Throneberry Fields Forever

. . . a calm review of baseball

Throneberry Fields Forever

What Syndergaard wanted most

Noah Syndergaard

Met fans won’t forget Noah Syndergaard dropping Alcides Escobar to open Game Three of the 2015 World Series. Now the talented but oft-injured Syndergaard will be an Angel because the Mets’ administration slept at the switch after making his qualifying offer.

Go ahead and cling to the surface look if that’s your preference. Cling to the Mets showing Noah Syndergaard a qualifying offer and Syndergaard electing instead to let the Angels seduce him for a couple of million dollars more for next year, if it makes you happy. Cling to the narrative that Syndergaard’s heart with the Mets could be bought, if you must.

But now you must ask yourself concurrently just why it was that Syndergaard’s Mets heart was abandoned while the Angels swept in and swept him off their feet. Your answer is no further than New York Post writer Joel Sherman, who says the Angels had a plan for the power-pitching righthander coming back from Tommy John surgery—and the Mets apparently lacked one.

Oh, sure, the Mets plan to win if they can help it. But that’s it. When they tendered Syndergaard his qualifying offer, that was it, too. They had no general manager at that moment. They had no manager. They still don’t. They’ve got a pitching coach, Jeremy Hefner.

But nobody in the Mets’ organisation talked much of anything yet about how they were going to shepherd a starting pitching staff going forward. They didn’t talk about how they were going to manage Syndergaard’s work load during his first full season back after Tommy John surgery, recovery, and rehab.

Enter Angels general manager Perry Minasian. He knew Syndergaard wanted a deal and the physicals done before today’s qualifying-offer deadline, just in case the physicals didn’t wash, leaving Syndergaard a Mets fallback after all. He also knew what Syndergaard wanted beyond a solid-enough, prove-it-year’s deal.

Syndergaard wanted a plan. Minasian high tailed it to New York to present him one. “[F]or the best organizations these days preparing pitchers physically, for the season and for each game, is a collective effort across multiple departments,” Sherman writes.

There were efforts in the first year under [Steve] Cohen’s ownership to bulk up these areas, but [the Mets] still pale in comparison to clubs such as the Dodgers, Giants and Blue Jays, among many others.

Minasian . . . came to New York armed with details on, among other things, how his club would have him pitch to individual players on each team in the AL West. He spoke of the success the Angels enjoyed last year with a six-man rotation, which helped get Shohei Ohtani through a season of hitting and pitching healthy. Minasian said the plan would stay the same and showed Syndergaard how pitching in a six-man rotation would give more time for recovery and lower his overall inning total when all he had in 2020-21 in the majors was two one-inning stints to close out the past season. Minasian brought data to show what the Angels liked about his delivery and pitch mix and how to make them even more effective.

In other words, Minasian caught the Mets sound asleep at the Syndergaard switch. While the Mets just slid a qualifying offer under the righthander’s nose with nothing substantial behind it to show him anything resembling love or respect, the Angels’ GM—who goes back with Syndergaard to the Blue Jays, having been part of their drafting team when they first picked him—brought all three. Love, respect, and substance.

Minasian also brought it with the most aggressive and committed push among several contenders for Syndergaard’s prove-it season, including the world champion Braves, the Red Sox, and the Jays.

Sherman notes that the Angels weren’t exactly thrilled about having to lose a draft pick for signing Syndergaard, but they were less thrilled than that about the prices in the free agency starters’ store—and starting with a Syndergaard whom Minasian knew well enough would give them decent odds in the upside department before pondering another starter or two on that market

The Angels’ seduction, Sherman writes, mattered as greatly as the Mets’ apparent lack of it: “Syndergaard is going to pitch at 29 this year. He recognizes how vital it is that he performs well to set himself up to re-enter the market next year at 30 to try to score a lucrative, long-term pact. And here were the Mets not even talking to him throughout this process. Here they were without an infrastructure in place. Here they were unable to provide a detailed plan to him beyond the big picture that Cohen wants to win now.”

The Mets hired former Angels GM Billy Eppler—Minasian’s immediate predecessor—as Syndergaard’s deal with the Angels came forth. This can be called crossing one end of the street without bothering to see who’s coming down the block from the other end. This can also be called too little, too late. This can be called, further, that’s still so Mets.

Leaving Mets fans with memories of a stout, tenacious pitcher who could be lights out when healthy and who gave them one whale of a performance in the 2015 World Series: Syndergaard dropping plate-crowding, plate-overcomfortable Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar to open Game Three, the only game in the Series that the Mets’ then-porous defense couldn’t cost them.

God knows the Angels themselves need a starting pitching overhaul—again. If a year’s worth of Syndergaard at minimum helps it begin, the deal will have been worth it. If Minasian’s plan for him works well enough, the Angels might think of extending Syndergaard or Syndergaard will have a solid market when he hits free agency next winter.

If losing Syndergaard now means a swift enough kick to the Mets’ posterior on behalf of shaking them further out of their funk before and after any possible lockout, it might be worth it, too. Eppler’s hiring to the contrary, with these Mets that’s a glandular if.

Will Eppler get to run the Mets unimpeded?

Billy Eppler, Mike Trout

Then-Angels GM Billy Eppler—seen with Mike Trout, whom he signed to a glandular Angel-for-life extension in 2019—now gets to run the Mets without a contradictorily heavy hand above and undermining him.

The good news (yes, it’s good news) is that the Mets finally have a new general manager. The bad news is that an awful lot of people may be shaking their heads and lamenting, “They put on that crazy hunt to end up with this?”

Billy Eppler wasn’t exactly a resounding success when he held the same job with the Angels from 2015-2020. Not overall, anyway. In isolated moments he looked like a budding genius. In the big picture, he looked like another one of Angels owner Arte Moreno’s designated fall guys.

The budding genius side: Eppler did the heavy lifting when it came to making Mike Trout an Angel for life and for making Shohei Ohtani an Angel at all after his Japanese splash. He secured the game’s best all-around position player and his three American League MVPs and landed this year’s two-way sensation who just might shake out as this year’s AL MVP.

The fall guy side: Moreno’s contradictory penchant for splash signings, low enough budgets otherwise, and moves he pushed out of sheer fury after failures to strike  designated targets. Moreno is a lot more like Eppler’s one-time boss George Steinbrenner’s bad side than Angel fans often dare admit outright.

Before Met fans continue shrugging their shoulders and lamenting that this, too, is so Mets, ponder if you will that when the Angels hired Eppler in the first place—after he’d spent copious time as Brian Cashman’s assistant with the Yankees after running their scouting system a few years—Eppler went in with an arm and a half tied behind his back before he could make his first phone call.

Perhaps insanely, Moreno gutted just about his entire scouting system. He made international scouting director Clay Daniels pay with his head after some of Daniels’s subordinates were caught skimming signing bonuses. He pinked his overall scouting chief Eddie Bane over a series of bad drafts and free agency signings, even if one of Bane’s last solid moves was pressing the Angels to sign a kid named Trout in the first place.

Several of Eppler’s moves blew up through no fault of his own. Zack Cozart struggled as a new Angel in 2018 before a torn labrum killed the second half of that season and neck and further shoulder surgery killed much of his 2019 before he was traded away and ultimately retired.

Eppler made a number of reclamation-project free agency signings that failed miserably enough, as in former Met Matt Harvey plus Cody Allen, Trevor Cahill, Tim Lincecum, and Julio Teheran. With the best intentions Eppler looked foolish for those deals, just as he would for extending outfielder Justin Upton.

But Upton points to Eppler’s better side as well. Left to half by Moreno’s big-sign/low-budget-otherwise style, Eppler did what he could with whatever he was left to work with, and it wasn’t exactly his fault that his penchant for sharp trading and a sharp waiver-wire eye was made to look foolish by subsequent events.

Trading for Upton in the first place looked smart at first—before the extension and before the unanticipated injuries that have throttled Upton since 2019. Eppler also made several trades that made useful Angels out of Dylan Bundy (pitcher), Tommy La Stella (middle infield), Andrelton Simmons (shortstop), Felix Pena (pitcher), Patrick Sandoval (pitcher), and Max Stassi (catcher), for short whiles, anyway.

Eppler was also deft enough to land Brian Goodwin, Blake Parker, Noe Ramirez, and Hansel Robles off the waiver wire, getting some success from the group before they, too, petered away.

None of those moves translated into postseason trips for the Angels, of course, but you can look closely at just about all of them and discover the issues and baggage of most of those players didn’t arise until well after they arrived in Anaheim. But just as a manager takes the fall for “underachieving” or “shortfalling” teams, GMs take the fall when their moves turn out disastrous even through no fault of their own.

Essentially, the Mets played that postseason song-and-dance GM hunt to end up with a guy who’s been in and out of the reputed New York incinerator. (Remember Sandy Alderson saying it was just that overwhelming Apple heat that kept the Mets from bringing the best and the brightest aboard?) A guy who may not be cuffed and stuffed by a contradictory owner with a reputation for hard meddling.

It couldn’t have come at a stranger time. This may be so Mets—the former Angels GM taking the Mets’ helm as one of their key pitchers signs with the Angels. All Noah Syndergaard had to do—following his recovery/rehab from Tommy John surgery—was show a little enough of his classic Thor form in a pair of token gigs at season’s end, plus reject a Mets’ qualifying offer after the season, and the Angels take a flyer on his recovered self for a one-year, $21 million deal . . . pending physicals.

So Eppler gets to go to work right away redressing the Mets’ pitching depth issues. With all-world ace Jacob deGrom a question mark until he actually gets back on the mound next year, and their most reliable non-deGrom starter Marcus Stroman now a free agent, the Mets’ starting corps isn’t exactly a finalised 2022 product just yet.

Eppler will also have to step into the Mets’ efforts to convince middle infielder Javier Baez to keep his defensive virtuosity and reviving bat in Queens next to his keystone partner Francisco Lindor. He’ll have to start pondering moves to fortify their outfield. He’ll also have to think swiftly enough before any possibility that, with the current collective bargaining agreement due to expire and the owners threatening a lockout, the game shuts down for enough of a winter chunk.

But you can almost picture Eppler looking back upon his Angels tenure, then looking out now from his new perch with the Mets, and thinking to himself, “Jeez, I thought it was going to be impossible!” He may yet think that, compared to where he was, he’s in the next best thing to a professional jacuzzi now. May.

Are we still missin’ a great game?

Whitey Herzog

Whitey Herzog, inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2010: “The state of the game is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” says the man whose baseball life began as a tenacious outfielder and student of the game.

Perhaps if Whitey Herzog were about three decades younger than he is now, you might think he’s casting his retired eyes upon Rob Manfred’s job. Talking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Rick Hummel, you’d almost think the Hall of Fame manager wishes he could turn the proverbial clock back and let someone post his name for the job. Almost.

“The state of the game in baseball,” says the White Rat, who turns 90 today, “is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it. It’s all strikeouts and home runs and a high number of pitches.” Well.

In 2021, home runs accounted for fifteen percent of all hits. Doubles accounted for twenty percent; triples, for two percent; singles, then, still accounted for 63 percent of all hits. Pitchers threw 709,842 pitches during the season’s 4,858 games; in 2019, the previous full season, pitchers threw 732,511 pitches.

Herzog stands on stronger ground over pitch volume than he does over home runs. In 2021 games averaged 146 pitches per; in 2019, 151. On the other hand, both seasons averaged four pitches per plate appearance. And, in 2021 and 2019, batters made contact on 74 percent of the pitches they saw.

During 1960, with sixteen teams playing the last season before baseball’s first league expansions, home runs accounted for ten percent of all hits. Doubles accounted for sixteen percent. Triples, three percent. Leaving singles to account for 61 percent of all hits.

A season that’s part of an era still glorified by certain old fans, with almost half as many major league teams as today, had only three percent less singles than twice that many teams playing in 2021. Forget percentages, do you want to see raw numbers?

Season 1B 2B 3B HR
1960 (16 teams) 15,206 3,442 658 2,128
2021 (30 teams) 25,006 7,863 671 5,944

Pitch totals for 1960 aren’t available, so we don’t know for dead last certain the percentage of pitches on which 1960 batters made contact. From the look of the raw numbers above the triple does seem to have collapsed. (Only twelve triples more this year than 61 years ago?) But 1960 batters struck out in 14 percent of their plate appearances, while 2021 batters struck out in (wait for it!) 23 percent of their plate appearances.

I’m not entirely certain that there’s that significant a difference between a season in which 86 percent of plate appearances didn’t end in strikeouts and one in which 77 percent of plate appearances didn’t.

Herzog really starts winding up with Hummel when he strikes at Manfred’s purported game-shortening experiments. “He keeps talking about the three-batter rule for [relief] pitchers. Stupid,” he says. “And then the tenth inning rule [the free cookie on second to open each extra half-inning]. Stupid. Seven-inning doubleheaders. Stupid. None of that is going to shorten the games at all, until we can lower the amount of pitches that they throw.”

The White Rat is dead right about the three-batter relief pitchers’ minimum and the free cookie on second to start each extra half-inning. The latter was dropped during this year’s postseason, thankfully, but the former wasn’t. But the seven-inning doubleheader has a benefit critics and supporters alike tend to miss—the season is long enough without compounding players’ wear and tear and injury risks.

Something noticeable under the three-batter minimum was a lot of managers leaving a reliever in after facing his minimum third batter but getting battered before or after that third minimum batter. It’s worth reminding ourselves that relief pitchers have already been pitching in the bullpens before they get into the game in the first place.

Whitey Herzog

The White Rat, in the Cardinals dugout during a 1980s game: “[We’re not] going to shorten the games at all until we can lower the amount of pitches that they throw.”

Herzog, you may or may not remember, is the manager who once wrote, “The good skipper does his managing before the game starts. The guy you see out there managing is the one who’s screwing up the arms.” He’s the manager who once ran his bullpens according to a strict rule: if he warmed a pitcher up more than once but didn’t bring him in after the second warmup, the man had the rest of the day or night off.

This is the same manager who [in his memoir/critique, You’re Missin’ a Great Game] criticised two men he liked, Tommy Lasorda and Pete Rose, for misusing their bullpens by warming, sitting, warming, sitting, then bringing in relievers who’d already been gassed enough by the time they got into the game—and got murdered on the mound.

Some managers think if a guy’s not actually in a game, he’s not pitching. But if he’s tossing on the sidelines, man, he’s getting hot. Over the years I dealt some of my pitchers to [the Dodgers] . . . and they always came back with the same report: Tommy was still messing up the pen . . .

Pete Rose was like Tommy. Wonderful baseball man, but he was impaired when it came to handling pitchers. Here he had three world-class relievers, Norm Charlton, Rob Murphy, and Rob Dibble, all in the same pen . . . With those three guys on your side, you shouldn’t lose games after the sixth. But Pete found a way.

He’d get Murphy up in the third; he’d warm him up in the fourth. Then he’d sit him down. He’d get Charlton up in the fifth. Sometimes I’d look down there and he’d have both lefthanders going at the same time. Why would you warm ’em both up at once? You’re only going to use one lefty or the other! Then, after he’d worked ’em out three or four times, Pete would put one in the game and be surprised he had no zip. “He can’t be tired,” he’d say. “He ain’t pitched in three days!” Somebody counted how many times he warmed Murphy up one year, and it was over two hundred. I like Pete, boy—but I loved managing against him.

It’s worth listening to Herzog, then, when he tells Hummel that none of Manfred’s gimmickry is going to shorten a thing until managers can reduce the pitch volume. In 2021, batters faced an average just a sliver under four pitches per plate appearance. It comes out to 709,842 pitches for 182,128 plate appearances all regular season long.

“I watch every game at home,” the White Rat says. “I generally don’t go to bed until 11 at night when I’m watching the West Coast games and when the teams throw 340 to 360 pitches every night, there’s no way you can shorten the games. I sit and watch an 0-2 pitch — a perfect pitch on the black — (the umpires) never ring anybody up. It’s always a ball.”

Herzog may have exaggerated the number slightly (there were more like 292 pitchers per game on average, covering both sides of a game), but he makes a pretty point. Especially if he’s absolutely right about the umpires, most of whom still have their “own” strike zones, not calling the rule book strike zone, compelling hitters and pitchers alike to think in the terms that once alarmed Sandy Alderson, when he was MLB’s vice president of baseball operations in 1999.

The old Major League Umpires Association fumed (and ultimately imploded) in 1999, over MLB’s then-intention to hold umps to account over strike zone distinctions. When their then-leader Richie Phillips snarked that umpires should be compared to federal judges, Alderson snarked right back. “Federal judges can be impeached,” he said. “I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

In 2021, pitchers threw 453,466 strikes. Those resulted in 42,145 strikeouts. Remember—that’s 23 percent of 2021 plate appearances ending in strikeouts. But how many of those strikes were called when the pitch actually traversed the plate outside, under, or above the real strike zone?

Herzog is on board with analytics to a particular extent. You should expect that of a man who believes the good manager does his managing before the game begins. “Analytics are a wonderful thing–up to a point,” says the Rat. ” . . . [T]here are a lot more things that go into managing a baseball game than analytics. The people who sit up in the office don’t make out the lineup, but they tell you which eight players should be playing. But they don’t know if a guy’s sick or got a hangover or having marital problems.”

Or, if a guy might be playing through an injury while actually making things worse for himself and his team. Baseball history is littered with players playing hurt and managers plus front offices pressuring them back before injuries are healed properly and fully. Leo Durocher, to name one notoriously, had a penchant for ripping the injured as quitters. Too many fans even today think injuries equal quitting.

Alex Bregman’s near-complete absence at the plate during the Astros’ run to the World Series was much remarked. The righthanded-hitting third baseman underwent right wrist surgery Monday, having dealt with the issue since September to crown an injury/illness-disrupted season. (A quad injury took him out for the first two months.)

Just how much did Bregman trying to play and hit through the wrist issue hurt the Astros’ Series hopes? Being a “gamer” is one thing, but you can and too often do hurt your team more than help when you’re playing with and through an injury that you can and often do make much worse for your trouble.

Bregman played excellent postseason third base defense, mostly. But he looked as lost as the treasure of the Incas at the plate. His backup Aledmys Diaz is a capable defender at third (he was worth six defensive runs above the American League average when he played the position), hit capably when batting third or sixth in the lineup this season, and hit .342 with men in scoring position on the season.

The Astros’ World Series undoing came in significant part because they had a sudden penchant for leaving men on base, and in part because the champion Braves plain out-pitched them when it mattered most.

They might have seen a few different results with Diaz stepping in for Bregman, though. It might not have made the difference overall, and certainly Astro fans would have preferred to see Bregman at his customary stand. But maybe the Astros wouldn’t have gone down by being shut out in Game Six, either. They might even have gotten to play a Game Seven instead of watching the Braves celebrate in their house. Might.

“A wonderful vessel, but not what defines you”

Buster Posey, Kristen Posey

As his wife, Kristen, looked and listened, Buster Posey announced his retirement officially Thursday afternoon.

When Sandy Koufax first re-appeared in a Dodger uniform, joining the team as a low-keyed organisation pitching coach in spring 1979, Thomas Boswell profiled him for a Washington Post Sunday magazine feature. He’d dropped out of sight just to live life several years after leaving a gig with NBC’s old Game of the Week, returning almost as quietly as he’d slipped away.

The return, and Koufax’s introspection, led Boswell to conclude, “Koufax has seen through the veil of his game. A sport can be extremely difficult without being extremely important. Baseball could fascinate him, but not control him.” This week, the still-young man who may yet prove the second-youngest Hall of Famer to retire at or near his peak gave a similar impression.

Just as with Koufax over half a century ago, you can pull a pocketful of definitions out when Buster Posey’s name is mentioned. They can begin with knowing both, generations apart, played only twelve seasons of major league baseball until walking away before the game could walk, push, or shove them away.

You can pull out all the individual honours (from a Most Valuable Player award to two Comeback Player of the Year awards), three World Series championships, catching a perfect game and a few mere no-hitters. But you can also join Posey’s hand to Koufax’s for having the heart, soul, and presence of mind to pass it on before it was passed on for them.

As a pitcher, Koufax is frozen in time, the thirty-year-old lefthander still at the mountaintop, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he pitched could throw him into a ghastly decline. As a catcher, Posey is liable to be frozen likewise, a 34-year-old still within his peak, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he caught and hit could do the same thing.

These two fundamentally decent men put baseball away in order to rediscover things called living.

For Koufax, who played the game as a low-keyed bachelor, it was a time to get to know more about and live as the quiet man with more individual interests and self-education than many who played the game with and even after him. For Posey, it’s time to get to know more about his family and about the family guy he’s always been anyway.

When Posey made official Thursday what was first reported Wednesday, he didn’t so much reveal it as remind us of it.

His wife, Kristen, sat next to him at the podium. Their sixteen-month-old adopted twin daughters, Livvi and Ada, accompanied the couple’s ten-year-old fraternal twins, daughter Addison and son Lee.

His former manager, Bruce Bochy, accompanied the family to Oracle Park for the press conference. “He gets it. He gets it,” said the skipper with whom Posey and their Giants won those three World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. “The game, the pitching side, everything. He was just born to play baseball.” But Posey gets an awful lot more than just the depth of his game.

“First of all,” he began, “I’d like to thank the woman sitting up here with me today . . . You know better than anybody how hard, sometimes, I would take not performing the way I wanted to. But your love and perspective about what was truly important helped me through those times . . . I’m so excited to continue sharing life with you and watching our kids grow.”

“He was there,” wrote Andrew Baggarly, the Giants writer for The Athletic who broke the story of Posey’s retirement, “to let go of a baseball life, to move forward with the next phase and to fully wrap arms around the only role that he ever allowed to define him: husband, father, family man.”

Like Koufax in 1966, it turned out Posey went to spring training 2021 intending it to be his final season, come what may. What came was staggering enough.

Koufax led his 1966 Dodgers to a World Series and won a third major league-version Cy Young Award. Posey helped lead this year’s Giants to a 107-win season; he posted his highest single-season slugging percentage since his MVP season; he was ten defensive runs saved above his league’s average for catchers; he landed that second Comeback Player award.

Koufax walked away from a six-figure income that was baseball’s highest for any player at the time. Posey left a $22 million option for 2022 that nobody believed the Giants would reject. There was a $3 million buyout in his contract, but Baggarly says Posey and the Giants are negotiating how to turn that into an as-yet determined role in the organisation itself.

The Georgia guy who grew up rooting for the Braves but plighted his baseball troth to the Giants wants to keep it that way, even as he returns to Georgia for a spell to re-connect with his roots.

As a catcher, Posey retired the way he wanted to retire, as a Giant. As a man, he wants to remain a Giant one way or another without putting his family behind him. Baseball’s arguable best all-around catcher of the 21st Century’s second decade, too, saw through baseball’s veil and accepted what he saw without regret.

When he thanked his parents at Thursday’s announcement, Posey made a point of saying they’d given him “the foundation of knowing that baseball is a vessel that can be used to create wonderful memories and impact people’s lives, but ultimately it’s not what defines you.”

Koufax told Boswell of playing the game, “You are part of an entertainment. But you are not an entertainer. That is unnatural. But I enjoyed doing it . . . probably even more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

Posey was at once part and parcel of maybe the single greatest decade the Giants have known since moving to San Francisco in the first place and unable to call himself the common element. “To me,” he said, “this is what encapsulates baseball. “It’s a lot more than just winning or losing games, although the wins do feel a lot better.”

It’s about the time spent with family, the countless nights and days, pulling for your team, riding the emotions of the highs, riding the emotions of the lows, and ultimately enjoying the people you’re with along the way and making great memories together. I’m so very humbled to play a part in some of those memories.

If Posey like Koufax walks away as much because the pain of his profession within a profession—the hip, back, knee, ankle injuries, the concussions—makes that profession impossible to practise properly anymore, he had a Koufaxian way or referencing it.

“I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years,” Koufax said at his retirement press conference, “but I might regret one season too many.”

“It was just getting to the point where things that I was enjoying were not as joyful anymore,” Posey said. And that was it.

“Thursday’s gathering was not about adulation,” Baggarly wrote. “Posey didn’t need anyone to give him his flowers. His ego didn’t demand it. It felt more like a graduation of sorts, an acknowledgment that one part of his life was ending and an eagerness to embrace the fullness of his family. It’s someone else’s turn to slap the lectern at City Hall and say, ‘Let’s go win it again next year’.”

What remains—beyond a wish of Godspeed to Posey, his wife, his children—is a brief fantasy. The fantasy of a fully-matured Sandy Koufax going into that once-familiar windup, broad leg kick, and elegant, forward-snapping delivery, throwing one of his elusive fastballs or voluptuous curve balls to Buster Posey behind the plate.

Even Giant fans who’d rather be dead than Dodgers, even Dodger fans who’d rather be dead than Giants, might agree that these two inviolable men, knowing better than most of their contemporaries where they belonged in the game, knowing sooner than most when the game no longer belonged to them, would make a transcendent battery.

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:

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:

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?)

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.