Buster Posey: The Best Player Still Standing

October hasn’t been too kind to most of the game’s very best players. Of the position players who made my ten-man Fangraphs Player of the Year ballot, Michael Brantley, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista and Jonathan Lucroy didn’t make it to the dance, Andrew McCutchen‘s postseason lasted all of one game, and Mike Trout‘s struggles were at the center of the Angels’ quick exit. Among the pitchers, the seasons of Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber ended in September, and Clayton Kershaw’s two 7th-inning implosions keyed the Dodgers’ loss to the Cardinals. The last man standing is Buster Posey, whose Giants stand one win away from their third World Series appearance in five years.

The first time I “saw” Buster Posey was on film during our winter scouting meetings in my second year as a Brewer area scout. He was a two-way player, a shortstop/pitcher at Lee County HS in Georgia. At the time, there wasn’t much of a consensus as to whether he projected as a hitter or pitcher, but he was an intriguing prospect nonetheless. We had a mock draft at the end of the weekend, and I do remember selecting him, though not with a first round pick. He had a strong commitment to Florida State, and wasn’t going to sign unless he went near the very top of the draft. It wasn’t yet his time – the Angels took a 50th round flyer on him in 2005, and off to college he went.

Posey was the Seminoles’ shortstop his freshman year, and was a steady performer. It wasn’t until his sophomore year, however, that he made the position switch that took his career to another level. He carried the load as their regular receiver, taking to the position naturally while he gained strength and began to fortify his offensive game as well. I saw him in person for the first time on Cape Cod after his sophomore season, and he stood out among a typically strong group of prospects in the country’s foremost summer wood bat league. He was natural and fluid behind the plate, looking like he had been there all of his life. Unlike most Cape catching prospects, he was behind the plate almost each and every day, doing damage with the wood bat as well. He was a no-brainer – a two-way skill position standout who would quickly rise to the major leagues. We’re still waiting for the next slam-dunk two-way catching prospect. He sailed to the very top of my preference list entering his draft season.

Posey was a fairly strong candidate to go at the very top of the draft, but the Rays, Pirates, Royals and Orioles all wound up passing on him before the Giants snagged him with the fifth overall pick. The latter three of those clubs have just now reached their playoff contention window, while the Giants already have two World Championships in the bank, with Posey the best player on both clubs.

Posey tore through the minor leagues, batting a lusty .333-.427-.542 in just 750 plate appearances, arriving in the major leagues for the first time in September 2009. His major league career to date has been eventful, to say the least. In addition to those two World Series rings, he already has Rookie of the Year and MVP awards on his shelf, has won a batting title, and lost the bulk of the 2011 season to a gruesome leg and ankle injury that caused a significant rule change regarding collisions at home plate. He has emerged as arguably the game’s quietest superstar. In discussions of the game’s current inner-circle greats, his name doesn’t come up right away.

When talking about a catcher, offense doesn’t, and shouldn’t come up first. Defensive responsibilities, and handling of the pitching staff are paramount. Posey grades highly in those areas. It is a grueling job, so much so that only nine receivers accumulated the requisite 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title this season. One of those, Kurt Suzuki, had all of 503 plate appearances. Of those nine, four – Posey, Suzuki, Jonathan Lucroy and Yan Gomes – were above major league offensive performers this season. It is a very exclusive group of two-way performers at the catching position, and Posey and Lucroy have emerged as its standard bearers.

What makes Buster Posey tick offensively? How good is he, really, and can he get any better? Let’s take a closer look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to learn more. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2014
Posey % REL PCT
K 11.4% 56 8
BB 7.8% 103 55
POP 4.0% 51 11
FLY 30.5% 109 69
LD 25.5% 122 92
GB 40.0% 92 31

Above you see the magical trifecta of skills needed to become a .300+ hitter at the major league level – low K and popup rates, and a high line drive rate. Posey’s 11.4% strikeout rate is exceptional for a power hitter. He has never had a K rate percentile rank above 35, and his 2014 mark of 11 is a career best. He has always had a very low popup rate – it has ranged in a narrow band from a percentile rank of 6 to 14, with his 2014 mark of 11 right in the middle. Liner rates fluctuate more than those of other batted ball types, but really good hitters tend to be consistently above average. Posey has never had a liner rate percentile rank below 57, and in all but that season has posted a figure of 75 or better, with this year’s 92 also a career best. His fly ball percentile rank is a career high 69, and his grounder percentile rank a career low 31 – neither are outlier marks that are cause for concern.

This is an exceptional base upon which to build a strong offensive game. Posey minimizes negative outcomes while maximizing positive ones. The height of his offensive prowess within this framework is determined by the authority with which he hits the baseball. This can be assessed by looking at his production by BIP type information:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.317 0.885 148 188
LD 0.629 0.759 84 105
GB 0.253 0.253 100 122
ALL BIP 0.347 0.546 118 148
ALL PA 0.303 0.359 0.477 140 171

Posey’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

The first thing that jumps out here is that his actual performance (REL PRD) fairly significantly lags his ADJ PRD, which has been adjusted for context. The main reason for this is the extremely pitcher-friendly nature of his home ballpark, AT&T Park. I calculate my own park factors utilizing granular batted ball data, and AT&T Field ranked as the second most pitcher-friendly park in the game this year with an 84.8 overall park factor, ahead of only Safeco Field’s 82.8. AT&T’s 2014 fly ball park factor of 67.3 was also the second lowest in baseball, ahead of only Safeco’s 66.2. AT&T had park factors below 100 on all batted ball types in 2014, posting a 99.8 park factor for liners, and 85.2 for grounders. Posey put up his strong overall numbers despite playing 50% of his games in a park that significantly saps offense.

This helps to explain why his actual performance on fly balls – 148 REL PRD – is adjusted significantly upward to 188 ADJ PRD. While Posey hits his fly balls with above average authority, he is not what one would consider an elite ball-striker like, say, Giancarlo Stanton. Posey hit exactly one fly ball at 105 MPH or higher this season – Stanton hit 14. Posey hit 12 more fly balls between 100-105 MPH – Stanton hit 19. Posey hit zero 100+ MPH fly balls to the opposite field – Stanton hit 9. Posey hits the ball hard – he does not obliterate it.

His production on fly balls is less based on pure authority than on exit angle. If you physically split the entire population of major league fly balls halfway between the boundaries of the popup and line drive groups, 34.8% of fly balls would be in the “high” group, and 65.2% in the “low” group. There is a stark difference in production between these two groups – major league hitters batted .094 AVG-.224 SLG on “high” fly balls and .372 AVG-.960 SLG on “low” fly balls. Only 27.3% of Posey’s fly balls were “high” in 2014 – even the power aspect of Posey’s game possesses sublety and nuance.

Posey was quite unlucky on line drives this season, posting just an 84 REL PRD, though this is adjusted upward for context to 105 ADJ PRD. Partially due to his lack of foot speed – though he does run reasonably well for a catcher – he posted just a 100 REL PRD on grounders, without a single extra base hit. This too is adjusted upward for context to 122 ADJ PRD. While Posey’s 118 REL PRD on all BIP is quite good, it pales in comparison to his context-adjusted 148 ADJ PRD. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and his REL PRD spikes to 140, and his ADJ PRD to 171 – that’s in MVP candidate territory, even before taking into consideration his place on the defensive spectrum and the offensive scarcity that goes with it.

Buster Posey is likely about as good as he is going to get. All of his homers were hit to LF and LCF this season, and while that is partly due to the configuration of his ballpark, it is still significant. He is not yet an overshift consideration in the infield, but he may be in a few years if current trends persist. He has learned to successfully selectively pull in the air, but selling out for even more power would likely disrupt the foundation upon which his offensive game is built. His K, popup and liner rates really can’t get much better. The Giants have intelligently eased him into more first base work to preserve his offensive prowess. What we’re seeing right now is the peak performance of an exceptional player.

Adjusted for context, Posey was a .325-.379-.557 hitter at a neutral field this season. From those numbers, take away about three ground ball hits and a few extra bases on his liners and fly balls for his relative lack of speed, and you have his true offensive talent. That’s a pretty special player, even before taking his position into account. His is a case of exceptional tools evolving into exceptional skills, and it has translated into two rings, perhaps going on three. There are many true greats in the game today, most with in-your-face talents that are much more eye-catching. As October grinds on, take a step back and soak in the all-around game of the game’s most understated superstar.

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Scott Cousins
Scott Cousins

Not if I can help it.