For a good stretch of the eight months most of us slumber away between college football games, there are some that play a different kind of game with sticks, balls and pieces of leather on their hands. And if you haven’t paid much attention this year to the game of base and ball, then chances are you’ve missed one of the greatest summers in baseball history. Out here in Hollywood, the Los Angeles Dodgers are finishing up a script that would make many fantasy writers blush. A massive payroll and superstar names on the roster primed the pump for huge expectations heading into this season. But in June, the Dodgers were one of the laughingstocks of sport, ready to join the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles and the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers as recent dream teams that ended in nightmares. Then in seemingly the blink of an eye, the Dodgers jumped from the dumpster to the penthouse. And in the middle of it, two former Gators at opposite ends of their careers.
Mark Ellis is familiar with magic on the diamond. His rookie season was in 2002 with the Oakland A’s and 11 years ago today, the A’s were in the midst of an historic 20-game winning streak with Ellis playing in every one of those games. But Ellis’s first brush with baseball mojo was in Gainesville. He arrived in 1996 and as a freshman forced his way into the lineup at third base, hitting .351 and stealing 19 bases. That Gators team was arguably the best in school history to that point, SEC champs and the #2 seed in the College World Series. Two years later, Florida might have been even better. Ellis certainly was in the postseason that year, hitting .462 in the SEC Tournament and .500 in the Regional to earn MVP honors. In the final game of the Regional, Ellis was a part of one of the greatest Gators games in any sport ever. The Gators rallied late three different times and finally walked off in the 11th to clinch a CWS berth. I had a front run seat in the press box as an intern with the SID staff keeping official game stats.
From those 1996 and 1998 teams, six Gators made the major leagues – Ellis, Brad Wilkerson, David Eckstein, David Ross, Paul Rigdon and Josh Fogg. Everyone expected Wilkerson to make the majors and have the best career. He had his moments, finishing 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting in 2002 and becoming one of a handful of men ever to hit for the cycle two or more times. Fogg was probably next in line and is currently the former Gator with the most wins ever. Ellis was a 9th round pick in the 1999 draft so it wasn’t a surprise that he made the bigs. But quietly, he has now put together what might be the second best professional baseball career of any former Gator ever.
Al Rosen is undeniably the best. You remember Al, right? The 1953 AL MVP? His 192 home runs are the most by a Gator and he made four All-Star teams. Clear cut case for Rosen as the best Gator in the majors ever. The battle for #2, though, is fascinating. Mike Stanley is second to Rosen in homers, RBI and OPS and ranks among the top 5 in most offensive categories. David Eckstein has the most hits, runs and stolen bases of any Gator, made two All-Star teams and was the 2006 World Series MVP. But Ellis is still playing and still moving up the rankings. Among former Gators, Ellis is 2nd in games played, 2nd in hits, 3rd in runs, 3rd in RBI, 5th in HR, 1st in doubles and 3rd in steals. As impressive as those numbers are, Ellis is an 11-year veteran because of his glove. The experts I’ve worked with have told me he’s one of the best defensive second baseman they’ve seen and the numbers back it up. How’s this one… he has the 5th best fielding percentage as a second baseman of ANY PLAYER EVER. Factoring in defensive value, Ellis vaults into the discussion with Stanley, a catcher who didn’t throw out runners very frequently and became a DH at the end of his career, and Eckstein, a good fielder despite his weak arm but who nonetheless still made 38 more errors than Ellis playing in less games.
The other part of the Gator duo in Los Angeles is Paco Rodriguez. We saw that powerful left arm deliver for the Gators in three straight seasons, every year one of the Gators best bullpen arms and probably the most trusted. Rodriguez was a big part of those three straight College World Series teams, including what was probably Florida’s best team ever in 2011. As good as Rodriguez was at Florida, just like Ellis, he was overshadowed by teammates. The Gators best chance for MLB superstardom from those teams was Mike Zunino. Even on the pitching staff, Brian Johnson, Austin Maddox and Karsten Whitson were more highly rated. All of those guys may have great big league careers someday. But Rodriguez reached the majors faster than any other member of the 2012 draft class and he has never looked back.
With less than a year of experience in the majors, Rodriguez has already become one of the more dominating left-handed relievers in the game. Among all lefties with at least 40 innings pitched this year, his 1.91 ERA is sixth best. In fact, since June 7th, he has pitched in 34 games and allowed one earned run for an ERA of 0.34. The hype for the Dodgers run this summer has fallen on Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Clayton Kershaw. But no one has played better than Paco Rodriguez during that time.
As I mentioned, Rodriguez hasn’t been a major leaguer for even a full calendar year yet. But the way he is pitching, there is a real chance he can go down as the best pitcher ever out of the University of Florida. Already, he’s 14th all-time in strikeouts among former Gators. The best Gator pitchers in the bigs were probably Rob Murphy, Doug Corbett and Darren O’Day. Only O’Day is still active and he’s had a nice few years as a middle-innings bullpen guy. But the future is bright because of Rodriguez and his high ceiling.
We are in the final stretch of our long journey back to the college football promised land. We will gorge ourselves on the greatest game starting at the end of this week. But be sure to keep an eye on the baseball world into October. Two former Gators, one at the end of a great career and one just beginning what has the potential to be a great career, are enjoying excellent seasons on the team that is the Vegas odds favorite to win the World Series.