There’s no shortage of reasons why the Giants find themselves in the World Series for the third time in five years, really, and you can start anywhere. Maybe that’s Jake Peavy, a disappointment in Boston and now a revelation in San Francisco. Or rookie Joe Panik, filling a hole that was so bad it had led to Dan Uggla desperation, or the hilarious story that is Travis Ishikawa. There’s help from outsiders like Mike Matheny & Randy Choate, not to mention the Pirates deciding they’d rather have Edinson Volquez on the mound for the wild card game rather than Gerrit Cole. There’s been 18-inning playoff games, and the complete disappearance of Tim Lincecum, and the much more explainable absences of Matt Cain, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, and 12 October runs that came in without the benefit of hits.
For an 88-win team to get to the World Series, a lot has to go their way. Much of it is going to be of their own doing, and some of it is going to be the usual insanity that comes in short-series baseball, which is less about crowning the “best” team and more about rewarding the right team, the one that did what needed to be done at the appropriate times.
This Giants team has all of that and more, and certainly Bruce Bochy and his staff have earned the credit they’ve been given. But in our rush to try to identify all the unusual ways that a team that always seems to be more good than great keeps getting this far in the playoffs, it’s easy to look past some of the more obvious reasons, like the fact that the Giants have two of the best players in baseball. Ace Madison Bumgarner is really, really good. So, of course, is Buster Posey.
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In four full seasons, Posey has a Rookie of the Year award, a MVP trophy, and two rings with a chance at a third, so to point out that he’s a great player falls squarely into “yeah, duh” territory. But it’s never quite as simple as all that, so let’s start with some tables.
First, here’s the most valuable hitters in baseball in the second half of 2014, sorted by wRC+:
|MLB’s best hitters by wRC+, second half|
Those are some pretty impressive names, it should go without saying, and it wasn’t even particularly close: Posey was easily the best hitter in baseball in the second half of the season, and he did it with the drag, physically, of having to suit up behind the plate most nights. The rest are first basemen or outfielders; Martinez started just 35 games in the field all season long.
Again, though, we already knew that Posey was great. He’s been great for almost the entirety of his career. Not all of it, though…
|Posey, 2013-14 half splits|
Endpoints that somewhat randomly begin and end in July are arbitrary indeed — we know that the first “half” is really more like 60 percent of the season — but they’ll work well enough to illustrate our purposes here. Posey had a very good season in 2013, and a very good season in 2014. In between, he had a pretty mediocre season, which was somewhat hidden by the fact that each slice of it was paired with something outstanding, and that 162-game seasons are pretty arbitrary endpoints themselves, really.
From the 2013 All-Star game until the 2014 game, Posey got into 143 games, starting 135. With 570 plate appearances in that span, it’s the equivalent of a full season’s worth of playing time. Here’s how that worked out for him:
|Posey, 2013 second half & 2014 first half|
That we’re talking about slightly better than league average performance from a catcher as being a problem says a whole lot about how great Posey usually is, but for a good 12 months, Posey was a lot less than the superstar he’d been. A 103 wRC+ isn’t a disaster, but that’s what Colby Rasmus had this year. That’s what Pedro Alvarez had. It’s basically what Yangervis Solarte had, and Martin Prado. These players aren’t stars. Right now, only one of them, Prado, seems guaranteed significant playing time in 2015.
If anything stands out from that secretly mediocre season, it’s not Posey’s plate discipline numbers. His walk rate is identical to his career number, and is higher than it was in either half of 2014. His strikeout rate is lower than his career average, and was only slightly higher than it was in 2014; there’s only a 0.8% difference in Posey’s contact rate from 2013 to 2014. The main issue, of course, was the shocking lack of power, to the point that the .379 SLG is equal to what Erick Aybar had this year. (Amusingly, the other qualifying 2014 player with a .379 SLG: Billy Butler.) For an entire calendar year, Posey had the same power as Jon Jay or Dee Gordon did in 2014. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Giants were just a game over .500, 72-71, in the games he played in that time.
Last year, we never did seem to get an answer to what caused his brutal second half. Fatigue seemed like an obvious reason — there was some talk of “general tightness” in his legs — but that was more due to a lack of anything else credible, rather than based on solid evidence. Besides, since he’d had a monster second half in 2012 (200 wRC+) and obviously did so again this year, that certainly seems too simplistic. He wasn’t making more or less contact, and we have no evidence that he was wearing down, though there had been occasional noises about back and hip issues.
So of course headed into 2014, we had a “best shape of his life” article, complete with “10 pounds of added muscle.”What we might also have, perhaps, is a change in approach. In early August, Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens offered some instruction:
Earlier in the week, Giants hitting coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens encouraged Posey to be more aggressive early in the count, informing him that he was hitting .488 when putting the first or second pitch into play.
A few weeks later, the results were evident:
Buster Posey is doing more early-count swinging. That’s apparent from the data, but Bochy added to that by saying Posey’s hot streak might have been triggered when he stopped overanalyzing and trying to figure out what the pitcher would throw him.
That may seem simplistic, but it also may be entirely accurate. Back in Aug. 2013, when Posey was coming off a fantastic first half but wasn’t really deep enough into what would be that lousy second half for anyone to notice yet, James Gentile wrote at The Hardball Times about hitters who should swing or take on the first pitch more often. Posey’s name came up as an example of someone who succeeded swinging early:
Most players who saw this much advantage swinging at the first pitch had much more robust first pitch swing rates. Buster Posey is one notable example of this—he swings at over 26 percent of 0-0 pitches, but his wOBA is .037 points higher when doing so.
So! Let’s look at some swing rates.
|Posey, 2013-14 plate discipline splits|
One thing there is clear: Posey attempted to overcome his lousy 2013 second-half by swinging his way out of it, and that’s likely why his walk rate was the lowest it had been since his rookie year. Inside the zone and out, Posey has been swinging much more in 2014 than in 2013. What’s fascinating, however, is when you compare the O-Swing% to the O-Contact%. Posey is swinging at more pitches outside the zone, but he’s making contact with fewer of them. Unless you’re Vladimir Guerrero, you generally don’t want to connect with “bad” pitches, because it’s difficult to generate solid contact on them. (It’s this kind of thing that overrates low-power hitters with great contact skills, like Juan Pierre, who would endlessly tap weak grounders on out-of-zone pitches.)
So why did it take until the second half for him to truly get going, a scenario that really destroys any “fatigue” narratives? As you can see from the F-Strike% column, pitchers began to challenge Posey more and more, especially as he got further away from his great 2013 first half. Like most hitters, Posey is far more successful in a hitter’s count (1.067 OPS career) than in a pitcher’s count (.656). Continuing a trend we’ve seen in baseball for the last few years, pitchers are throwing more first-pitch strikes expecting hitters to be patient and take them. Some smart hitters are realizing this and attempting to take advantage of what may be the best pitch they’ll get, as seems to be a strategy against Clayton Kershaw.
Posey is doing the same:
|Posey, 2013-14 plate discipline splits|
|Name||0-0 pitches||0-0 swings||First pitch swing %|
This doesn’t explain why his first half of last year was so great despite a very low first-pitch swing percentage, one that had trended down for a while (Gentile’s number was a career mark) as Posey attempted to increase patience and walks, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. Maybe the wear-and-tear or the back or the hips did take more of a toll than we know, and this year’s Posey needs to be smarter, while early last year’s Posey could simply rely on talent.
It’s fair to note that Posey’s BABIP has gone from .285 to .363 between the two halves this year, and if you want to include some amount of luck into that, that’s fine. But it’s also in some part due to the likelihood that he’s simply swinging at better pitches, allowing him to make better contact, and that his first half was somewhat deceptively good anyway, with an above-average 26.5% line drive rate that wasn’t always leading to success.
The Giants wouldn’t be here if not for the unheralded performances and unexpected bounces that come with any underdog playoff run. But they were also basically a .500 team when Posey spent a year struggling to find himself. Sometimes, having one of the greatest players in baseball playing like it is all the answer you need.