By Jay Jaffe
The area directly behind home plate in Yankee Stadium has played host to a pretty fair collection of ballplayers. Two Hall of Famers, Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, have donned the tools of intelligence for the Yankees, and four men — Dickey, Berra, Elston Howard and Thurman Munson — have won a total of five MVP awards (three by Berra), five Gold Gloves (three by Munson) and made an astounding 42 All-Star teams. Not coincidentally, the uniform numbers of those four men have all been retired by the Yankees. Into the large cleats of these bronzed Bombers steps Jorge Posada, a man with four All-Star appearances already under his belt, not to mention a healthy third-place showing in the 2003 MVP vote. With relatively little fanfare, Posada has shown himself not only a solid, worthy heir to the men who’ve manned that hallowed spot of dirt, but also one of the league’s most valuable players and arguably the best catcher in baseball.
Along with Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera, Posada remains one of the shrinking core of homegrown Yankees who ushered in their recent dynasty, “Joe Torre’s guys.” He’s the junior member of that quartet, playing only nine major-league games prior to 1997 while the other three figured prominently in the team’s 1996 championship, their first under Torre. But he’s become part of the old guard, a leader in the clubhouse as well as on the field, his fiery demeanor channeled to better use than simply goading Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez onto the same page. Following the Yanks’ early ouster from the 2002 playoffs, Posada emerged as a vocal critic of his teammates’ uninspired play, echoing Derek Jeter’s it-don’t-mean-a-thing-if-we-don’t-get-that-ring sentiments, and in Jeter’s absence last year, he assumed even more of a leadership role. The hothead in him still emerges from time to time; recall his heated exchange with Pedro Martinez as all hell broke loose in last year’s ALCS Game Three.
The Yankees drafted the Puerto Rican Posada in the 24th round in 1990 out of Calhoun (Alabama) Community College, but it was as a second baseman, not as a catcher. Looking at his physique today, those thunder-thighs supporting that skinny upper body, it’s difficult to imagine him fielding grounders or pivoting on the double play, which may be why after his first season in the minors the Yanks converted him to a backstop. Given that he led his league in either passed balls or errors in 1993 and 1994, some would argue that he wasn’t stopping much of anything. But Posada’s hitting skills, particularly his abilities to control the strike zone and to hit for power from both sides of the plate, were apparent as far back as 1992, when he hit .277 AVG/.389 OBP/.472 SLG for Greenville (A). He spent three years in AAA Columbus, struggling in 1994 (.240/.308/.406) but winning International League All-Star honors in both 1995 (.255/.355/.435) and 1996 (.271/.405/.460) and earning brief cups of coffee in the Bronx in the latter years. He even made the postseason roster in 1995, scoring a run as a pinch-runner in the Division series against Seattle.
In part due to his defensive struggles and to Torre’s taste for defense-first catchers, the Yankees brought Posada along slowly once he stuck on the roster for good in 1997. Jorge appeared in only 60 games that season while Girardi remained the regular, but the roles were reversed during 1998, and he’s held the job ever since. Since Girardi’s departure following the 1999 season, Posada has become even more of a mainstay in the Yankee lineup, catching 130 or more games in each of the past four years, hitting .278/.389/.497 and averaging 25 HR and 95 in that span. Most teams would do well to have such a solid contributor at any position, let alone catcher. For the Yanks, such production from their homegrown up-the-middle players has been as much a given in the Torre era as a formidable rotation.
Prior to last season, Posada’s best year with the bat came in 2000, when he hit .287/.417/.527 with 28 homers and 107 walks. His raw averages and totals in 2003 were slightly off that mark, .281/.405/.518 with 30 homers and 93 walks, but relative to the league, he was a better hitter; his adjusted OPS of 146 (seventh in the league) blew away his 2000 mark of 134. Notably, he cut down his strikeouts considerably last year, whiffing only 110 times after averaging 142 in the previous three seasons. Oh, and he also tied Yogi for the Yankee record for home runs by a catcher in a single season while topping 100 RBI for the first time. Not too shabby.
One factor which may have played a part in Posada’s great season was the improved health of his son, Jorge Posada IV. The youngest Posada, now four, suffers from craniosynostosis, which causes the bones of the skull to fuse before the brain has stopped growing. He’s endured three major surgeries to correct the problem, including a ten-hour ordeal a year ago this week. The sight of young Jorge squirting onto the field during the player introductions of each of the last two All-Star Games has added a heartwarming touch to the games, and it’s not too hard to envision how his improved health has been a boon to his father.
Was Jorge the Yankees’ MVP last season? In a year which saw Derek Jeter miss six weeks with a dislocated shoulder, Bernie Williams undergo knee surgery, Jason Giambi struggle with eye and knee problems, and Nick Johnson break his hand, Posada’s got a pretty solid case. He may not have the speed and flash of Alfonso Soriano, but his plate discipline makes him a much more valuable hitter. Looking at two valuation metrics which consider both offense and defense, Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement and Bill James’ Win Shares (as calculated at BaseballGraphs.com, Posada tied for the team lead with Soriano in one and edged Giambi in the other:
WARP3 WS WSAA Posada 9.2 27.75 13.0 Soriano 9.2 27.38 8.6 Mussina 8.7 18.62 7.3 Giambi 8.5 27.68 12.6 Clemens 8.0 15.47 4.5 Rivera 7.2 17.49 9.7 Wells 6.5 14.46 3.4 Pettitte 5.7 14.62 1.6 Matsui 4.8 18.89 1.2 Johnson 4.8 14.49 5.6 Williams 4.5 13.13 -0.1 Jeter 4.2 17.81 4.4
The third column is Win Shares Above Average, an attempt to reconcile one of the major flaws with James’ Win Shares, namely the lack of an opportunity baseline (the methodology for WSAA is here). While I’m more partial to systems which measure from a replacement level than from average, the WSAA adjustment is striking. Not only does Posada shoot to the top of the Yanks, he’s got the fourth-highest total in the A.L. All of this confirms Posada’s legitimacy as an MVP candidate last season (he finished third; I made the case here that he should win the award).
Is Posada the best catcher in the game? Win Shares and WARP3 support that conclusion emphatically. Here are the Top 10 catchers over the last three seasons (Win Shares 2002 data from Baseball Truth; WSAA isn’t available yet for years prior to 2003):
WARP3 WS Posada 23.0 73 Rodriguez 21.7 52 Lo Duca 19.6 66 Lopez 16.2 53 Pierzynski 15.0 54 Piazza 15.0 51 Hernandez 14.2 44 Kendall 14.1 42 Varitek 13.4 47 Santiago 10.6 38
The key here is durability. Aside from L.A.’s Paul Lo Duca and Minnesota’s A.J. Pierzynski, all of the would-be heavyweight contenders for the Best Catcher title besides Posada have missed a significant chunk of time or ruined a season due to serious injury. Pudge’s back, Piazza’s groin, Kendall’s ankle, Lopez’s knee, and Varitek’s elbow have given way, while Posada’s ability to remain healthy, despite nagging injuries and arthroscopic shoulder surgery after the 2001 season, has made him the most valuable catcher in baseball as much as his bat has.
As for his glove, that’s not his strongest suit. Posada has thrown out only about 30 percent of opposing base stealers over the course of his career, which is solid but unexceptional. Last season he ranked 19th out of 29 qualifying catchers at throwing runners out. He also led the major leagues in passed balls, despite the relatively well-publicized return (as these things go) of catching instructor Gary Tuck after a few years’ absence. Looking at the advanced metrics, Posada places almost exactly average on the Prospectus fielding scale, fourth in total fielding Win Shares (7.53) for an AL catcher, and sixth the league in terms of Win Shares per 1000 innings (6.47, leaders based on 500 innings played minimum). It’s worth noting that Pudge, long with the reputation for being the best defensive catcher, has fallen off considerably; his WS/1000 is pretty anemic (3.75), and he’s only 9 Fielding Runs Above Average over the past two seasons according to BP.
For all of his defensive woes, Posada is certainly an asset, and it helps that the Yankee staff speaks highly of his game-calling instincts and his ability to frame pitches (though his tendency to argue balls and strikes with the umpires while hitting doesn’t win him many favors). It helps even more, of course, that the Yanks have had an excellent rotation to begin with. But with three new starters joining the staff in Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, and Jon Leiber, Posada will face some real challenges this year. The sparks might fly between him and the ornery Brown, and he’ll have to keep Contreras focused and working on pace. He’ll probably mesh quite well with fellow Puerto Rican Vazquez, which should ease his transition to the Bronx, but how he’ll fare in working with new relievers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill is pure conjecture.
Baserunning is another shortcoming in Posada’s game; despite his less than stocky build, he’s a slow runner if not exceptionally so for a catcher. Fortunately, he knows this, attempting only 24 steals (9 successfully) in his entire big-league career and hitting only five triples. Since he hits the ball in the air a fair amount, he manages to avoid grounding into double plays, yet another small edge to his game.
Posada signed a five-year, $51 million contract in February of 2002, and while it’s small potatoes compared to what Jeter, Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, or Mike Mussina make, that contract does carry with it some risk. Catchers age more rapidly than other ballplayers, and few of them are productive into their late 30s. Posada is 32, and will be pulling down $9 million, $12 million, and $13.5 million (including bonuses) for the rest of the contract, not exactly chump change. The Yankees hold a $12 million team option for 2007 with a $4 million buyout, while Posada can void his contract after this season. Given the slowing growth of player contracts and Posada’s attachment to winning, that has about as much chance of happening as the beatification of George Steinbrenner.
The fact that Posada converted to catching at a relatively late age means he’s got considerably less mileage on his body than most 32-year-old catchers, and his history of durability bodes well. But based on his age and body type, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA prediction system sees a bit of decline immediately ahead for Posada; its weighted mean forecast calls for a .261/.368/.460 line with 20 homers. Posada should surpass those numbers if he remains healthy, but lady luck will have her say; one nagging hand injury can hamper a catcher’s hitting for the entire season, and one freak injury can alter the expectations for the rest of his career. Just ask Jason Kendall.
Assuming he stays relatively healthy, does Posada have a chance at becoming the all-time greatest Yankee catcher? Almost certainly, no. His late start means he won’t rack up the career totals of the exceptionally durable Berra and Dickey, both of whom were established stars by their mid-20s and remained productive into their late 30s.
Earlier this winter, using Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement metrics, I took a look at the hitters on the 2004 Hall of Fame ballot and compared them with the enshrinees at each position. My method was to balance career length (using total Wins Above Replacement, WARP3) and peak (best five consecutive season WARP3 total, abbreviated W5C) by averaging the two figures together to get what I called the Weighted WARP score (WPWT). The results were published in articles on BP this past January, but since no catchers were on the ballot, that section was omitted. Applying my methodology to the aforementioned Yankee catchers (denoted by Y in the chart below), the Hall of Fame catchers (H), Posada’s top contemporaries (C), and some interesting historical also-rans (N) gives an interesting snapshot of where he fits in and where he might end up.
WARP3 W5C WPWT H Gary Carter 119.8 49.9 84.9 H Johnny Bench 118.0 50.4 84.2 H Yogi Berra 109.9 45.1 77.5 H Carlton Fisk 111.6 39.8 75.7 C Ivan Rodriguez 98.3 47.0 72.7 H Bill Dickey 101.0 42.4 71.7 N Joe Torre 99.7 40.5 70.1 H Gabby Hartnett 95.8 36.7 66.3 N Ted Simmons 94.3 38.2 66.3 C Mike Piazza 84.2 45.5 64.9 H Mickey Cochrane 83.9 45.2 64.6 N Lance Parrish 87.1 33.3 60.2 H Buck Ewing 79.7 33.9 56.8 N Bill Freehan 75.0 35.5 55.3 N Gene Tenace 71.4 38.5 55.0 Y Thurman Munson 68.9 38.1 53.5 N Darrell Porter 75.5 31.6 53.6 H Roy Campanella 64.8 42.0 53.4 N Jim Sundberg 68.2 33.6 50.9 H Ernie Lombardi 71.6 29.3 50.5 N Wally Schang 68.3 25.7 47.0 H Rick Ferrell 64.9 28.9 46.9 Y Elston Howard 58.6 34.3 46.5 N Bob Boone 67.8 22.8 45.3 H Ray Schalk 57.8 25.7 41.8 C Jason Kendall 48.7 34.0 41.3 H Roger Bresnahan 53.7 26.6 40.2 Y Jorge Posada 43.4 36.3 39.9
The lower ranks of Hall of Fame catchers represent the nadir of the Veterans Committee’s selections; the Committee elected Ferrell when the thought they were voting for his brother, pitcher Wes Ferrell, while Bresnahan got the nod in part because he pioneered the use of shin guards. More worthy catchers such as Torre (who switched positions), Simmons, Parrish, Freehan, Tenace and Porter had careers superior to that lower echelon. Posada is just beginning to dent this chart, but it’s important to note that since he’s only been a regular for four years, his peak score is low; the 2004 season will essentially count double, and another season on the order of the one he just had, say a 9.0 WARP, will move him past Ferrell and Howard, among others. Three solid seasons, not exactly a given, would push him past Munson and into the third slot among Yankee catchers, but he’d need about seven good seasons to pass Dickey. He won’t make that, but three more good seasons and a typical, gradual decline phase would put him between Ewing and Cochrane, which is Flavor Country where the Hall of Fame is concerned. Even there he won’t be a lock, especially because Rodriguez has a pretty good shot at winding up #1 on this chart — three solid seasons will do it — and Piazza will continue to climb, albeit less rapidly. Given that it took six ballots for Carter to reach Cooperstown, it’s a safe bet that Posada will have to wait for his ship to come in even if it’s due, because his contemporaries will overshadow him. The bottom line is that there’s far more uncertainty about him getting to that point than there is about him attaining his just reward once he does.
The 2004 season should be another exciting but tense one for Yankee fans, as their star-studded lineup tries to meet the unbelievably lofty expectations that have been set. Posada might just be at the intersection of two of the most interesting questions about the team, namely, “How will this revamped rotation fare?” and, “With all these stars and superstars, who are the true leaders of this team?” Expect Posada to continue asserting his authority even in the presence of A-Rod, backing Jeter in whatever subtle power struggle may emerge between the two men on the left side of the infield, and continuing to be one of Torre’s guys in gauging the mood of the team. Posada is definitely part of the Yankees’ old guard now, comfortably filling the big shoes of those who came before him.
Jay Jaffe is the sole owner and proprietor of The Futility Infielder, one of the longest-running and best baseball websites on the Internet.