Buster Posey and Public Displays of Disaffection

The television camera changes everything. Imagine being broadcast at work, at school, at your local coffee shop or bar, or wherever you spend most of your time in public. Were every move to be recorded, one’s behavior (I presume) would be inclined to change. My behavior certainly would. I would want the world most often to see the best of me. It’s human nature to be liked, to be accepted, to avoid controversy.

So it was quite unusual to see Buster Posey become so publicly annoyed with a teammate on Saturday because (a) we rarely see players exhibit such emotion on television and (b) Posey’s public face is generally one of mild-mannered tranquility.

But Posey isn’t accustomed to this much losing. He knows that the Giants are in a tough spot, already 10 games back in the NL West and seven games under .500, with the Rockies and Diamondbacks looking like legitimate postseason contenders in addition to the favored Dodgers. The Giants are, of course, also without their ace Madison Bumgarner. Perhaps Posey’s tolerance threshold for nonsense and mental errors — and this is pure speculation — has been diminished.

So in the ninth inning Saturday night, Posey lost any concern for appearances. He had enough with Brandon Belt apparently zoning out and failing to keep the runner — in this case, Stephen Piscotty — close to the bag. Piscotty went on to steal second in a relatively close game. Always pay attention to Buster.

Despite knowing that every movement is being documented, Posey didn’t hide his indignation and wait for the privacy of the clubhouse to protect a teammate from public rebuke:

This isn’t the face of a pleased catcher:

Nor was this the first instance of on-field discord between Posey and Belt — a point noted by longtime Giants beat writer Henry Schulman noted after the game:

Matt Carpenter flied out to end the game, Belt gave Posey an icy stare in the handshake line, after which Posey apparently turned to say something to the first baseman.

This was not the first time the cameras caught Posey expressing displeasure with Belt.

On May 3 at Dodger Stadium, the Giants and L.A. were locked in a 1-1 game in the [10th] inning during a time when the Giants were struggling nightly to score. Belt had walked and taken second on Hunter Pence single before Posey singled to center.

Third-base coach Phil Nevin held Belt at third (amid some dispute whether Belt slowed at some point during his advance). When Posey got to first base and saw that Belt had not scored the go-ahead run, he was agitated. Lip readers had no issue deciphering Posey’s words, which were not complimentary toward Belt to say the least.

Schulman, who should know the relationship better than most that are not members of the Giants, added further detail on Tuesday with some thoughtful insights.

Posey is intense and has an aura of quiet leadership. We’ve known for years that behind the purposely boring postgame quotes and almost Zen-like demeanor when writers are in the room, he is the first among equals in that clubhouse and not afraid to stand on a proverbial lectern and speak his mind.

Belt could not be more different. He wears his heart on his sleeve. I think way too much is made of the “slumpy shoulders” thing, but I have been told privately that some do get annoyed at times by Belt’s sulking, or just the appearance that he is.

As an aside, I have sensed a change in Belt the last two seasons, a seriousness we had not seen. I’ve been told something I actually can relate to personally, that Belt got weary of being the butt of a lot of jokes and did not want to offer as much fodder.

Part of me feels empathy for Belt, who’s underappreciated as a hitter in part because of a home park that suppresses left-handed power more than any other MLB stadium. Craig Edwards looked earlier this season at why Belt is underrated, and perhaps his body language is also often misinterpreted. We all make mistakes, and perhaps Belt’s are punished more severely and noted more often because of body language. Still, Belt probably should have been closer to the bag.

What Schulman ultimately feels, as he states in his conclusion, is that this is “no big deal.” The Posey-Belt feud of ’17 is not this:

Wrote Schulman:

I feel compelled to say I do not think this is a big deal. …. If someone built a team with 25 guys who had the same personalities, that would be weird. It doesn’t happen, and I’d like to think that after decades of watching and writing about baseball I could discern if a personality conflict was roiling the clubhouse, or worse, affecting the team’s performance on the field.

Incidents like this undoubtedly occur in the privacy of the clubhouse many times throughout a major-league season. This particular episode is notable insofar as it represents one of the few instances of frustration boiling over in public. It’s also likely a product of where the Giants — regarded as a Wild Card favorite this preseason — currently find themselves in the standings a quarter of the way through the season.

The paradox is that now, at a time when media access to players is greater than ever before, we likely see less honest and more guarded behavior than ever before, as well.

How Posey acted is how we expect a leader to act. He’s supposed to police his teammates in the way only a peer — a peer who’s respected — can. Posey should be able — should, in fact, be expected — to address performances or conduct that he regards as unacceptable or detrimental to the club. At least, that’s what I suspect a clubhouse leader would do.

Leadership is a key ingredient in clubhouse chemistry. And teams are interested in qualifying, or better understanding, clubhouse chemistry, as Sam Miller reported back in 2013 for ESPN.

From the story:

If the gregarious lefthanded reliever “helps” the third baseman hit two extra home runs — if inducing happiness can be measured — then who should get paid for those two home runs? The man who hit them or the muse?

“What I can tell you unequivocally is that GMs and front offices are actively studying and trying to find ways to quantify clubhouse chemistry,” says Gabe Kapler, a former player who now consults for the Rays’ scouting and player-development departments. “Call me naive, but I believe there’s something to it.”

What is the value of Posey helping Belt, say, stay more focused in-game if that is indeed the issue at hand? What could look like a chemistry issue to outsiders, might indeed be “no big deal” and might actually improve Belt’s future performance. And perhaps there’s something to being less guarded in the presence of television, forgetting for the moment that social media can capture any action for posterity. Public episodes like this can be a great deterrent, a great incentive to change behavior.

Or can such public displays create embitterment and distraction within the clubhouse? Is there something about the Posey-Belt relationship that allows Posey to be more candid? How demonstrative should peers, team captains, be?

Even with the television cameras recording the action, Posey reached a breaking point; his frustration boiled over. And maybe that has as much to do with a concentration lapse by a teammate as it does with the very real situation of his team. It was an unusual occurrence — perhaps a rare window shedding light on Posey’s leadership style — but it’s been an unusual season for Posey and the Giants.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

anyone have any insight on what jokes belt was the punchline to? the only funny thing ive got on belt is a slight similarity to ruxin from the league but thats only mildly amusing at best?

5 years ago
Reply to  374285942768

I knew he reminded me of someone… you nailed it for me. Ruxin!

5 years ago
Reply to  374285942768

The part about the LA game is dumb because Posey was clearly angry with 3B coach Nevin and talked to him in the dugout after the inning. Watching that entire game there was no indication that Posey blamed Belt, but Nevin.