It wasn’t long ago that Jorge Posada was one of baseball’s best backstops. From 2000, the first season he stepped out of Joe Girardi’s shadow, through 2007, his last fully healthy season, he ranked first among MLB catchers in WAR. He was also the decade-long leader, filling the gap between the Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza dominance of the late 90s and the more recent dominance of Joe Mauer and Brian McCann. Even in 2009 and 2010 he produced well enough, 2.9 and 2.0 WAR despite spending time on the DL in each season.
This year, the final season in his contract, the Yankees informed him that he’d be moving out from behind the plate and into the full-time DH role. The transition didn’t start well, and while he showed signs of recovery in June his production has again declined recently. Yesterday the Yankees announced that he was no longer even a part-time member of their starting lineup. Instead they will go with a platoon of Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones, with top prospect Jesus Montero waiting by the phone in Scranton. It’s certainly an odd situation for such an important player in the Yankees franchise.
“I put myself in this situation.”
When speaking to the media before last night’s game, Posada stated that he wasn’t happy about the move, but that his performance in the season’s first four months put his playing time at risk. This was a much more measured reaction than the one he had in May when Joe Girardi penciled Posada’s name into the No. 9 spot on the lineup card. At that point he was hitting just .165/.272/.349 at the time, but was actually working on a rebound. This time he’s at .230/.309/.372, having hit .272/.333/.387 between incidents.
For a while it appeared that Posada would turn things around, in the same way that David Ortiz did for a few seasons. After producing a .266 wOBA in April, Posada improved to .292 in May and then broke out in June with a .428 wOBA. But in July he slipped again, producing a .240 wOBA. Worse, he hit for almost no power in July, a .033 ISO, which comprised just two extra base hits, both doubles, in 67 PA. The benching came after a 3 for 18 August in which he hit one double and walked zero times.
Rather than representing a turning point in his season, June was apparently a dead cat bounce for Posada. When looking at the component numbers, it’s hardly surprising. He walked in just 6.8% of his plate appearances that month, while riding a .434 BABIP. The BABIP was obviously out of line, but it might have been part of a correction. he did have an ultra-low BABIP in April (.065), so there was a chance that he’d merely even out after June rather than drop off completely. But in July his BABIP crashed to .255, giving the Yankees further concern about their DH.
Posada’s performance has left the Yankees wanting at the DH spot. They currently rank 12th in the AL with a .695 OPS from the position, leading only Seattle and Anaheim. Yet both of those teams lead the Yankees’ DHs in OBP, which further skews the equation. This leaves them at a great disadvantage, since two of their main postseason competitors, Boston and Texas, rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the league in OPS by the DH.
What it means in the near-term
For the time being the Yankees will employ a DH platoon of Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez to fill Posada’s spot. Jones has already been the right-handed half of the DH platoon this year, though he often played the field in order to give one of the regulars a day off or a half-day at DH. Chavez has hit well this year, producing 1.2 runs above average in 76 PA. If he remains healthy his production could eclipse Posada’s projected performance. But that’s a big risk, considering Chavez’s injury history — which includes a lengthy DL stint this year due to a foot problem. If Chavez gets hurt the Yankees are back to square one.
As I described earlier today on River Ave. Blues, Posada’s rest of season projections actually work out better than Chavez’s. It might seem odd to project Jorge for a .334 wOBA the rest of the way, since it is significantly better than his current overall production. But he has produced a .341 wOBA against right-handed pitchers this season, and so could continue to flourish in the platoon role. When combined, Chavez’s injury risk and Posada’s production against right-handed pitching make the benching a bit curious. There has to be something else at play here.
What it means for the rest of 2011
The Yankees have an awfully comfortable lead for a playoff spot this year. Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds report gives the Yankees a 99.5% chance of making the playoffs, so they have some room to maneuver in the season’s final two months. That would presumably give them time to see if Jorge can make a substantial turnaround later in the season and help his team in the postseason. Yet they have chosen not to do that.
The decision becomes more curious when we take into account the team’s roster flexibility. Alex Rodriguez is currently on the DL, and the team is carrying 13 pitchers thanks to a six-man rotation. Posada, with little to no defensive value, is then strictly a pinch-hitter, which makes little sense in a three-man bench scenario. With adequate wiggle room, why not wait for Rodriguez to return — which could be in about a week — and then move Chavez to the DH role?
There have been reports that the Yankees soon plan to call up top prospect Jesus Montero, and this could merely be a transition period for them. It gives them a week or so to gauge Jorge’s reaction to being benched (perhaps they hope he’ll decide to retire or ask for his release), and to see how well Chavez can perform in a more significant role. But with Montero waiting in the wings, it seems probable that they’ll call him up soon to take reps at DH. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a near lock that he gets reps in September. It appears that the Yankees really are beginning the transition from former heavy hitting catcher to the projected future one.
What it means for Posada’s legacy
Plenty of players gave gone out fighting a futile battle, so Posada is not alone in his woes. His performance this year should not at all detract from a legacy that will conclude with serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. As mentioned above, there was a long stretch where he was the best offensive catcher in baseball, filling the period between Rodriguez and Piazza, and Mauer and McCann.
Maybe it matters more now, because the storyline is front and center. But in a few years, when Posada becomes eligible for the Hall, few will put any emphasis on his final futile season. Instead the focus will be on the 00s, when he produced more WAR than any other catcher. It will focus on his World Series rings — five total, four when he was on the postseason roster — and how he was a leader in the ego-filled Yankees clubhouse. As it should be. No player should take a hit for trying to hang on too long. After all, few of these guys know any other way of life.
It’s always a sad moment when a formerly great player loses his abilities and declines to the point where he can’t start on a major league team. Posada might not have necessarily reached that point yet, given his numbers against right-handed pitching this year. But the Yankees clearly don’t think he’s their answer at DH, and they’re examining alternatives. That’s their right, and with a considerably lead in the AL Wild Card standings they absolutely should explore options that will best help them in the postseason. Unfortunately, that comes at Posada’s expense. That might hurt his current standing, but in the long run it will mean little in what has been a Hall of Fame worthy career.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.