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Does Buster Posey have one more great season in him?

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And will he finish 2020 in a Giants uniform?

Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I already know that I’m going to feel very unsatisfied after publishing this post mainly because I’ve been carrying this inescapable feeling for the past year and a half that I’ve lost even the modicum of writing ability I had before taking the job.

It’s a terrible feeling and there’s a part of me thinks it could be disproved simply by taking more time to write these posts. But time is a luxury I don’t have these days and the part of me that doesn’t think it could be disproved occupies a far larger part of my conscious mind and action and, so, better writing isn’t possible. I hit my ceiling a long time ago and it has been all downhill since then.

In terms of ineffable career decline, I’m exactly the same as Buster Posey. No, I’m not a year removed from hip surgery and, no, I never won an MVP or even came close to being anywhere near the best in my industry, but the decline phase is very real and, all too likely inescapable.

Kenny’s community projection last year reaired the siren song of our fandom when it comes to Buster Posey:

Posey is coming off his worst full season and he spent the offseason recovering from hip surgery. It’s only natural to worry that Buster Posey might crumble to dust. After all, life is fleeting and fragile. Posey is the youngest he’ll ever be, and there will be a day when Buster Posey is not good at baseball relative to his peers.

But fear not, friends, for that day is not this day, nor is it any day in 2019. Buster Posey is still great, everyone. Well, he’s great compared to the 2019 crop of catchers (who are quite bad!), but even compared to the best catchers ever, he’s still pretty good.

And in prior years, Grant covered the same song:

I’ll go with the last three seasons being a better predictor than the last season, even if we’re in the scarier decade. Buster Posey won’t win another MVP, but he’ll be just fine.

And by “just fine,” I really mean, “better than almost every other catcher in baseball, but I’m spoiled.”

That was written in March 2017. Posey did indeed do much better in his age-30 season, boasting an .861 OPS (+.65 vs. 2016). It was a nice burp in what had been a bit of a decline.

Here’s how he’s hit since his MVP season of 2012 (171 OPS+)

2013: 134
2014: 143
2015: 133
2016: 115
2017: 127
2018: 108

That’s a nice and steady decline for an elite defender with some pop who was miscast as the Giants’ middle of the order / RBI guy. I held off on listing his 2019 number for this reason: really up until 2019, Buster Posey was the Giants’ best all-around player. No matter the decline in his bat, he still a good enough defender that it didn’t much matter.

2019: 84

All that happened following hip surgery was that Posey followed up the worst season of his career with the worst season of his career. The first time he was below league average with the bat. The first time he became a truly ignorable bat in the lineup by the opposing pitcher.

There’s absolutely nothing surprising about it. A 32-year old catcher coming off hip surgery sounds like a catcher ready to become a backup on a winning team. The good news for him is that the Giants aren’t anything close to a winning team, so ultimately, his offensive performance has no impact.

Even with Joey Bart setting up to become his successor, the very earliest that a handoff would happen due to service time manipulation would be late June. So, there’s really no rush to remove Posey from the starting lineup. There’s just not a lot that should be expected of him.

The weird juiced balls helped Posey hit two more home runs in 2019 (7) than he did in 2018, as well as two more doubles (24). Those numbers still didn’t keep his slugging percentage from dropping off (.368). Most troubling was the surge in strikeouts, up to 16% in 2019 versus a career average of about 12%. His walk rate dipped (7.6%) nearly two percent against his career average, too — a 2:1 K:BB in 2019, a surprising ratio for the normally disciplined Posey. He broke .700 in OPS just twice all year: in April (.707) and July (.781).

Oh, he still could put a charge into one, of course:

He also beat the Dodgers earlier in the year:

There could be a lot behind those down numbers that an extra offseason of rest and an adjusted swing thanks to all the new training tech and approaches brought in by the phalanx of new coaches might actually improve this year, and it would be unwise to bet against Buster Posey, but the law of averages and the unimpeachable history of the catcher position are too powerful to fight.

But just real quick: since 1969, just 19 starting catchers (min. 350 PA and at least 75% of their games played at position) have registered a 100 OPS+ or greater in their age-33 season. Here’s that list along with their age-32 season OPS+:

age-33 catcher seasons > 100 OPS+ since 1969

Player Season age-33 PA age-33 OPS+ age-32 PA age-32 OPS+
Player Season age-33 PA age-33 OPS+ age-32 PA age-32 OPS+
Carlos Ruiz 2012 421 149 472 108
Mike Piazza 2002 541 138 573 148
Gene Tenace 1980 416 137 582 139
Javy Lopez 2004 638 127 495 169
Jason Varitek 2005 539 122 536 121
Tom Haller 1970 365 122 504 101
Darrin Fletcher 2000 445 115 448 108
Mike Stanley 1996 473 122 470 118
Bob Brenly 1987 436 118 560 112
Yadier Molina 2016 581 111 530 80
Carlton Fisk 1981 394 110 131 118
Jerry Grote 1976 366 110 428 108
Jorge Posada 2005 546 109 547 131
Terry Steinbach 2005 440 109 403 104
Brian Harper 1993 573 107 546 109
Brian McCann 2017 399 106 492 99
Jim Sundberg 1984 395 106 423 48
Ernie Whitt 1985 465 105 433 106
Darren Daulton 1995 404 102 292 137

Only a few players have managed to improve their performance from well below league average to well above it, and if you think there’s some sort of weird cosmic connection between Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, then here’s your proof. Also, if you’re like me, then you’re going to spend a few minutes thinking about the possible reasons why Jim Sundberg received 423 plate appearances in 1983.

A big rebound seems remote, but regardless of that final slash line, Buster Posey won’t be a waste of a roster spot. If you can’t get behind his twinkling eyes and charming smile or his general Buster Posey-ness, then swoon over his defensive ratings.

The baseball geniuses over at SABR, whose SABR Defensive Index (SDI) is a component of Gold Glove voting, has Posey with a +7.3 SDI, behind J.T. Realmuto and Austin Hedges in the NL. Roberto Perez has a +17.0 SDI in the AL, which makes him the best defender in the game (and five points better than Realmuto). A lot of words to say that by defensive metrics, he’s the fourth-best catcher in baseball. Not bad for a rebuilding team.

The first quarter of this video is just defensive highlights. Enjoy:

So, we’re not going to get a lot of hitting highlights from the Giants’ unofficial team captain, but he will still probably do a few recognizably Buster things to give us a little smile here and there over the six months of the season. Not enough to make us completely forget about the state of the franchise and this stage of his career, but just to have one moment of joy that combines the thrill of the present with the pleasure of the past.

Projection

Oh, this post began with a question: can Posey be great one last time? He probably can’t be an All-Star again, but he could be better than he was last season, and at this point, that’s an MVP on the Giants.

PA: 400
AVG: .265
OBP: .321
SLG: .365
HR: 4
SB: 2
GIDP: 16

Traded?

The Mark Melancon trade really got me thinking that if Farhan Zaidi could pull that off, then anything was possible with high value contract players entrenched on the roster thanks to a no-trade clause.

And yet, this is Buster Posey we’re talking about. Trading him at the deadline wouldn’t be the same as letting Madison Bumgarner walk as a free agent — it would be worse. I don’t think Zaidi much cares about how the fans react, though, so long as it gets the Giants closer to eventually considering maybe possibly thinking about potentially competing in 3-4 years.

But again — it’s Buster Posey. Trading away the last big face of the franchise and championship era would be a massive shock to the system. Maybe too big a shock. Which is why it’s a possibility. Believe it or not, after 2020, Posey is owed just $25.2 million ($22.2 million in 2021 with a $3 million buyout in 2022).

A deadline deal would leave the Giants or another team about $32 million to share or eat whole in exchange for an arm from the middle or bottom third of a system and a Rule 5 eligible player that other team no longer has room for. It wouldn’t be a great trade, but the Giants aren’t about quality, they’re about quantity, and the ghosts of Buster Posey’s elite catcher prowess might be enough for some team out there wanting to take a risk.

In terms of that no-trade clause, it’s neither impossible nor implausible that Buster Posey might waive it. It’s very easy for me to imagine a scenario wherein he grows tired of the Giants playing .200 ball with the goal of every work day simply being to unlock the training achievements in the team’s proprietary player development software.

But he’ll probably hang around all year if for no other reason than he’s got nowhere else to go, and I think we’ll all be fine with that. One of these days, he’ll follow Bochy and Bumgarner’s footsteps and start that farewell tour and it’ll be pure happiness on our parts to remember the good times as we say goodbye.