
- Then what about intangibles?
The problem with intangibles lies in the word itself. It’s not tangible. It’s hard to quantify them. Some of the more intangible questions I thought of follow. I’ll give my opinions.
How much is Pudge’s leadership worth?
In a rudderless, young team, maybe something. On a team full of leaders (think: Carlos Guillen… think Jim Leyland), this seems not to be worth that much. Diminishing returns.
How much does Pudge make other teams think?
There might be some mystique to the future Hall of Famer. But there’s probably not much thought going on in the pitcher’s mind with runners on than “Throw balls, he’ll swing at bad pitches.” So I think this isn’t worth much either.
How much does Pudge make other players want to play in Detroit?
At some point in time, this was worth something. That point was 2005 and 2006 when Pudge was the star of an upstart club. Detroit was paying him more than his value, and recruitment ability was probably an intangible they paid for. Maybe now not everyone wants to play for the Tigers. But a club with some young stars, a sold out stadium, a no-hit pitcher, an MVP candidate… this is not significant value.
Will the loss of Pudge cause problems in the locker room?
Due to the above few questions, I think no. The Tigers look to be a perenniel postseason contender with some mature players. I doubt it’s going to cause a raucous if they don’t bring him back.
Conclusion: This doesn’t outweigh the cost above Pudge’s baseball worth.
- Do they owe Pudge anything?
The contract he was given following 2003 was above and beyond what he would have gotten. He earned a good amount of money, had four guaranteed years during a time there were injury fears. And he was able to cement his Hall of Fame credentials (as if they needed it!) by leading the club from the depths of 2003 to the World Series. It is not good business sense or fair to the other guys to reward him with an extension.
- Can the money be spent better elsewhere?
In baseball, the goal is to win games, obviously. But how do you win games? Limit runs. Score runs of your own. That’s what the Pythagorean theorem can predict a team’s record from runs scored and allowed. So the question to me is, can this $10M be better spent to maximize the difference between RS and RA? If either the cost of upgrading other positions was prohibitive or they didn’t need it, then maybe it’s worth it to pay Pudge.
However, the Tigers might need an outfielder. We don’t know if Cam Maybin is the answer next year to the LF problem. The Tigers probably need a starting pitcher, maybe two. The Tigers need a better first baseman. The Tigers could probably use some bullpen help (and must sign a closer or re-sign Todd Jones).
While an estimated $20M or s comes off the payrole from players who definitely aren’t coming back next season, I would say the $10M not given to Pudge would help in filling these needs.
- My conclusion
You can guess by now I don’t think Detroit should bring “the little Pudgy one,” as Rod Allen would call him, back with that extension. I was so thankful for when he signed. He is a major face of the organization. He helped make the Tigers who they are today. But the cost of the extension is far more than he would make on the free agent market, more than his worth and more than the cost of replacing most, if not all, of his lowly production on offense and defense.
I think they have to let him go.