It’s been a forgettable season for the Giants as a team (63-66 at this writing), and earlier this week, we got a clue as to why — at least with regards to Buster Posey. The 31-year-old catcher has been hobbled by a right hip injury, and season-ending surgery to repair his labrum and clean out bone spurs is reportedly “imminent,” according to executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean. While there’s no concern that Posey will do additional damage by continuing to play, the goal is to give him enough time to recover from the surgery before the beginning of next season.
“Recovery time is what it is, it’s six-plus months,” Sabean told KNBR on Thursday night, “and if you hit the mark well enough you should be able to perform in spring training and hopefully start the season on time.”
With MLB announcing this week that Opening Day for the 2019 season would be on March 28 — just over seven months away — Sabean’s timeline leaves relatively little margin for setbacks. Cactus League action will have just gotten underway by the time he hits the six-month mark.
Via the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea, Posey began experience soreness in the hip in late May and the problem has lingered, bothering him both while catching and while hitting. Via MLB.com’s Joe Trezza, he’s known about the looming likelihood of surgery since before the All-Star break. Selected to the NL All-Star team for the sixth time in his 10-year career, he opted to miss the game, receive a cortisone shot, and rest. Some break.
“You know me pretty well,” Posey told a Chronicle reporter regarding the hip, “and I don’t want to make any excuses for anything. It’s been something I’ve kind of pushed through and played through.”
The injury is the primary culprit in The Case of Buster’s Missing Power, as Posey has been unable to fully utilize his lower half in the service of driving the ball. He’s gone 44 consecutive games without a home run, tied for the second-longest streak of his career; he went 47 games during the second half of 2016 and 44 games from last August 9 until April 4 of this season. Posey’s current numbers (.284/.357/.382, five homers, 106 wRC+) all represent career lows, excluding his incomplete 2009 and 2011 seasons (a cup of coffee in the former, a gruesome collision — you know the one — in the latter). Since the All-Star break, Posey is hitting just .271/.327/.302 for a 78 wRC+ in 104 plate appearances, with three doubles representing the entirety of his extra-base hits total in that span. For an elite hitter with a career line of .306/.374/.465 (132 wRC+), that’s way out of character.
On the one hand, it would seem to be good news that the cause of Posey’s sagging production has been diagnosed and is treatable. On the other, one has to wonder how much impact such a surgery will have on a catcher heading into his age-32 season. While several position players have undergone hip surgeries in the past decade — a partial list would include Ike Davis, Carlos Delgado, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Gordon, Mike Lowell, Logan Morrison, Alex Rodriguez, Corey Seager, Steven Souza, and Chase Utley — it would appear that relatively few catchers have done so.
Via the subscription-based Baseball Injury Consultants site, run by my former Baseball Prospectus colleague Corey Dawkins (who set up BP’s injury database which, lamentably, is no longer being updated), I found only four major-league catchers who underwent what was described as a hip labrum surgery: Todd Hundley (2004), Matt Treanor (2008), Rob Johnson (2009), and Devin Mesoraco (2016). Treanor and Johnson were light-hitting backups, and Hundley, an NL All-Star in 1996-97, had become one by that point; in fact, he never played professionally after the surgery.
That leaves Mesoraco as the closest comp, but not necessarily an apt one. A former first-round pick and touted prospect — he made the top 25 on the lists of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB Pipeline in 2012 — Mesoraco didn’t hit much from 2011 to -13 (.225/.282/.359, 69 wRC+) but broke out in 2014 to bat .273/.359/.534 with 25 homers and a 147 wRC+, a performance that earned him an All-Star berth. He was limited to just 39 games (including a mere 18 starts behind the plate) in 2015-16, undergoing left hip surgery in the former year and both left shoulder and right hip surgeries in the latter year. Since that nightmarish stretch, he’s hit just .214/.307/.384 (86 wRC+), and earlier this year was traded from the Reds to the Mets in exchange for Matt Harvey. Given so many major injuries, it’s fair to wonder how much of Mesoraco was left on operating tables, but I don’t think his plight offers much insight into Posey’s future, either as a catcher or as a hitter.
It’s a future the Giants are heavily invested in, with salaries of $21.4 million per year from 2019-21 and then a $22 million option and $3 million buyout for 2022, Posey’s age-35 season. That the Giants have made a habit of playing Posey at first base regularly — 13 times this year and an average of 28 a year since 2010 (excluding 2011) — probably works in his favor in the long run. He’s caught 885 games in his career, never more than 123 in a season. By comparison, the top 10 catchers in JAWS — a group that I believe will one day include Posey — averaged 1,265 games caught through age 31. Reprising the upper end of a table that I created for a recent piece about Yadier Molina (1,302 games caught through age 31, if you’re asking):
|Rk||Name||Career||Peak||JAWS||Caught Through 31||Caught 32+|
* = active.
Given that the next three guys in the JAWS rankings are a pre-war catcher (Gabby Hartnett), a guy who died in a plane crash at age 32 (Thurman Munson), and a guy who spent substantial time at first base (Gene Tenace), I figured cutting the table short would suffice. Posey currently ranks 16th in JAWS among catchers (40.7 career WAR/37.1 peak WAR/38.9 JAWS). He’s already surpassed the peak standard (34.5, seventh all-time) but is short of those for career WAR (53.5) and JAWS (44.0). Via Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, Posey was forecast to wind up sixth on that table above, with a line of 60.7/37.9/49.3.
I don’t know what moving Posey to first base would do to the projections, but the concept has relatively little appeal for the Giants, both because he’s an excellent defender and because the team also has a very good first baseman in Brandon Belt. On the first note, Baseball Prospectus, whose Fielding Runs Above Average metric includes pitch-framing, rates Posey as 156 runs above average for his career; that’s fifth since 1949, though the framing element of that overall figure only goes back to 1988. Posey is 4.4 runs above average this year. As for Belt, signed through 2021 with an annual salary of $16 million, he’s an above-average first baseman (5.9 UZR/150) as well as hitter (127 career wRC+, 120 this year). While he’s played 78 career games in the outfield, mostly in left, his UZR/150 there is -5.9. He might improve with more reps there, but such a chain of events clearly isn’t one the Giants are eager to pursue.
The Giants have deferred questions about the ramifications of Posey’s surgery until after it’s done, but as I noted in my post-mortem a couple of weeks back, it’s already clear that while he may remain the face of the franchise, the team can no longer afford to treat him as the centerpiece of the lineup given his health and what now amounts to two years of good-not-great production out of the last three (he had a 115 wRC+ in 2016, 128 last year). Nonetheless, here’s hoping that he comes back strong enough to regain some of the offensive stature he’s lost and to continue his Cooperstown-bound career behind the plate.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.