We’ll See You in Cooperstown, Buster Posey

There was no farewell tour, no long goodbye, and no fairytale ending. Instead, out of the blue on the day that would have been Game 7 of the World Series had Tuesday’s outcome gone the other way, was a stark, almost shocking tweet from The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly:

Wait, what? Posey just finished a season in which he earned All-Star honors for the seventh time, having come back from opting out of the 2020 season out of consideration for his family and two solid but injury-marked seasons, one of which ended with surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip. At the age of 34, while adhering to a strict two-days-on, one-day-off load management plan designed to keep him available and productive, he hit .304/.390/.499 with 18 homers (his highest total since 2015), a 140 wRC+ (his highest mark since 2014), and 4.9 WAR, tops among all catchers and tied for eighth among all NL players. He did that while helping the Giants to a major league-high and franchise-record 107 wins, then continued to torment the division rival Dodgers with a two-run homer off Walker Buehler in the two teams’ first-ever postseason game — nearly the first splash hit by any right-handed batter at Oracle Park, save for a water tower in right field — and then three hits the following night.

At the tail end of a nine-year, $169 million contract that he signed in March 2013, Posey had a $22 million club option with a $3 million buyout — hardly a cheap proposition, but a no-brainer for a big-spending team dealing with a franchise icon and a new window of contention. A multi-year extension seemed even more likely, particularly with the possibility of the universal designated hitter on the horizon. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi had already signaled his intent to retain Posey one way or another, saying after the team’s elimination, “He is in our estimation the best catcher in baseball this year. Obviously [we] want to have conversations with Buster and continue to have internal conversations about that, but having him on this team next year is a high priority.”

Posey chose to walk away from all that in order to be with his family, which now features two adopted twin daughters who were born prematurely last summer and spent time in the newborn intensive care unit. He also chose to forgo the daily grind of a job via which he’s been concussed at least twice, in 2017 and ’19, and probably more than that given the number of foul tips off his mask that have left him dazed; he was in concussion protocol for one such shot in late July. Then there are the collisions, the most serious of which fractured his left fibula, tore three ligaments in his left ankle, and required three screws to pin the bone in place while it healed, plus a separate surgery to remove the hardware. That one cost him most of the 2011 season, the follow-up to his NL Rookie of the Year-winning campaign, and resulted in the addition of a rule to eliminate unwarranted contact at the plate.

This is Koufaxian stuff, a player retiring despite still performing at an elite level. The parallel between Posey and Sandy Koufax isn’t perfect, though both played just 12 years in the majors, accumulated numerous individual honors and reached the pinnacle of their respective positions in helping their teams win three championships, then departed abruptly. So far as we know, Posey isn’t playing through anything as debilitating as the three-time Cy Young winner’s chronic arthritis, but the long-term effects of multiple concussions are nothing to trifle with, and Posey, already a father of two before the adoption, has two new reasons to want to make sure he enjoys his retirement years.

As to where Posey’s retirement leaves him with regards to the Hall of Fame, to these eyes, he’s checked every box except sticking around long enough to satisfy every last random crank on social media or sports talk radio. He’s a career .302/.372/.460 (126 wRC+) hitter, a seven-time All-Star, Gold Glove winner (it was tough to break through against Yadier Molina), MVP (2012), batting champion (also 2012, making him one of just five catchers to win, if we’re counting back to Deacon White in the National Association in 1875), Rookie of the Year (2010), league WAR leader (2012, via both fWAR and bWAR), and pitch-framing king who shepherded the staffs of three World Series winners in a five-year span. The Giants’ three championships on his watch, by the way, are more than any other team in this millennium beside the Red Sox. The only player common to even three of those Boston championship teams was a guy who sat on the bench for half the game (David Ortiz). Posey, on the other hand, was behind the plate for 36 of the team’s 38 postseason games in that run; two innings off at the wrong end of a blowout in the 2014 World Series was his only break besides a pair of Game 4 starts in the 2012 NLDS and NLCS by Hector Sanchez.

By retiring at age 34, Posey is flouting the Rule of 2,000, the daunting reality that no player whose career took place in the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits has been elected to the Hall of Fame, either by the BBWAA or by the various small committees. Many of the best candidates outside the Hall, from Dick Allen and Bobby Grich to Andruw Jones and Chase Utley, are on the wrong side of that number, and so was Minnie Miñoso until the recent reclassification of the Negro Leagues as major leagues. I’ve tracked the progress of players like Joe Mauer and Joey Votto as they’ve reached the mark, and I fully expected to do the same with Posey, whom I noted on September 1 was still 527 hits shy of the mark. He’s now exactly 500 short, finishing with 1,500 hits.

Do you know how many players have caught at least 1,000 games, accumulated at least 1,500 hits and finished with a career OPS+ of 120 or higher? Nine, seven of them with plaques in Cooperstown:

Players with at Least 1,000 Games Caught, 1,500 Hits, and 120 OPS+
Player Years Age Games C PA H OPS+ bWAR
Johnny Bench+ 1967-1983 19-35 1742 8674 2048 126 75.1
Yogi Berra+ 1946-1965 21-40 1699 8364 2150 125 59.6
Mike Piazza+ 1992-2007 23-38 1630 7745 2127 143 59.5
Bill Dickey+ 1928-1946 21-39 1708 7065 1969 127 56.5
Gabby Hartnett+ 1922-1941 21-40 1793 7300 1912 126 55.9
Mickey Cochrane+ 1925-1937 22-34 1451 6211 1652 129 49.9
Buster Posey 2009-2021 22-34 1093 5607 1500 129 44.9
Jorge Posada 1995-2011 24-40 1574 7150 1664 121 42.7
Ernie Lombardi+ 1931-1947 23-39 1544 6353 1792 126 37.9
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer

Granted, this is sort of a junk-drawer collection defined by the fact that the player in question is the low man in two of those categories, but Posey ranks among the best hitters of the group. Sure, you can argue that rate stat would have dropped as he aged, but what all of this comes down to is a single question: How badly do you want to see a player regress? I mean that in both senses of the phrase. Sticking around for another year or two of above-average play followed by a few below-average ones shouldn’t be that meaningful when it comes to evaluating his career, and he doesn’t need another concussion or another surgery to meet some keyboard commando’s high standards of toughness.

Via Dan Szymborski, here’s a ZiPS projection for Posey’s next five seasons:

ZiPS Projection – Buster Posey
2022 35 .271 .347 .403 380 103 10 104 3 2.7
2023 36 .266 .337 .384 346 92 8 96 1 1.9
2024 37 .260 .326 .361 319 83 6 87 0 1.2
2025 38 .254 .315 .349 284 72 5 81 -2 0.6
2026 39 .252 .308 .326 230 58 3 73 -3 0.1

That’s another 408 hits and 6.5 WAR for those of you scoring at home, padding his totals while producing more mediocre seasons than truly good ones. Yes, with his healthy hip, Posey might have outdone that projection and reached 2,000 hits, but we’re talking about window dressing.

That table above, with seven Hall of Famers plus Posada and Posey, does the latter a disservice. Thanks to our ever-evolving understanding of the game, we now know about pitch framing, and we know that Posey has been among the best at this even at the tail end of his career; his 14.9 framing runs in 2019 and ’21 is tied for seventh in the majors despite his taking all of last year off. He’s fifth in our version of the metric since his debut in 2009 (128.2 runs), and second in that of Baseball Prospectus (151 runs).

As I’ve noted with respect to Molina, who many believe to be a surefire Hall of Famer, our appreciation of what makes him so owes plenty to the ability to quantify that, and as with relievers, this is a case where off-the-shelf JAWS won’t do. By patching together FanGraphs’ 2008–21 framing numbers with Baseball Prospectus’ pre-PITCHf/x version going back to 1988 (the start of the pitch count era), I’ve created a FanGraphs WAR-based version of JAWS for catchers for the era’s relevant backstops. Updating my table yet again:

FanGraphs Framing-Inclusive JAWS for Catchers
Player Career WAR FG Fram BP Fram WAR Adj fWAR fPeak fJAWS
Mike Piazza 1992-2007 63.7 n/a 87.2 8.4 72.1 52.5 62.3
Ivan Rodriguez 1991-2011 69.2 2.9 -14.1 -1.5 67.7 40.0 53.9
Buster Posey 2009-2019 57.6 128.8 0.0 0.0 57.6 47.7 52.7
Joe Mauer 2004-2018 52.5 27.6 38.3 3.8 56.3 42.4 49.3
Russell Martin 2006-2019 55.2 165.7 33.7 3.3 58.5 39.8 49.1
Yadier Molina 2004-2020 55.6 145.4 30.0 2.9 58.5 39.5 49.0
Brian McCann 2005-2019 54.5 165.6 -11.3 -1.1 53.4 39.9 46.7
Jorge Posada 1995-2011 40.4 -43.9 -69.5 -6.7 33.7 29.5 31.6
FG Fram = FanGraphs framing runs for 2008-21, now included in WAR. BP Fram = framing runs from 1988-2007 via Baseball Prospectus. WAR Adj = BP framing runs converted to FanGraphs WAR.

Remember where I noted Posey’s 4.9 WAR this year? That was his sixth-best season, thus adding nearly a full win to his fPeak score; he gained a full 3.0 fJAWS. Molina, the only other active player on the list, gained just 0.5 through his continued activity in what he’s announced is his penultimate season.

As far as Hall of Famers go, the only two for whom we have framing stats for their whole careers — thanks to the magic of Max Marchi’s retroframing methodology — are Rodriguez and Piazza. The former, considered by many to be the best defensive catcher ever, had a cannon for an arm but was not much of a framer; the latter, perpetually derided for perceived defensive shortcomings centered mainly around his meager 23% caught stealing rate, was an excellent framer. Where Rodriguez ranks third among catchers in off-the-shelf JAWS at 54.3 and Piazza fifth, three points lower, the impact of framing data is enough to swing the gap between the two of them by about 11 points in the latter’s favor. Posey, with a career that’s only about 55% as long as Rodriguez, is just 1.2 points below him by this methodology thanks to his superiority as a hitter and as a framer. He’s also substantially ahead of Mauer, whom many people (this scribe included) believe to be Hall-worthy given how highly he ranks in non-framing JAWS (seventh, and fifth in seven-year peak). If Posey is in their ballpark, he belongs in the Hall.

Alas, we don’t have framing data for every enshrined catcher to give us a fuller picture. In an attempt to square the framing-exclusive and framing-inclusive methodologies, I’ve created a 50–50 blend using the two versions of JAWS, giving some credit to those who excel in this area and trying to avoid unduly penalizing the players for whom we lack such data. Here’s the latest leaderboard:

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 59.3 59.3
3 5 Mike Piazza+ 59.5 43.1 51.3 72.1 52.5 62.3 56.8
4 3 Ivan Rodriguez+ 68.7 39.8 54.3 67.7 40.0 53.9 54.1
5 4 Carlton Fisk+ 68.4 37.5 53.0 53.0
6 6 Yogi Berra+ 59.6 38.1 48.8 48.8
7 7 Joe Mauer 55.2 39.0 47.1 56.3 42.4 49.3 48.2
8 14 Buster Posey 44.9 36.6 40.7 57.6 47.7 52.7 46.7
9 8 Bill Dickey+ 56.5 35.5 46.0 46.0
Avg HOFC 53.8 34.8 44.3 44.3
10 9 Gabby Hartnett+ 55.9 30.8 43.4 43.4
11 10 Mickey Cochrane+ 49.9 36.6 43.3 43.3
12 11 Ted Simmons+ 50.3 34.8 42.6 42.6
13 22 Yadier Molina 42.1 28.7 35.4 58.5 39.5 49.0 42.2
14 12 Thurman Munson 46.1 37.0 41.5 41.5
15 27 Russell Martin 38.8 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 Roy Campanella+ 41.8 35.0 38.4 38.4
20 18 Wally Schang 47.9 27.8 37.8 37.8
21 33 Brian McCann 32.0 24.6 28.3 53.4 39.9 46.7 37.5
22 20 Roger Bresnahan+ 42.0 30.4 36.2 36.2
23 23 Darrell Porter 40.8 29.1 34.9 34.9
24 19 Jorge Posada 42.7 32.6 37.7 33.7 29.5 31.6 34.7
25 24 Jim Sundberg 40.5 28.7 34.6 34.6
30 29 Ernie Lombardi+ 37.9 24.1 31.0 31.0
32 31 Ray Schalk+ 33.2 25.8 29.5 29.5
43 44 Rick Ferrell+ 30.8 20.9 25.9 25.9
SOURCE: https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/jaws_C.shtml
+ = Hall of Famer. bRk = Baseball-Reference JAWS ranking. Note discontinuity below No. 25 (Hall of Famers only).

Even giving half-credit to Posey for framing is enough to elevate him into the top 10 and above the Hall standard. He was there before this year, but thanks to his great season, he passed Dickey, too.

It’s not just Posey’s value relative to all other catchers that we should be discussing here. Check the top of the WAR leaderboard for 2012–17, Posey’s strongest stretch:

Highest Position Player WAR 2012–17
Rk Player PA WAR
1 Mike Trout 3930 54.3
2 Buster Posey 3615 43.0
3 Josh Donaldson 3564 35.6
4 Andrew McCutchen 4005 33.5
5 Robinson Canó 4080 31.0
6 Joey Votto 3552 30.7
7 Paul Goldschmidt 3841 30.4
8 Miguel Cabrera 3753 30.3
9 Adrian Beltre 3606 29.8
10 Giancarlo Stanton 3123 27.7

With the inclusion of his value as a pitch framer, Posey was over a win per year more valuable than every player besides Trout during that stretch. Without it, if we use bWAR, he’s seventh overall for that same period; if we trim to 2012–16, he’s sixth, and first among all NL players at 28.8, ahead of Goldschmidt (27.7) and Votto (26.3).

Again, I’ll maintain that it’s the framing-inclusive stuff by which we should take his true measure, and even if we extend his window to to cover the entirety of his career, including his cup of coffee in 2009 (-0.2 WAR), his injury-marred ’11 (1.8 WAR in 45 games), the decline in ’18–19 and the ’20 opt-out…

Highest Position Player WAR, 2009-21
Rk Player PA WAR WAR/650 PA
1 Mike Trout 5660 77.8 8.9
2 Buster Posey 5607 57.6 6.7
3 Joey Votto 7450 56.7 4.9
4 Robinson Cano 7084 51.3 4.7
5 Andrew McCutchen 7588 50.8 4.4
6 Yadier Molina 6370 48.4 4.9
7 Miguel Cabrera 7237 48.1 4.3
8 Evan Longoria 7163 47.9 4.3
9 Paul Goldschmidt 6300 46.3 4.8
10 Adrian Beltré 5730 45.0 5.1

…Posey edges Votto despite the latter having over 1,800 more plate appearances — about three seasons’ worth. It’s only thanks to Votto’s earlier start (debut 2007, official rookie season in ’08) that the latter has a higher career WAR (60.2), and we’re now talking about him as a full-fledged Hall of Famer.

To these eyes, even with a short career, Posey is a clear Hall of Famer, a player I’ll have no hesitation checking the box for when my 2027 ballot arrives in the mail. That he retired early while still capable of playing at an All-Star level isn’t something I can hold against him, as he doesn’t owe me — or you, or anyone — two or three or five more seasons while increasing the risk of long-term damage to his noggin. He’s the kid in the class who came into the final exam, scribbled furiously but methodically while keeping his composure, and left the building 30 minutes early, knowing full well he had aced the test, while everybody else scratched their heads and prayed for a gentleman’s B. You might resent him in that moment, but at some point you’ll be clapping for his valedictory speech.

Posey will deliver that valedictory from a Cooperstown dais, and that isn’t mere wish-casting on my part, but a near-certainty. Of the 19 enshrined catchers (including Negro Leaguers Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, and Louis Santop), the writers have elected just 10, but only three since Fisk in 2000: Carter (2003), Piazza (2016) and Rodriguez (2017), and the first two of those took a ridiculously long time (six years and four years, respectively) because a good chunk of the electorate was living in the Dark Ages. With an increased appreciation borne both by the advanced statistics and by the stark reality of the field’s attrition (even given the advances of sports medicine, the position is an incredible physical and mental grind), Posey’s not going to have that problem. Outside of St. Louis, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s your favorite writer’s favorite catcher.

I will miss the hell out of watching Posey play, and just as much, I’ll miss watching the way he carried himself as one of those face-of-the-game types, a superstar who represents baseball in all of the best ways. With the exception of opposing pitchers, I don’t think many of us were ready to stop watching him, but if he’s decided to leave on his own terms, we can’t help but applaud.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Ray Ratto wasn’t the only person waiting for this column (https://defector.com/buster-poseys-exit-is-his-acme/). Thanks, Jay!