The Case For Posey As BA Player Of The Year




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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.

Buster Posey
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.

So 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):

PLAYER PA
R 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS+
Trout 639 129 27 8 30 83 49 5 .326 .399 .564 171
Posey 610 78 39 1 24 103 1 1 .336 .408 .549 172

The 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.

Baseball-Reference WAR
Player
rBat
rRun rField WAR
Trout 54 10 21 10.7
Posey 52 0
-1 7.2
FanGraphs WAR
Player rBat
rRun rField WAR
Trout 58 5 11 10.0
Posey 47 -4 7 8.0
Both 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.

Posey, 2012
Split PA
HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
Home 285
7
.343
.418
.506
.924
Road 325
17
.330
.400
.586
.986
Total 610
24
.336
.408
.549
.957
Posey, Career
Split PA
HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
Home 582
14
.292
.364
.442
.807
Road 673 32
.332
.394
.555
.949
Total 1,255 46
.314
.380
.503
.883
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. 

In 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:

Catcher Team
Year PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS rBat
Mike Piazza
Dodgers 1997 633 40 124 .362 .431 .638 1.070 70
Joe Mauer
Twins
2009
606
28
96
.365
.444
.587
1.031
53
Buster Posey
Giants
2012
610
24
103
.336
.408
.549
.957
52
Mike Piazza
Dodgers
1996
631
36
105
.336
.422
.563
.985
46
Mike Pazza
Dodgers
1995
475
32
93
.346
.400
.606
1.006
46
Javy Lopez
Braves
2003
495
43
109
.328
.378
.687
1.065
45
Jorge Posada
Yankees
2007
589
20
90
.338
.426
.543
.970
42
Mike Piazza
Mets
1998
626
32
111
.328
.390
.570
.960
42
Johnny Bench
Reds
1972
653
40
125
.270
.379
.541
.920
41
Mike Napoli
Rangers
2011
432
30
75
.320
.414
.631
1.046
40
Source: Baseball-Reference.com

According 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

Trout's 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.

Attaching 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
2010 (443)
98
6th
92
2nd
2011 (185)
93
10th
86
6th
2012 (610)
107
1st
94
t-3rd
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.

Posey 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.