Buster Posey retiring with no tour, just class

Buster Posey

Buster Posey’s two-run blast in Game One of this year’s NLDS with the Dodgers has proven the last blast of a Hall of Fame career.

On Memorial Day 2017, Buster Posey displayed a lot of what made him above and beyond a mere elite catcher. He hadn’t exactly lacked for credentials prior to that game, but he showed the measure of the man as well as the backstop for three World Series-winning Giants teams.

In the top of the eighth, Giants relief pitcher Hunter Strickland retired the Nationals’ Trea Turner and Jayson Werth with Bryce Harper coming to the plate. The righthander hadn’t seen Harper at the plate since the 2014 division series in which Harper tagged him twice for home runs.

The second of the two blasts might have been the more telling one. It was a high, parabolic bomb down the right field line that nobody—not Harper watching as he stepped forward, not Strickland turned around watching from the mound, not Posey still in his crouch—knew would be fair until it sailed past the foul pole and into McCovey’s Cove.

No one but a boring old artery-hardened “purist” or a moron would have accused Harper of showboating a blast he clearly didn’t know was fair or foul until it was seen passing the pole on the fair side. And who knew what crept into and out of Strickland’s head in the times to follow, since the scheduling to come kept the Giants and the Nats apart from then until this Memorial Day.

Strickland threw right into Harper’s right hip on the first pitch. Posey stood almost motionless behind the plate as the enraged Harper charged the mound. In fact, not a single Giant left their dugout until after Harper and Strickland traded a few punches. Posey looked as though trying to tell Strickland, You’re on your own, dude, I didn’t call for that pitch.

He never thought about restraining Harper. He waited until plate umpire Brian Gorman arrived near the mound as Harper and Strickland traded their first punches. It took almost ten full seconds after Harper started his mound charge before Posey finally strode toward the mound and the Giants began pouring out followed by the Nats.

Posey remained almost entirely on the periphery of the brawl once it began in earnest. While Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija and outfielder Michael Morse collided en route the center of the scrum, it took three more Giants—pitcher George Kontos, outfielders Hunter Pence and Mac Williamson—to get Strickland out of the crowd. Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and third baseman Anthony Rendon got Harper away from damage.

Did Strickland tell Posey before the game that he planned to nail Harper if he had the chance? Did Posey answer him in the words his body language subsequently suggested? Some thought Posey was being cautious because of his history of concussions behind the plate. Some thought Posey was only too well aware that, if the Nats decided to retaliate, he’d be a target the next time he batted against them.

Others thought Posey simply had no taste for a temperamental pitcher exercising an almost three-year-old grudge for surrendering home runs in a series their team actually won. Still others saw it, as I did, as an exercise in just how much genuine class Posey brought to baseball and to the Giants.

And, how much class he carried to the end of his career. There’ll be none of that farewell tour jive for the backstop who still looks, somehow, as though he’s that friendly and boyish looking 23 year old Rookie of the Year who just anchored his Giants to the first of three World Series rings in five years.

Posey planned for Thursday what The Athletic‘s Giants writer, Andrew Baggarly, tweeted the day before, announcing his retirement at 34 after twelve major league seasons. It’s going to feel just as strange seeing the Giants without Posey behind the plate anymore as it felt at first seeing this century’s Red Sox without Dustin Pedroia manning second base.

He’d hinted toward it during the Giants’ brief postseason stay. “I’m definitely just going to take some time with my wife, talk with her, be able to be a full-time dad of four kids for the first time in a while,” he told reporters. “Yeah, just kind of take it slow and see how things progress.”

It’s not simple business to move forward when a franchise face, its arguable heart and soul, steps away from the game at all, never mind when he’s still either at the top of it or somewhere within reach of it. Posey anchored this year’s Giants and their somewhat surprising run to a 107-win regular season and the National League West title.

When he smashed a two-run homer off Dodgers ace Walker Buehler to open this year’s National League division series scoring between the two lifelong rivals (it bounced off a pillar into McCovey Cove), Giants fans hoped it meant the beginning of a run to the World Series. The Dodgers went on to win in five, only to be shoved to one side by the upstart Braves in the National League Championship Series.

Catching may be baseball’s most dangerous profession within a profession. Posey himself has evinced it. He’s incurred more than his share of concussions. He’s had surgery to repair a torn labrum. He got blasted so violently on a May 2011 play at the plate that a) he missed the rest of the season; and, b) baseball’s rulemakers augmented the rules to bar baserunners from leaving the baseline trying to score and to bar catchers from blocking the plate without the ball in their hands first.

He also sat out the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season voluntarily; the decision made as much for his adopted twin daughters born prematurely that summer as for the sake of his and his family’s health. (Posey and his wife, Kristen, are the parents of two pairs of twins; their fraternal twins, daughter Addison and son Lee, turned ten recently.)

In fact, Posey calling it a career after a mere twelve Show seasons at or near the top of his game lures a comparison to another great who once did likewise but at three years younger. “This is Koufaxian stuff,” writes The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe at FanGraphs, “a player retiring despite still performing at an elite level.”

The parallel between Posey and Sandy Koufax isn’t perfect, though both played just twelve years in the majors, accumulated numerous individual honors and reached the pinnacle of their respective positions in helping their teams win three championships, then departed abruptly. So far as we know, Posey isn’t playing through anything as debilitating as the three-time Cy Young winner’s chronic arthritis, but the long-term effects of multiple concussions are nothing to trifle with, and Posey, already a father of two before the adoption, has two new reasons to want to make sure he enjoys his retirement years.

There were those who couldn’t understand Koufax walking away from the mound at his peak because the idea of crippling himself for life was not an option for a 30-year-old man. There may be those who can’t understand Posey walking away from his station behind the plate at or near his peak because the idea of one more shot in the head meaning the difference between keeping all or about an eight of his marbles isn’t an option for a 34-year-old man.

Playing in an era that produced extremely few truly elite all-around catchers, Posey is number eight all time for the runs saved he’s worth above his league average behind the plate (+76). In 2021 he was still worth 10 runs saved above the league average for catchers.

At the plate, as opposed to behind it, Posey was still a force, perhaps an above-average force considering his injury history and the normal wear inflicted upon catchers in their prime. The traditionalists will point to his .304 “batting average”; his fourteen home runs were solid power production for a 34-year-old catching regularly still; his .399 on-base percentage wasn’t top ten in the league but brilliant for a catcher at his age.

He didn’t qualify for the “batting title,” his 454 plate appearances falling 47 short of qualifying. But my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—shows this for Posey’s 2021 at the plate:

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Buster Posey, 2021 454 197 56 2 3 1 .570

In other words, Posey was a better batter by a single point this year than Mookie Betts (.569) and a single point below Paul Goldschmidt (.571).

If you were to put Posey’s career RBA into the pack of Hall of Fame catchers who played all or most of their careers in the post-World War II/post-reintegration/night-ball era, you might think a lot more kindly toward his Hall of Fame case—he lands smack dab in the middle:

Catchers PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Piazza 7745 3768 759 146 45 30 .613
Roy Campanella 4815 2101 533 113 50* 30 .587
Johnny Bench 8674 3644 891 135 90 19 .551
Yogi Berra 8359 3643 704 91 95* 52 .549
Buster Posey 5,607 2,285 540 67 53 43 .533
Carlton Fisk 9853 3999 849 105 79 143 .525
Ted Simmons 9,685 3793 855 188 100 39 .514
Gary Carter 9019 3497 848 106 99 68 .512
Ivan Rodriguez 10270 4451 513 67 76 58 .503
HOF AVG .543

Think about that. Think about how much worse you could be than pulling up fifth behind Mike Piazza, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra.

We’ll never know how he would have shaken out had he continued his career, particularly since there’s been talk aplenty that the Giants planned to transition him toward playing first base more frequently. Posey’s short career may sway voters away from him, at least those who still don’t grok that the Hall of Fame should be about greatness, not arithmetic. (Shut the hell up about his lack of 2,000 lifetime hits, you boring old fart purists, you social media slop heads, you sports talk radio runts.) Greatness, not the gold watch.

There are Hall of Famers with quarter-century careers who don’t belong except as visitors. (Good evening, Harold Baines.) There are some not yet in Cooperstown whose careers weren’t half that long. (Be well in the Elysian Fields, Thurman Munson.)

Yadier Molina has had a third more career length than Posey, and he’s kept Posey from winning a couple more than one Gold Glove. He’s the superior defensive catcher by a wide enough margin; his Hall of Fame plaque will come primarily and appropriately because of his work behind the plate.

Yet the pair are almost exactly the same catcher when it comes to the position’s number-one job: handling a pitching staff. As of the end of the 2021 seasons, the pitchers throwing to Yadier Molina have posted a 3.70 earned run average . . . but those throwing to Buster Posey have posted a 3.68 ERA.

I don’t think you could find that many more tight similarities between two individual catchers playing their entire careers with two different teams. That’s without throwing in that Posey was the one who shepherded his pitchers to three World Series rings including Madison Bumgarner’s electrifying 2014 postseason performance. Molina has shepherded his pitchers to a pair.

But Posey’s been the better all-around catcher, and it isn’t even close. There’s no contest between Posey’s 129 OPS+ and Molina’s +97. RBA doesn’t do Molina any favours against Posey, either. (Do I have to say outright that, when he’s elected to Hall of Fame, Molina’s RBA will put him tenth in a class of ten?)

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Buster Posey 5,607 2,285 540 67 53 43 .533
Yadier Molina 8284 3039 537 50 74 74 .456

That’s some difference in plate discipline there—Posey in twelve seasons taking three more walks than Molina has in eighteen seasons. It’s also taken eighteen seasons for Molina to draw seventeen fewer passes on the house. The bottom line there is that Molina’s greatness doesn’t include too much fear factor when he checks into the batter’s box but Posey’s does.

If you want to go the route of wins above replacement-level player (WAR), there’s only one player at any position with more WAR from 2012-2017 than Posey’s 43.0, a figure Jaffe says includes his isolated value as a pitch framer behind the plate. Hands up to everybody who guessed (correctly) that it’s Mike Trout.

Posey may not be quite the best all-around catcher who ever strapped it on in all major league baseball. But he’s no questions asked the best all-around catcher in the history of the Giants’ franchise. He wore the uniform with class, he played the game with class as well as greatness. He deserves both a pleasant and fulfilling baseball retirement and a plaque in Cooperstown.

—————————————————————

* – What’s with the asterisk next to Yogi Berra’s sacrifice flies? Simple enough: The sacrifice fly wasn’t an official stat until 1954. Berra played about half his major league career before that. So I needed a way to calculate the sac flies he might have hit if the rule took effect when his career began.

I took his number of recorded sac flies, divided that by the seasons he played under the rule, then took that result and multiplied it by the number of major league seasons he really played. The formula: Sac flies (SF) divided by sac fly rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by total MLB seasons. SF / SRS x YRS.

It was the best I could come to a total number of sacrifice flies you could have expected Yogi to hit all career long.

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