Throneberry Fields Forever

. . . a calm review of baseball

Throneberry Fields Forever

A Saturday special for Miggy Stardust?

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera beamed while tapping his heart, as manager A.J. Hinch helpd him accept a memento from the Tigers for his 500th home run last fall. His 3,000th hit was put on hold one more day by Mother Nature.

“I think,” Miguel Cabrera said when asked his first reaction after he might nail hit number 3,000, “I’m going to cry.” Then, he said, he’d remember the uncle who taught baseball to him in his native Venezuela. He also asked for “El Alma Llanera” to be played through the Comerica Park PA system after he nailed the hit.

He didn’t exactly ask for the rainout Friday that postponed it another day.

Amo, lloro, canto, sueño, con claveles de pasión, the song’s lyric says in part: “I love, I cry, I sing, I dream, with carnations of passion.” That’s as good a short description as any you might find of the way Cabrera has played baseball. Even if it omits mention of high-wattage smiling. Cabrera’s been as good at that as he’s been at the plate.

“So long as one can grasp concepts like ‘fun’ and ‘joy,’ Miguel Cabrera has always been delightfully uncomplicated,” writes Bleacher Report‘s Zachary D. Rymer. “Rarely has he shown any pretense that he’s doing something other than playing a game for a living.”

“I used to low-key creep your at-bats in my hotel room EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, after our games,” tweeted Reds first baseman Joey Votto this past Wednesday. “I knew I had to study the best to beat the best. Good luck with your final steps to 3000. You are a joy to watch.”

Votto wasn’t talking about his own hitting, necessarily, so much as he might have been talking about how him and his team could keep Miggy Stardust in check. That was about as simple as trying to stop an oncoming train with a bathroom plunger.

Cabrera may be unpretentious about the game he plays and the game he brings to it, but this is a player whose first major league hit was a home run, whose 1,000th career hit was a home run, and whose 2,000th hit was also a home run. Would it be too much to ask the Elysian Fields to arrange for number 3,000 to clear the fence for Cabrera this weekend?

Wouldn’t it?

They already arranged it for Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Wade Boggs. They swung it for Álex Rodríguez. But you wouldn’t necessarily bet against them moving their huge hands on Cabrera’s behalf, either. Not for a player who will become the only man in Show history to collect 3,000+ hits, 500+ home runs, and a Triple Crown.

Fifteen other Hall of Famers—including Oscar Charleston, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski—were Crown winners without finishing where Cabrera will finish in all three of those places. (Charleston and Gibson, of course, were limited to the Negro Leagues and their shorter playing schedules arbitrarily and unfairly.)

The chunky first baseman/designated hitter whose face is still mostly that of a wide-eyed ten-year-old boy is about to travel aboard his own exclusive jet. Cabrera’s surname translates to “goatherd.” He’s made goats out of plenty of pitchers from the most modest to the Hall of Famer alike.

In ten or more lifetime appearances each against five Hall of Famers, Cabrera would have a 1.000+ OPS if it wasn’t for John Smoltz, against whom his OPS is a puny .611. He has a 1.105 OPS against Greg Maddux, a .933 against Tom Glavine, a .912 against Pedro Martínez, and an .833 against Randy Johnson. When Miggy Stardust enters Cooperstown, he’ll enter with four sets of bragging rights.

The single mark against Cabrera is that he’s been a career-long negative defender. Among first basemen—and Cabrera’s played more games there than at third base since 2014—he’s five fielding runs and 38 defensive runs saved below his league average. As all-around first basemen go, Albert Pujols he ain’t.

Among third basemen, he’s less: 46 fielding runs and 88 defensive runs saved below his league average. As all-around third basemen go, Mike Schmidt he ain’t. (I could have said Adrián Beltré, too, but Beltré finished 23 short of the 500-bomb threshold, alas. It won’t keep him from welcoming Cabrera as a Hall of Famer in due course.)

He hasn’t exactly been the Road Runner on the bases, either. In fact, he’s barely beyond Cecil Turtle but without Cecil’s bag of sneaky tricks. Cabrera has only 106 infield hits in 2,999. And he’s stolen in a career (39) what Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson could steal in a season—near the end of Henderson’s career.

Cabrera has tried sixty thefts and been arrested a little over a third of the time. He’s only tried an average of three times per season. It may be miraculous, or a case of catching the other guys with their pants down, that he has a .650 lifetime stolen base percentage. Presumably, his teams warned him that any more than three tries a year would get him arrested for malicious mischief.

Except there’s no malice aforethought involved with Cabrera. This is the guy who’s been seen hugging opposing fans in the seats when diving for a foul ball, and giving Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson a grinning thumbs-up, after Hellickson once struck him out on a changeup nobody could hit—even swinging a shovel.

It takes something to stay the course even when your team has collapsed. As age and injuries caught up to Cabrera from 2017 through the end of last season, only one team in Show lost more than the Tigers in the same span. Now, the Tigers actually look like a team approaching true contention, and Miggy Stardust is their still-enthusiastic elder statesman.

Mother Nature trumped the Elysian Fields to rain the Tigers out Friday night. Maybe she knows something we and they don’t. Something about a Saturday special that turns Comerica Park into the hardiest party spot in Detroit.

Ortiz in Cooperstown: Now, about that (ahem) other stuff

David Ortiz

Boston’s 21st Century king of swing wasn’t as tainted as you still might think.

It almost figured that I’d see at least one person only start reminding us of now-Hall of Famer David Ortiz’s “taint” by noticing he’d hit only 20 home runs in his final Minnesota season, 2002, then 37 in his first Boston season, 2003. Heaven forbid such people do their homework. So I did it for him, and for anyone else who cares.

As a Twin in 2002, Ortiz hit fifteen home runs on the road but only five in the Metrodome, which was still the Twins’ home playpen. (Calling the Metrodome a park is like calling Itzhak Perlman a fiddler.) As a Red Sox in 2003, Ortiz hit fourteen homers on the road and seventeen in Fenway Park.

In other words, Ortiz—who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent after the Twins released him—went from a home stadium that was killing him to a home park that was great for him at the plate. He didn’t need actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances for that.

Now, about that 2003 positive for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances? The one that marks Ortiz as a “steroid cheat” for life, in the eyes of only too many? Can we shoot that one down once and for all?

1) Those 2003 tests were supposed to be anonymous, done to determine whether the problem of actual/alleged PEDs was indeed rampant enough to begin mandatory testing. Well, they were anonymous . . . until somebody leaked the results to the New York Times six years later.

2) The 2003 tests turned out to be very problematic and even tainted. (Not to mention seized improperly by the federal government.) Even Rob Manfred himself has said of them, “it was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program.”

Ortiz was never even told the substance in question. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association would tell him what it was. The last I looked, if you were accused of something horrible but never once told just what you were accused of doing, you’d have grounds to dismiss your accusers as bloody fools at minimum—and targets of defamation suits at maximum.

Manfred even said it couldn’t be confirmed for dead last certain that Ortiz actually did test positive for such a substance. That may have been the case with several other players testing positive in that supposed-to-be-anonymous test.

3) Mandatory testing for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances began in MLB in 2004. Ortiz was tested regularly, several times a year, over the final thirteen years of his career . . . and never. once. tested. dirty.

4) By contrast, of course, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were suspect prior to the mandatory testing era and starting around 1999-2000. They’ve fallen off the BBWAA ballot now, after failing to be elected in their tenth and final tries and despite getting their highest vote percentages yet. (Bonds: 66 percent; Clemens: 65.2 percent.) Yes, their records prior to 1999-2000 said Hall of Famers both. Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark says, simply, “They just ran out of minds to change.”

Maybe not quite. Both their cases, the good, bad, and ugly, go to the Era Committees. The Today’s Game Committee could take them both up as soon as next fall. That’ll be small comfort to those excoriating the Baseball Writers Association of America for saying OK to some who’ve been suspected but never proven and no to others suspected and suspected and suspected again.

Saying no to those absolutely affirmed is different. Manny Ramírez tested dirty twice during the mandatory-testing era and put paid to himself. He didn’t help his own cause, either, by having been one of baseball’s biggest pains in the rump roast. What they used to call “Manny Being Manny” was Manny graduating from a fun-loving nutbag to a self-centered jerk who often wounded his teams with his antics.

Aléx Rodríguez, who was a first-timer on this year’s BBWAA ballot as well, got nailed stone cold in the Biogenesis probe, of course. That probe had its own issues, unfortunately, but A-Rod’s self-immolating bid to sue his way out of that jam until he was forced to sit an entire season out under suspension took care of him.

My own ambivalence about the actual/alleged PED question comes down as well to the following: It was and remains genuinely impossible to prove for dead last certain that using them did or didn’t give someone a performance or statistical edge. You can even look at a considerable majority of such suspects and discover their stats actually dipped, not rose, during the periods they were believed to indulge. (Jason Giambi was one such candidate, in fact.)

You can also find considerable research to suggest very plausibly that the substances which inflated arm and shoulder strength weren’t really going to help for one good reason: nearly all power hitters generate their power from the lower body, from the torso and thighs.

There were enough players, too, who dipped into the actual/alleged PED well not because they thought it would give them an edge at the plate or on the mound but because they thought—foolishly enough—that they could recover from injuries quicker and without consequences. If they learned the hard way about the consequences, could you blame them for trying? Really?

Baseball doctors aren’t exactly chock full of Nobel Prize for Medicine candidates. In enough cases they could be tried by jury for malpractise, if not quackery. You can remember how many players with careers compromised or ended for rushing it back, being rushed back, or playing foolishly through injuries?

And don’t get me started on how many injured players were denounced as “quitters” for not wanting to risk the long term and play through injuries that might have become worse. (Were, and still are. Carl Crawford had Hall of Fame talent but was sapped by injuries—including one or two he was foolish enough to try playing through, for fear that his manager might call him a quitter, too.)

As a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, I participate in an annual vote for the Hall of Fame. Symbolic regarding the real Hall of Fame, of course. But we elected Bonds and Clemens a couple of years ago. I’d like to think we, not just me,  knew Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame worthy by their careers before they were suspect.

(We also figured, I’m sure, Clemens having been acquitted of lying to Congress’s Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids [thank you again, Mr. Will] when he denied using actual/alleged PEDs.)

I’d like to think we also knew the tainted 2003 anonymous test shouldn’t taint a David Ortiz who burned to play in the biggest of the big, shone in the biggest of the big, and has three World Series rings to show for it, but never tested dirty in thirteen seasons to follow of playing in the mandatory testing era.

But it’s easier to clean up an oil spill than it is to change minds made up before or despite the real evidence coming before it. That’s something that even ironclad evidence has a tough time overcoming.

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.