Sunday Notes: Is Buster Posey One of the Best Catchers in MLB History?

When Buster Posey announced his retirement in early November, my first thought was something along the lines of “Fantastic career; he’ll be getting my vote when he becomes Hall of Fame eligible in five years.” Looking back, that initial reaction actually undersold just how dominant Posey was over his 12-year career.

A few days ago, I shared the following on social media:

Best catchers in baseball history: 1. Mickey Cochrane, 2. Johnny Bench, 3. Josh Gibson, 4. Yogi Berra, 5. Gary Carter, 6. Ivan Rodriguez.

Your opinion of that ranking aside, a follower proceeded to ask for my opinion of Posey. That prompted me to compare the 34-year-old’s career to that of Cochrane, who likewise was done at a relatively-early age. Cochrane played his last game shortly after his 34th birthday, an errant Bump Hadley pitch — this in the days before hitters wore helmets — having fractured his skull and rendered him unconscious for 10 days. Coincidentally or not, Cochrane had taken Hadley deep in his previous at bat.

Cochrane played from 1925-1937 — a high-offense era — and finished his career with an eye-popping .320/.419/.478 slash line. Perusing our WAR leaderboard for that baker’s-dozen stretch, you’ll find Cochrane sandwiched between Rogers Hornsby and Tony Lazzeri. In 1947, Cochrane became the first catcher voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA.

Cochrane played in 1,482 games. Posey played in 1,371 games. How do they otherwise compare?

Posey won an MVP award and helped lead the San Francisco Giants to three World Series, all of which they won. Cochrane won two MVP awards and helped lead his teams to five World Series, three of which they won. A two-time champion with the Philadelphia A’s, he was a player-manager when the Detroit Tigers captured their first-ever title in 1935.

And then there are these numbers:

Posey: 1,500 hits, 158 HR, .358 wOBA, 129 wRC+, 57.6 fWAR, 44.9 bWAR.
Cochrane: 1,652 hits, 119 HR, .413 wOBA, 132 wRC+, 50.6 fWAR, 49.9 bWAR.

Needless to say, the above differences in fWAR and bWAR reflect the inexactitude of quantifying catcher value — particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and especially when a career spanned the presidencies of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That said, historians agree that Cochrane was an elite defender with a rocket for an arm, as well as an adroit handler of pitchers. His leadership qualities were second to none.

Was Cochrane truly the best catcher in history, better than the likes of Bench, Berra, and Gibson? Quite possibly not — his lack of longevity is an argument against — although he does lead all players at his position (minimum 5,000 plate appearances) in BA, OBP, and wOBA, and he ranks third in wRC+, behind only Mike Piazza and Gene Tenace (!). Every catcher with a higher fWAR than Cochrane played in more games, with one exception. That distinction belongs to Posey.

Regardless of how highly you’d rank Cochrane, one thing seems clear: Buster Posey is one of the best catchers of all time. A plaque in Cooperstown is in his future.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Blue Moon Odom went 4 for 5 against Mickey Lolich.

Red Ruffing went 18 for 38 against Lloyd Brown.

Tom Browning went 5 for 10 against Andy Hawkins.

George Crowe went 6 for 13 against Sal Maglie.

Turner Barber went 5 for 5 against Chick Davies.

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The interview with Josh Palacios that ran here at FanGraphs earlier this week made note of the 4-for-4 game he had last April, one day after his big-league debut. Left on the cutting-room floor from my conversation with the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder was his recollection of that day, as well as his relationship with a longtime batting practice pitcher.

“It was a little surreal,” Palcios said of his four-hit effort against the Los Angeles Angels, which came at the Blue Jays’ temporary home in Dunedin, Florida. “It was also a blessing, because my family was able to fly in for the game. I had a bunch of friends there as well. Looking back, it gave me the confidence that I can do this; I can play in this league. I have the ability, I just have to go forth and play my game.”

The ball from Palacios’s first hit — a bunt single — went to his father, former minor-league pitcher Richard Palacios Sr. As the older brother of Cleveland Guardians prospect Richie Palacios put it, “I don’t think we could even calculate how many hours of BP he’s thrown to us. He used to get home from work, and we’d go out to hit for a few hours. Every single day. That poor man had at least two jobs when I was growing up.”

Richard Sr. still throws BP to his Brooklyn-born-and-raised sons. And he’s not lobbing cookies.

“He still throws with some good backspin, and he’s got a nasty curveball and a good changeup,” Josh explained. “He’s 56 now, but if you ask around New York City, everybody knows he throws the best BP of anybody. He’s been my best competition for a long time.”

———

A quiz:

Who is the all-time leader in runs scored by a player whose primary position was catcher?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Larry Biittner, an outfielder/first baseman for four teams from 1970-1983, died last Sunday at age 75. A native of Pocahontas, Iowa, Bittner was at his statistical best in 1975 when he slashed .315/.376/.408 with the Montreal Expos.

Tom Matchick, a utility infielder with the 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers, died earlier this week at age 78. A native of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, Matchick played for four teams from 1967-1972.

Jim Corsi died of cancer earlier this week at age 60. A reliever for five teams — most notably the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox — Corsi logged a 3.25 ERA over 368 games from 1988-1999.

Longtime SABR member Bill Humber was appointed a member of the Order of Canada. Humber is being honored for “his contributions as Canada’s premier baseball historian, who has highlighted the key ways in which the sport’s history is linked to our nation.”

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The answer to the quiz is Ivan Rodriguez, with 1,354 runs scored. Carlton Fisk has the second-most runs scored by a catcher: 1,275.

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A few days ago, I shared on Twitter that Wilbur Wood led American League pitchers in relief appearances in 1968, 1969, and 1970, and then in games started in 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1975. Moreover, he went 24-20 in one of his four seasons as a 20-game-winner.

Sports-Reference’s Adam Darowski responded to my tweet as follows:

Wilbur Wood led the league with a 189 ERA+ in THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY FOUR INNINGS in 1971. It was an 11.7 WAR season. He followed it up with a 10.7 WAR season. And then a 7.6 WAR season. We don’t talk about Wilbur Wood enough.

Adam was right — we don’t talk about Wilbur Wood enough — so here is a little more on the left-handed knuckleballer who spent 12 of his 17 big-league seasons with the Chicago White Sox:

Unsuccessful as a fastball/curveball pitcher — Wood went 1-8 with a 4.17 ERA with the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates over his first five seasons — he developed a knuckleball after being traded to the White Sox in October 1966. His new teammates included Hoyt Wilhelm. Under the tutelage of then 43-year-old Hall of Famer, Wood mastered the art of baseball’s most-mesmerizing pitch.

The trade turned out to be among the best in White Sox history. Juan Pizarro, who went from Chicago to Pittsburgh, played eight more seasons and went 33-39 with 20 saves and a 3.76 ERA over 552-and-two-thirds innings. Wood tossed 2,524-and-a-third innings in his dozen years with the White Sox, logging a 3.18 ERA while being credited with 163 wins and 57 saves. As noted above, he had four 20-win seasons, all within a five-year stretch where he averaged 336 innings annually.

In July 1973, Wood famously started both games of a double-header against the New York Yankees. Those same-day outings went poorly, but that wasn’t the case when he took the mound twice on May 28 against Cleveland. Wood worked the final five innings of a suspended game, then proceeded to hurl a shutout in the regularly-scheduled affair. He got win in both games.

For a deeper look at Wood’s remarkable career, his SABR BioProject biography can be found here.

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Rob Kaminsky is currently a minor-league free agent, and one of the things the 27-year-old former St. Louis Cardinals southpaw wants teams to know is that he is fully boosted. That fact came to the fore when I asked Kaminsky if organizations he’s been in contact with have inquired as to his vaccination status.

“My agent and I have talked to a few teams now, whether it be here, over in Japan, or Korea, or Taiwan,” Kaminsky said on this past Friday’s episode of FanGraphs Audio. “And yeah, it’s brought up. Let’s put it that way. I think it’s a question that any workforce would ask, just to minimize risk at the workplace — especially at a place like Major League Baseball where you’re spending 9-10 hours at a field with a bunch of guys. I tell my agent to tell them that I’m vaccinated and boosted… You never know if that could move the needle. No pun intended.”

Kaminsky did a public service announcement for Englewood (NJ) Health earlier this summer.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At Cooperstown in Canada, Kevin Glew wrote about how Russ Ford — MLB’s first player from Manitoba — authored arguably the greatest rookie season in history thanks to his mysterious emery pitch.

Seventeen-year-old left-hander Genevieve Beacom became the first female pitcher for a professional baseball team in Australia when she took the mound for the ABL’s Melbourne Aces. The game story can be found here.

Ryan Fagan explained his Hall of Fame ballot at The Sporting News.

ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer delved into the Mariners’ dozen-strong coaching staff.

Which birth year produced the most WAR? Sarah Langs answered that question at MLB.com.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Roel Ramírez has made two big-league pitching appearances, one each in 2020 and 2021 with the St. Louis Cardinals. The 26-year-old right-hander — now in the New York Mets organization — has been charged with nine earned runs in one inning of work. Ramirez’s 81.00 currently ranks as the highest in the modern era among pitchers who have recorded at least three outs.

Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman combined to lead their leagues in saves five times. Firpo Marberry led the American League in saves six times. Marberry also had 86 complete games.

Bruce Sutter got his 300th save in the final game of his career. He fanned Roberto Alomar for the final out of a 5-4 Atlanta Braves win over the San Diego Padres.

Luis Castillo played in 1,720 games, scored 1,001 runs, and homered 28 times. Vern Stephens played in 1,720 games, scored 1,001 runs. and homered 247 times.

Dwight Evans hit 14 home runs when batting cleanup, and the same number when batting ninth. He hit 25 or more home runs in every other spot in the order, including 99 when batting in the two-hole.

Mike Bordick and Rick Dempsey are the all-time leaders in home runs while batting ninth, with 42 each. Per Adam Darowski, here is the leaderboard.

In 1992, Ken Griffey Jr. had a .391 wOBA and a 145 wRC+. Rob Deer had a .392 wOBA and a 145 wRC+. Griffey had 27 home runs and 103 RBIs. Deer had 32 home runs and 64 RBIs.

Philadelphia A’s (and briefly Boston Red Sox) second baseman Max Bishop had a .427 OPB from 1925-1934. Aptly-dubbed “Camera Eye,” Bishop had 1,113 hits and 1,074 walks over that 10-season stretch. He had 12 hits and 12 walks in World Series play.

The Detroit Tigers signed Vince Coleman as a free agent on today’s date in 1997. The six-time National League leader in stolen bases — then 35 years old — went on to record one hit in 14 at bats in what would be his final big-league season.

Gene Packard jumped from the Cincinnati Reds to the Kansas City Packers on today’s date in 1914. A left-hander, Packard was a 20-game winner in each of his two seasons in the renegade Federal League before returning to MLB with the Chicago Cubs in 1916.

Players born on today’s date include Pat Rockett, a shortstop who appeared in 152 games with the Atlanta Braves from 1976-1978. Rockett’s lone home run came off of Houston Astros right-hander Mark Lemongello.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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tomerafan
7 months ago

Posey is another player who is “penalized” in cumulative stats – including career WAR – for going to college and excelling. Continues to bug me.

Left of Centerfield
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

But it was Posey’s choice to go to college. He dropped all the way to the 50th round in the 2005 draft because everyone knew he was 100% committed to going to college. The Angels offered him 3rd round money in an attempt to sign him but he turned them down. Also, it was at FSU that he converted to catcher. Who knows what his career would have been like had skipped college?

tomerafan
7 months ago

Sure – agreed to all of that. What I’m saying is that evaluating “best” and, in particular, Hall of Fame entry is difficult when assessing college players. And WAR has gone from being a metric for comparing value in season to a metric for accumulating value in a career.

For me, the definition of “best ever” is not about longevity beyond a certain baseline. All players have a decline phase. Compare players over a linear 10-12 year period and then add value if they sustain greatness for longer than that, but don’t penalize them if they don’t. That’s how I’d measure things like greatest and best.

jdr
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

I honestly can’t think of any players who would have made the Hall but didn’t because they attended college.

tomerafan
7 months ago
Reply to  jdr

Mark Teixeira. Put two years on the front of his stats and he’s in.

Dmjn53
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Mark Teixera is 16 bWAR short of the average HOF 1B. He debuted and played 146 games at age 23, where he had a 105 wRC+ and was worth 2.7 bWAR. Are we really going to say he would have had two 8 win seasons at age 21 and 22?

jdr
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Teixeria doesn’t make it with an age 21 and age 22. Given what he did at 23, we’re maybe tacking on ~25-30 HRs and ~2 WAR if he plays the previous two years. That doesn’t change his situation.

tomerafan
7 months ago
Reply to  jdr

If bWAR is your only HOF metric, then no. For me, it’s a guideline to start the conversation rather than a metric that opens and closes the book.

If think that WAR is problematic for 1B because of the risk that the defensive penalty is (a) too steep and (b) doesn’t reflect the exponential rather than non-linear excess value of a wizard defensive player as compared to a very good or borderline great defensive player…

Teixeira from ’05 to ’11 was a MONSTER player, offensively and defensively, right as MLB started to actually test and punish for PED’s for the first time. Two more offensive seasons like he would have projected for at his young age would probably put him above 130 wRC+ as a hitter. There’s reason to believe that his prime age production would also be a little bit better – because his learning curve in this alternate universe would have happened earlier.

I think you’d be talking about a 130+ wRC+ with 450 homers and a reputation as a top-5 all time, otherworldly defensive 1B. For me, it would push him up into very strong consideration, and probably the Hall.

But I also believe that Keith Hernandez and John Olerud belong. And before someone responds back that Olerud has 58 fWAR and Teixiera has 45… look at the defensive runs difference between the two of them, and then ask yourself if there was THAT much separation between them defensively. One can value and appreciate WAR while still thinking that some of the defensive components are really, really problematic and not gospel…

Hughesmember
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Something like that is where Jay Jaffe came up with JAWS. He picked a 7 year peak. All WAR outside their top 7 years is divided by 2.

For what it’s worth, Posey only qualified for the batting title 6times. more 4 at > 100 games played. So he’s still on the short side with your 10-12 year scale.

Catcher also has a giant unknown to it with game calling. It’s not part of their WAR, and a significant part of their value. Also if we do figure something out, is it something that can be applied backwards, and how far?

gettwobrute79member
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Elite college players like Posey don’t spend much time in the minors so they’re getting to the majors fairly quickly. So whatever “penalty” they have is minimal

jdr
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Posey made the majors at 22, and played his first full season at 23. How early did you expect him to come up?

tomerafan
7 months ago
Reply to  jdr

Respectfully, you’re making my core point, though Posey (as a Catcher) is a suboptimal example for me to use.

Many discussions of “best ever” at a position incorporate the tidbits about players who debut before age 19. (I highly doubt a catcher would do so, which is why my use of Posey is problematic here.) College players fail some of those precocious screens. In addition, their cumulative stats miss 2-3 years against other players in the “best ever” discussion at a position, and their professional learning curve is delayed (and there is some interesting regressional analysis reason to believe that their ages 25-29 peak seasons would be even better in MLB had they debuted earlier because their learning curve would have calcified younger, giving them a greater ability to do more damage during their peak physical years.

Either way, a player who debuts at age 22/23 – whether they come through the minors or college – has a proven, statistical, uphill climb to being among the “best ever” in MLB. It’s been researched, written, discussed, podcasted, etc. College players therefore get penalized in discussions of best player ever at a position by going to college. Some folks have argued for including minor league performance in an overall analysis of a player’s career. I’m simply saying that the NCAA would then have to be included as well and somehow weighted against the competitiveness of those minor leagues.

jdr
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

The reason the vast majority of players that go to college do so is because they aren’t good enough to get drafted where they want to be when they come out of high school. I.e., no one thinks they’re the generational stud who will be up at 20 and light the world on fire. If they looked like they were that stud they would be top 5 picks and they would sign. And they would probably fail, because that’s what most prospects do. The top 5 is filled with can’t-miss HS studs every year. And then most of them miss.

For some small minority of good-but-not-great HS players, a switch flips at some point and they become unexpectedly great. Posey is a great example. He was offered third round money out of HS. A really good prospect no doubt, but not a guy you expect to be in the majors at 20, let alone to become a HOFer. Teixeira was a 9th round pick out of HS. Again, nice prospect, but not a guy you’re expecting to be up in the bigs at 19. Each of those guys had to go to college become great. Do they still become great if they’re in the minors instead? Who knows. My guess is probably not, because their entire event chain would have been different.

Everyone remembers Buster Posey. No one remembers Kyle Skipworth.

tomerafan
6 months ago
Reply to  jdr

But you’re ignoring cause and effect. Posey and Teixeira were drafted that low BECAUSE they were positioned as going to college.

Dmjn53
7 months ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Huh? He debuted in the majors at age 22.