A Healthier Version of Buster Posey is Swinging a Hot Bat

In a division that projected to include the league’s two strongest teams, improbably enough it’s the Giants (17–11) and not the Dodgers (17–12) or Padres (16–13) who sit atop the NL West as the calendar flips to May. It’s a welcome development for a team that’s finished below .500 in each of the past four seasons, and while our Playoff Odds still show them with just a 16.9% chance of holding onto a postseason spot, surprise contenders are certainly welcome. Generally speaking, it’s been the Giants’ run prevention that’s gotten them to first place, as the team has yielded an NL-low 3.21 runs per game but scored a middling 4.11 runs per game. What’s encouraging is that on the offensive side, the hitter who’s led the charge has been Buster Posey.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him? You might be forgiven if not. I kid, but it’s been awhile since the 34-year-old, six-time All-Star backstop was front and center. As a former MVP and three-time World Series winner, Posey was perhaps the highest-profile player to opt out last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, with his family’s new pair of prematurely-born adopted twins weighing heavily into his decision. Currently hitting .359/.423/.688 with six homers and a 199 wRC+ in 71 plate appearances, he has been by far the most productive of the opt-out returnees over the season’s first month (I set up a couple of custom pages to track their performances in case anyone is interested). That’s a particularly welcome rebound for a player who, in the two previous seasons before his absence, played just 219 games due to a variety of injuries including a torn right hip labrum that required season-ending surgery in 2018 and a concussion (his second in three years) and a hamstring strain in ’19.

Those injuries, particularly the hip one, sapped Posey’s power to a great degree, as his lower half wasn’t much help in his swing. He went homerless in his final 45 games before the surgery in 2018, the second-longest single-season drought of his career, and that dry spell continued for another 19 games once he returned in ’19. He homered just 12 times in 893 plate appearances across those two seasons, slugging .375. Some of that was owed to playing at Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park), where the park home run factor for right-handed batters for both of those seasons was 90, the majors’ second-lowest, but Posey wasn’t hitting the ball very hard very often. This year is a different story.

Posey doesn’t have enough PA to qualify for the batting title, but among NL hitters with at least 70 PA, his wRC+ ranks second only to Ronald Acuña Jr.; his batting average and slugging percentage are fourth, and his on-base percentage is eighth. Even with the shortage of playing time, he’s tied for 11th in homers, with fewer plate appearances than anybody else in the top 19.

On Friday in San Diego, Posey hit a solo homer off Yu Darvish. Its estimated distance was just 384 feet, but it represented just his seventh opposite-field homer of the Statcast era; he had two in 2019, but none in ’18.

On April 20 in Philadelphia, Posey homered twice off Zack Wheeler, just the fourth multi-homer game of his career, and his first since May 28, 2016, when he went yard twice at Coors Field. It was also first time in his major league career that he homered twice off the same pitcher:

Those homers, both solo shots, came when the Giants were down 4–0 and 6–3 but helped them rally to win, 10–7. So far, all but one of Posey’s homers have come with the bases empty, and all but one has been hit off a fastball, though he’s seeing fewer of those — and at faster velocity – than ever before. As testament to his restored bat speed, he’s been crushing pitches on the inner third of the strike zone thus far: His .625 SLG on those pitches is nearly 200 points above his 2018–19 mark (.428) and nearly 50 points above ’15–17 (.576). Sample-size caveats apply, but ability restored after injury and absence is nothing to sneeze at.

“I think Buster’s bat speed and the way his lower half is working right now is what I’m keeping an eye on,” manager Gabe Kapler told reporters last week. “His bat speed is great and his hips and his lower half are working well. His body is moving well.”

Seventy-one hot plate appearances isn’t a huge sample, but exit velocity, launch angle and barrel rate are reach the point of stabilizing around 50 batted balls. Thus, it counts as a very good sign that that Posey, with 52 batted ball events, is hitting the ball harder than at any time since the hip started to become a problem in May 2018; even going back a year earlier, its rare that he’s hit the ball this hard and this effectively:

Posey’s exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate are all his highest marks of the Statcast era:

Buster Posey Batted Ball Stats, 2015-212
Season BBE EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2015 512 89.0 10.7 5.5% 37.1% .318 .298 .470 .479 .363 .363
2016 479 90.5 10.1 6.5% 43.0% .288 .282 .434 .470 .341 .354
2017 433 88.7 11.6 3.5% 34.4% .320 .276 .462 .440 .366 .343
2018 347 89.1 10.3 4.0% 34.9% .284 .274 .382 .416 .326 .336
2019 336 88.5 9.0 3.6% 35.1% .257 .248 .368 .408 .298 .310
2021 52 90.7 10.4 11.5% 46.2% .359 .338 .688 .712 .470 .431

That barrel rate certainly stands out, as it’s more than triple his rate from 2017 to ’19, and more than double any of his seasons from this period save for ’16, and his hard-hit rate is about 10 points above any of those seasons besides ’16 as well. Posey was actually a less effective hitter in 2016 (114 wRC+) than ’17 (128 wRC+) despite the better Statcast numbers in the earlier season, but by the look of his actual numbers in relation to his expected numbers, some of that might have been due to luck.

As for his catching, the player who ranks seventh in both the FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus versions of Framing Runs (123.4 and 138.0 runs, respectively) is in the red by both measures so far (-0.7 and -0.8 runs, respectively), which is a bit worrisome given that framing metrics stabilize within the first few weeks of the season. Particularly in light of Posey missing five days in mid-March due to stiffness in his surgically-repaired hip, Kapler has been fairly conservative when it comes to playing him in the early going, starting him in only 18 of the Giants’ 28 games, generally in a two-on, one-off pattern. Backup Curt Casali, whose presence will buy time for prospect Joey Bart to shore up his game in Triple-A after a rough debut last year (.233/.288/.320 in 111 PA), hasn’t hit a lick (.121/.275/.152) but did make history in April by catching shutouts in five straight starts, each of which featured a different starting pitcher.

Kapler said at the outset of the season that the Giants have no plans for Posey to play first base on days that he wasn’t catching, something he did with regularity before his hip surgery. Beyond the scuffling Brandon Belt (.203/.326/.405), they have other alternatives on the roster including the righty-swinging Darin Ruf and Wilmer Flores as potential platoon complements. We’ll see if they revise that plan, whether the Giants remain contenders for a playoff spot or fall out of the race, particularly given that Belt, along with Brandon Crawford, Johnny Cueto, and Posey himself, is a pending free agent. The last two have club options, and all but Cueto have some form of no-trade protection, so don’t assume that president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is breaking up the band. But if an out-of-contention team wanted to make space for Bart and Posey in the same lineup, there are ways, Dude.

If you think that’s getting ahead of the situation, there’s also the long-term picture for Posey to consider. The Giants’ club option for next year is worth $22 million, with a $3 million buyout in 2022, but given the aforementioned other free agents and the likelihood of the return of the universal designated hitter next season, they also have some flexibility. At stake for Posey is the potential to secure a berth in the Hall of Fame. With his aforementioned honors plus a Gold Glove, a Rookie of the Year award, and a batting title (something only four other catchers have won), he’s checked just about every traditional box except longevity. Nonetheless, his career total of 1,403 hits is well short of the 2,000-hit plateau, which Hall voters of all stripes have used as a bright-line test for post-1960 expansion-era players. Posey might need four solid seasons after a productive 2020 to get there, which I wouldn’t have thought possible until his hot start.

In terms of the advanced statistics, Posey is 14th in JAWS, 4.8 points below the standard of 44.2 but with an above-standard peak (36.4 WAR) that ranks ninth. As I’ve argued before, since Baseball-Reference WAR doesn’t include framing metrics, some acknowledgment of Posey’s value in that area will be necessary to give him (and other catchers of the era, such as Yadier Molina) a fair shake. I tackled this at length in February in the context of Molina’s latest contract, and since then, Posey’s added 0.8 bWAR and 1.1 fWAR, nudging him up a bit:

Weighted Framing-Inclusive JAWS for Catchers
Rk bRk Player Career Peak JAWS fWAR fPeak fJAWS wJAWS
1 1 Johnny Bench+ 75.1 47.2 61.2 61.2
2 2 Gary Carter+ 70.1 48.4 59.2 59.2
3 5 Mike Piazza+ 59.5 43.1 51.3 72.1 52.5 62.3 56.9
4 3 Ivan Rodriguez+ 68.7 39.8 54.3 67.7 40.0 53.9 54.1
5 4 Carlton Fisk+ 68.4 37.6 53.0 53.0
6 6 Yogi Berra+ 59.5 38.1 48.8 48.8
7 7 Joe Mauer 55.2 39.0 47.1 56.3 42.4 49.3 48.3
8 8 Bill Dickey+ 57.3 36.0 46.6 46.6
9 14 Buster Posey 42.2 36.6 39.4 53.7 46.8 50.3 44.8
Avg HOF C 53.6 34.8 44.2 44.2
10 9 Gabby Hartnett+ 56.9 31.1 44.0 44
11 10 Ted Simmons+ 50.3 34.8 42.6 42.6
12 11 Mickey Cochrane+ 49.1 36.1 42.6 42.6
13 23 Yadier Molina 41.1 28.7 34.9 58.3 39.5 48.5 41.9
14 12 Thurman Munson 46.1 37.0 41.5 41.5
15 27 Russell Martin 38.7 27.3 33.0 58.5 39.8 49.1 41.1
16 13 Gene Tenace 46.8 35.0 40.9 40.9
17 15 Buck Ewing+ 48.0 30.7 39.4 39.4
18 16 Bill Freehan 44.8 33.7 39.2 39.2
19 17 Wally Schang 47.9 27.6 37.7 37.7
20 32 Brian McCann 31.9 24.6 28.3 53.4 39.9 46.7 37.5
21 19 Roger Bresnahan+ 42.0 30.4 36.3 36.3
22 21 Roy Campanella+ 35.6 34.3 35.0 35.0
23 22 Darrell Porter 40.8 29.1 34.9 34.9
24 18 Jorge Posada 42.7 32.6 37.7 33.7 29.5 31.6 34.6
25 24 Jim Sundberg 40.5 28.7 34.6 34.6
28 28 Ernie Lombardi+ 39.5 25.0 32.2 32.2
30 30 Ray Schalk+ 32.9 25.7 29.3 29.3
41 41 Rick Ferrell+ 31.1 21.1 26.1 26.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer. bRk = Baseball-Reference JAWS ranking. fWAR, fPeak, and fJAWS use FanGraphs framing runs for 2008-20 (included in WAR) and Baseball Prospectus framing runs for 1988-2007 via Baseball Prospectus. wJAWS is a 50/50 weighting of JAWS and fJAWS. Note discontinuity in rankings below No. 25 (Hall of Famers only).

I’m convinced that Posey has done enough for enshrinement already; with a hybrid, framing-inclusive version of JAWS he appears to have nosed or blown past the standard, depending upon how much weight one grants that sort of thing, and if that weighting is zero, you’re doing it wrong. While I’m aware that we’ll never have a true apples-to-apples comparison due to the lack of pre-1988 framing stats, and while someday an electronic strike zone may consign this period to an historical anomaly, completely throwing out this wealth of information in Hall deliberations would be malpractice. I’d include Posey on my ballot if he walked away today, but even given his framing expertise, I still suspect that the greater electorate wants more longevity.

The good news is that Posey’s hot start suggests that he’s still got something in the tank and can prolong his career. I don’t think anybody expects a .359 batting average or a 199 wRC+, but we can hope that he does enough to make continuing his career beyond 2021 a foregone conclusion.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I’m intrigued by the stated reasons for Posey not playing at first base. To me, it would seem really logical to give Posey 300 PAs behind the plate and 300 PAs at 1B (or DH, if it comes to the NL or he winds up in the AL). This would work especially well if you had players with big platoon splits at catcher and first base, and is way more palatable if his framing is off.

But the article linked here (I think) says both that he’s most valuable behind the plate (true) and that having a full day of rest off would be good for him (maybe). This raises some questions for me. Is it playing first base or playing at all that matters here? Is there some space for him to play in a non-catcher capacity instead of just having him being a part-time player, or does he really need the whole day off? Is 400 PAs of Posey behind the plate worth more than 300 at catcher and 300 at 1B?