Angels center fielder Mike Trout
wowed the baseball world with an all-around rookie season the likes of which we may never see again. He was overqualified for the Baseball America Rookie of the Year award, which he won in a unanimous vote. Trout also won the BA Major League Player of the Year award, though in that case other players received first-place recognition in the balloting.
Chief among the other vote-getters were Giants catcher Buster Posey and Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera,
who with a .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs won the American League’s triple crown, the first in 45 years. And while Cabrera has gotten his share of attention in postseason debates, less attention has been paid to how good a season Posey had.
The 25-year-old catcher rode a
scalding second half to the National League batting title (.336). San Francisco’s primary cleanup hitter, he finished second in the NL in on-base percentage (.408) and third in slugging (.549) while starting 111 games behind the plate. Posey’s Giants won 94 times to take the NL West by eight games.
Posey and Trout both play key defensive positions for first-division clubs. Each led his league in Baseball-Reference.com’s adjusted-OPS+ metric, which places a player’s OPS in the context of his league and home park, with 100 being average; and Wins Above Replacement, which attempts to summarize a player’s offensive and defensive contributions.
while the sum total of offensive accomplishments by Posey and Trout may
be similar, the paths they took to get there diverged significantly. Let’s first review the raw numbers (league-leading totals appear in bold):
three chief components of WAR estimate the number of batting runs (rBat), baserunning runs (rRun) and defensive runs saved (rField) compiled by each player. The final calculation weighs those three components—along with many others—and translates it into wins contributed above a theoretical replacement player at the player’s position(s). Again, league-leading totals appear in bold in the chart below.
the FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference systems estimate that Trout contributed 10 wins more than a replacement center fielder would have to
the Angels with his hitting, baserunning and fielding. The systems do not agree on how much value Posey contributed to the Giants. Baseball-Reference estimates he chipped in seven wins above a replacement catcher, while FanGraphs estimates eight.
While the two WAR frameworks paint similar overall pictures of value, they frequently disagree on some of the finer points, particularly when it comes to evaluating a player’s defensive contributions in seasonal samples. Nor should WAR totals be taken as gospel. Baseball-Reference writes in its explanation: “(One) should not take any full-season difference between two
players of less than one to two wins to be definitive (especially when
the defensive metrics are included).”
Both WAR systems do agree on the historical nature of the two seasons, however. Trout’s season ranks among the 10 best by a center fielder in the past 50 years, and Posey’s ranks among the top 10 by catchers in the same timeframe.
As with any center fielder to catcher comparison, Trout has a clear advantage on Posey in terms of raw speed and baserunning. After all, he stole 49 bases in 54 tries, legged out eight triples and scored 129 runs in 139 games.
Setting aside speed, Posey and Trout rate similarly in estimates of batting prowess. Despite coming to bat about 30 fewer times than Trout, and despite taking a beating at catcher for six months, Posey (52) nearly equaled Trout’s tally (54) in Baseball-Reference’s batting runs. The measure takes into account a player’s home park, and in Posey’s case, San Francisco’s AT&T Park played as an extreme pitcher’s park in 2011-12 and as a good pitcher’s park in 2010, his rookie season.
To illustrate the effect AT&T has on Giants hitters, consider the fact that Posey hit just 29 percent of his home runs and lost 80 points of slugging percentage this season at home. For his career, Posey has hit 30 percent
of his homers at home (14 of 46) while losing 113 points of slugging.
fact, Baseball-Reference’s batting runs metric views Posey’s 2012 season as the third-best by a catcher in the Expansion Era, trailing 1997 Mike Piazza by a wide margin and 2009 Joe Mauer by about the slimmest margin possible. The top 10:
to Baseball-Reference’s calculations, Posey’s season is more productive—in context—than 1996 Piazza, when he hit .336 with 36 home runs for the Dodgers; or 2003 Javy Lopez
when he smacked 43 homers and hit .328 for the Braves; or a 24-year-old
Johnny Bench in 1972 when he led the NL with 40 homers and 125 RBIs and
won his second MVP award in three years.
In others words, Posey’s contributions at the plate stand out among catchers to a greater
extent than Trout’s among center fielders. Posey offsets the difference in baserunning value simply by being a productive, durable catcher.
In Defense Of Posey’s Defense
value as a defensive center fielder is obvious. In his most visible defensive achievement, he robbed four batters of home runs this season. The two WAR frameworks credit him with between five and 10 defensive runs saved, and both rank him among the position’s elite, in the same neighborhood as the Braves’ Michael Bourn and the Rangers’ Craig Gentry.
a run value to a catcher’s defense is a notoriously difficult task because so little defensive value is conveyed by his range or his raw totals for assists, putouts or errors. Even caught-stealing accuracy is a
flimsy measure because blame for stolen bases typically lies more with pitchers.
Be that as it may, at least one NL scouting director likes what Posey brings to the table. “There’s no doubt Posey is an above-average defender,” the director said. “He’s athletic, and he’s a tremendous leader. Mike Martin at Florida State always says Posey has the best leadership skills of any player he’s ever been around.”
Both WAR systems view the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and the Reds’ Ryan Hanigan
as two of the best defensive catchers in baseball, but the systems do not agree on Posey’s defense. FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating system ranks him fourth among catchers, while Baseball-Reference relies on Baseball Info Solution’s plus/minus system, which regards him as no better than average.
Regardless of what the defensive numbers say, we can intuit that Posey is an average or better defensive catcher because the 2012 Giants would have been more than justified in moving Posey from behind the plate. Consider that after Posey’s serious leg and
ankle injuries sustained in a home-plate collision in May 2011, and with the organization’s reluctance to turn over first base to Brandon Belt, they could have installed Posey as regular first baseman to help preserve his health and keep his bat in the lineup every day.
Additionally, the Giants brought two top-flight defensive catchers to spring training—veteran Chris Stewart and switch-hitting rookie Hector Sanchez—whom they could have platooned behind the plate. To make room for Posey, though, San Francisco traded Stewart to the Yankees for righty reliever George Kontos.
Furthermore, Giants manager Bruce Bochy, being a former big league catcher, probably would not abide a poor defensive backstop, much like Angels skipper Mike Scioscia hesitated to play Mike Napoli
on an everyday basis. So we can safely regard Posey as at least a solid-average defensive catcher, one whose offensive and defensive contributions historically have been harder to find than those of a player like Trout.
|Giants (Posey PA)||SF OPS+||NL Rank||SF Wins||NL Rank
Naturally, teams that feature hard-hitting catchers typically have a competitive advantage. The Reds made the playoffs six times in the 1970s with Johnny Bench at catcher. Jorge Posada served as regular for 13 Yankees playoff teams, and Javy Lopez for eight Braves playoffs teams. Joe Mauer‘s Twins qualified for the playoffs three times in five years beginning in 2006. Mike Piazza’s Dodgers and Mets clubs made playoff appearances in four of six years from 1995 through 2000. Mike Napoli‘s bat helped propel the Rangers to the 2011 World Series.
appears to be no exception to the rule. In seasons when he has been the
Giants’ regular catcher, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NL. They won the World Series in 2010 and repeated as West champs this season. When Posey missed two-thirds of the season in 2011, the Giants fell back to the pack.