The Ballad of Buster Posey

November 9, 2021
 
My favorite one to bring up when people start their yearly argument about end-of-season awards is the 1934 American League MVP selection. That was the year Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown, with firty-nine homeruns, 166 RBI, and a .363 batting average. His WAR, unknown at the time, was 10.1.
 
The trophy went to Mickey Cochrane, who hit two homeruns and drove in 75 runs. Cochrane made 110 starts that year, which wasn’t quite as many as the Iron Horse. Cochrane’s WAR was 4.5
 
Absurd, of course. A bad selection.
 
And this is where I turn the tables.

I think Mickey Cochrane deserved the award.
 
Cochrane didn’t quite match Gehrig as a hitter, of course. But Cochrane wasn’t a slouch with the bat: he had a .428 on-base percentage in 1934, and was probably in a dead-heat with Bill Dickey and Gabby Hartnett for the best hitting catcher in the game. Cochrane was certainly a more impactful defensive player than Gehrig: catcher is harder to play than first, and it was considerably harder in 1934, when they played with gloves made from old milk cartons and cigarette ash found under the cheap seats.
 
Cochrane other contribution was in his role as player-manager of the big cats. He took the helm of the Tigers and immediately turned the team around, swinging the club’s W-L record from 75-79 to 101-53.
 
The team’s roster – it feels worth noting – did not change significantly between 1933 and 1934. This was at a moment when baseball operated as a polite serfdom, and it was the peak of the Great Depression. The two significant changes to the Detroit roster were Mickey Cochrane replacing Ray Hayworth at catcher, and Mickey Cochrane replacing Bucky Harris as manager.
 
It had an impact.
 
Should we credit a player-manager with the contributions he makes as a manager? The decision makers of 1934 thought so, and I can’t fault them for that choice. Cochrane took a talented-but-lethargic team and kicked their butts towards an unlikely 100-win season and very nearly a championship: the Tigers were up 3-2 in the World Series, but lost to the Gas House Gang Cardinals in seven.
 
We can’t quantify Cochrane’s ‘value’ to the 1934 Tigers. But we can’t discount the impact he had – just two homeruns aside - on turning a sub-.500 squad into a century-winning juggernaut.
 
 
 
*            *            *
 
Which brings us, belatedly, to Buster Posey: the most obvious parallel to Mickey Cochrane since Mickey Cochrane. Posey has announced his retirement from baseball, and his career merits some consideration.
 
Consider:
 
Player
G
PA
R
H
2B
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
Cochrane
1482
6211
1041
1652
333
119
830
.320
.419
.478
129
Posey
1371
5607
663
1500
293
158
729
.302
.372
.460
129
 
Very comparable players. Cochrane played in a high offense era, and nets an advantage in batting average. Posey, playing a career in a pitcher’s park, was eighteen points behind Cochrane in batting average, but when contexts are adjusted, they were similar hitters. Same digits to their career batting averages, as it turns out.
 
Their other commonality - the other trait the two men share - is that both players were winners.
 
Cochrane played in three World Series with the Athletics, and then found himself fire-saled to Detroit. He immediately led the moribund Tigers franchise to consecutive World Series appearances as catcher-manager. He collected three championships over a short playing career.
 
And before he had turned twenty-eight, Posey had matched him on the rings. Buster didn’t make it all the way back this year, but he pulled two other Giants squads into the playoffs, including the Cinderella team that is his last.
 
All of that is a short-and-breezy way to say that I think any hemming and hawing about how to contextualize Buster Posey’s career is probably unnecessary: he is not Thurman Munson good or Gene Tenace good…Posey was GREAT good. He was Mickey Cochrane Good. Roy Campanella Good.
 
Stepping aside…I think the best metrics still miss a little bit when it comes to catchers: there is just so much that a catcher does that cannot be quantified (calling pitches, communicating between pitcher and manager, adjusting the defense), or can only be quantified with analyses that rely a little more on guesswork than anyone would like to admit (pitch framing, for instance).
 
I think 50’s baseball writers had it right: a good catcher will be more valuable to a winning team than a good player at any other position.
 
And there is a reasonable case that Buster Posey is, in fact, the best position player of his generation.

This surprised me, but there’s a case. Miguel Cabrera was born in 1983. Mike Trout was born in 1991. Who was the best position player born in the seven years between them?
 
-          The best position player born in 1984 was Troy Tulowitzski.
 
-          The best position players born in 1985 are Evan Longoria and Josh Donaldson.
 
-          The best position player born in 1986 is Andrew McCutchen.
 
-          Buster Posey was born in 1987, right in the middle of Miggy and Mike. So was Paul Goldschmidt. They are the two best position players born that year.
 
-          The best position player born in 1988 is Starlin Marte. Marte had the best season of his career last year, but I have idea what to make of him, frankly.
 
-          The best position players born in 1989 are Freddie Freeman and Giancarlo Stanton.
 
-          The best position player born in 1990 is Jose Altuve.
 
Let’s use three systems to determine who has been the best of the lot: Baseball-Reference WAR, FanGraphs WAR, and Win Shares. And to adjust for the reduced playing time for catchers, let’s adjust everyone to a per-600-plate-appearances rate.
 
Starting with Sean Forman’s Formidable Site:
 
Player
Birth Year
PA
bWAR
bWAR/600
Donaldson
1985
5121
44.4
5.20
Tulowitzki
1984
5415
44.5
4.93
Goldschmidt
1987
6300
50.8
4.84
B. Posey
1987
5607
44.9
4.80
Stanton
1989
5570
44.1
4.75
Longoria
1985
7671
57.4
4.49
S. Marte
1988
4762
34.0
4.28
Altuve
1990
6346
41.4
3.91
Freeman
1989
6660
43.1
3.88
McCutchen
1986
7588
45.9
3.63
 
Well, that is a surprising answer.
 
According to Baseball-Reference, the best position player between Miggy and Trout is Josh Donaldson. That makes some sense: Donaldson had a five-year run of very elite production, and he is still a good ballplayer. That said, he has missed significant time: he’s five hundred plate appearances behind Posey, 1200+ behind the other corner infielders, Goldschmidt and Freeman.
 
Posey ranks fourth by this metric, right between Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton.
 
What about FanGraphs WAR?
 
Player
Birth Year
PA
fWAR
fWAR/600
B. Posey
1987
5607
57.6
6.16
Donaldson
1985
5121
44.4
5.20
Stanton
1989
5570
42.3
4.56
Goldschmidt
1987
6300
46.3
4.41
Tulowitzski
1984
5415
38.2
4.23
Longoria
1985
7671
53.5
4.18
McCutchen
1986
7588
50.8
4.02
S. Marte
1988
4762
30.7
3.87
Altuve
1990
6346
40.3
3.81
Freeman
1989
6660
42.2
3.80
 
I think FanGraphs has done some overhaul with their WAR metric recently, and the result has Posey leapfrogging the competition. He isn’t just the best player on the list: he is by far the best player in the group, a win ahead of Donaldson and more than two wins ahead of Freeman and Altuve.
 
I don’t know that there is a statistical argument that Posey is really that much more valuable than the other players on the list. I think he is: but I think his value lies in some of the intangible qualities that people used to credit Derek Jeter with possessing.
 
What’s surprising about both lists is how poorly Freeman and Altuve do on both these lists. If you asked me who feels most like a Hall of Famer from the list above, I’d go with Freeman and Altuve. But the WAR metric is not generous to them.
 
How about Win Shares?
 
Player
Birth Year
PA
Win Shares
Win Shares/600
B. Posey
1987
5607
243
26.0
Freeman
1989
6660
270
24.3
Goldschmidt
1987
6300
251
23.9
Donaldson
1985
5121
204
23.9
McCutchen
1986
7588
299
23.6
Altuve
1990
6346
225
21.3
Stanton
1989
5570
195
21.0
Tulowitzski
1984
5415
186
20.6
S. Marte
1988
4762
158
19.9
Longoria
1985
7671
242
18.9
 
Win Shares also rates Posey as the best positional player of his generation, though not as far ahead as FanGraphs.
 
This list feels a lot better than the other two lists, frankly. I like Evan Longoria and Giancarlo Stanton just fine, but I think Freddie Freeman and Andrew McCutchen have been better players over their careers. Win Shares evaluation aligns more reasonably with my perception of these careers.
 
And Posey does extremely well by Win Shares. In fact, he rates nearly identical to Cochrane and Campy by Win Shares per 600. A few notable short-career catchers:
 
Player
PA
Win Shares
WS/600 PA
Cochrane
6206
275
26.6
B. Posey
5607
243
26.0
Campanella
4816
207
25.8
Tenace
5525
231
25.1
Mauer
7960
306
23.1
Munson
5903
206
20.9
 
Mauer loses some ground for his years as a 1B/DH in Minnesota, but as a catcher his peak was comfortably on par with Corchane and Co. And while Thurman Munson probably doesn’t belong in our conversation, Oakland legend Gene Tenace continues to surprise us.
 
It’s just too bad he wasn’t any kind of winner.
 
(Checks the records)
 
Huh. Four rings. Who knew?
 
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (25 Comments, most recent shown first)

pgups6
Great article Dave.

I know I'm late to the party here, but following up on a comment from WovenStrap concerning Win Shares (WS)...for me I do prefer Win Shares when it comes to evaluating a player's overall performance/overall.

How come WS is not more widely used?
2:10 PM Nov 15th
 
mikeclaw
I think Posey is a Hall of Famer. I think we will forever debate Posey versus Mauer versus Yadi ... not just in terms of who was "best," but who would you rather have on your team for the entirety of his career? (An analytical friend of mine said he would take Yadi because, while Mauer and Posey were better hitters, they both moved off of catcher at some point, and that Molina has added value because you would know that you have your catcher for basically two generations of teams.)

My only qualm with your piece here is the declaration of Cochrane and Posey to be "winners." I have always been very uncomfortable with that word. They were team leaders on successful teams. They made their teams better. I'd rather say things that I feel like you can prove or back up. Saying someone is a "winner," to me, is giving him or her credit for something that we really can't back up. People say Derek Jeter and Tom Brady and Michael Jordan were "winners," but they had very good teams around them and very good coaches/managers. If Jeter had been drafted by the Rockies, if Jordan had gone to Sacramento, if Brady went to the Jets, would they have won all those rings? Well, if they were "winners," then you would assume they would've just magically brought the rings. I'm not buying. That implies that other players aren't "winners," and I'm not buying that either.

Posey was a great player, respected by his teammates and a key contributor to championship teams. Good enough for me.


10:40 AM Nov 15th
 
Manushfan
Of course, Cochrane won another MVP-in 1928, just 2(two) points ahead of Mr Manush-who had a better year outwardly. [We all know Ruth was the MVP for reals but that was still the pre-31 voting structure, no repeat winners.] So when discussing his MVP's youse does need to include '28, too.
12:15 PM Nov 12th
 
abiggoof
Certainly seems likely that the backup catcher winning percentage would evolve over time depending on changes in usage. Today there are personal catchers for star pitchers, but there used to be ones for knucklers. And when the pendulum swings toward offensive catchers, your defense-first backup for a Mike Napoli could be a massive drop in productivity, whereas Schalk’s backup might add punch. I suspect the “rest everyone” day game after a night game, or “rest your tired catcher for a September call up” thing would muck it up. And it’s way different if your backup is Elston Howard than if it is John Flaherty.
2:21 PM Nov 11th
 
wovenstrap
Dave:

It's worth reading the OG Ballantine Abstracts for Bill's annual comments on Lance Parrish. For 2-3 years he had a thing going where he would note that the Tigers were 18-5 in the games Parrish didn't play in, or whatever. He went out of his way to say that it wasn't anything like the backup catching Jack Morris or something. He was also puzzled by it.
1:30 PM Nov 11th
 
DaveFleming
Cochrane, not counting his last two part-time years in Detroit:

W-L% with Cochrane: .631
WL% without Cochrane: .567

Bench, not counting 1967 or 1981-1983, when he wasn't really catching:

WL% with Bench: .581
WL% without Bench: .566

I wonder if the real truth is that the pattern has BECOME that teams will have better W-L records when their backup catchers play. It might be a result of star pitchers having personal catchers, more than anything else.

What I meant to say...what I should have said...is that the overall W-L record for catchers will differ significantly from their W-L record as STARTING players, and that will always be to their detriment.

So the Dodgers might have a W-L% of .621 when Campy plays, but their W-L% would be higher if you just counted the games where Campy started. That's true of all players, but the catchers look worse because they make fewer starts (and are thus enlisted as pinch hitters in losing contests).
12:41 PM Nov 11th
 
DaveFleming
Riceman is correct, of course. I shouldn't have been so declarative. Not all catchers have worse W-L records than their teams.

The Brooklyn Dodgers played .621 baseball with Campy, .556 without him.

That said, many catchers DO have lesser records.

The Yankees played .580 baseball with Jorge Posada, .638 baseball without him. That might've been because of which Yankees pitcher had a personal catcher, a la Gerrit Cole, but...

Buster Posey is in the same boat as Posada. Not counting 2009 (he played seven games) and 2020, Posey's Giants played .512 baseball in games with Buster, .548 without him.

It's easier to check players who stuck with one team than those guys who bounced around. I'll see if I can do Cochrane and Berra and some others.
12:24 PM Nov 11th
 
3for3
Following up on the with/without discussion, surely we can adjust for starting pitchers, and opponents when looking at how well a catcher's team does.
11:47 AM Nov 11th
 
wovenstrap
For example, annual league leader boards (maybe by position too), as well as team-level info would be great. It's awesome to know that Freddie Freeman had 27 WS in 2021 but who else was good in the NL in 2021? That takes brainstorming and 10 extra searches to figure out where he ranks.
10:17 AM Nov 11th
 
wovenstrap
I just wanted to say that I'm happy that you included Win Shares in your writeup. Over the course of the 2021 season I came to the conclusion (partly spurred by Bill) that WAR is bad enough that it's pointless to use it in any statement. I have stopped doing so.

I didn't realize until the post-season that Win Shares information for all players is available on this website at bjprofiles.bisdata.com/StatisticsReport_new.aspx?Type=114 — I have started to rely on it whenever I want to make a comparison or something. I almost always think WS data is the better summary of any player's season.

The interface for getting WS info is cumbersome and I think we would be doing the world a service if (a) this website were adjusted to present that information a little better, and (b) we all started to use WS in every conversation about baseball.
10:14 AM Nov 11th
 
TheRicemanCometh
Dave, that statement that starting catchers have worse won-loss records than their teams is not remotely true. Campy had a .610 winning percentage in the games he played. Carter .532. Cochrane. 628. There is no way their teams were higher than those percentages without them.
7:36 AM Nov 11th
 
villageelliott
3for3 asked, "I wonder how the Giants did without Posey in the lineup."

In 2021, backup catcher Curt Casali started over a third of the Giants 162 and a defensive replacement for Posey in eight others . In the 55 games he started, the team went 42-13 (.763). Posey started 102 games and the Giants went 63-39 (.61). Chadwick Tromp started the other four, the Giants going 1-3. The Giants won Joey Bart's only start.*

The Giants pitcher threw eighteen shutouts in 2021, tying the Braves for most shutouts in the season. Casali caught nine, including five in a row in his third through seventh starts. Posey caught seven shutouts. They combined for two more. Casali was a ninth inning defensive replacement for Posey in a 8-0 blowout and a fifth inning replacement when Posey jammed his thumb and was out for a few days.


Giants _ Gs _W - L _ W% _SO

Posey _102_63_39_ .618 _ 07
Casali __55_42_13_ .763 _ 09
Tromp__04_ 01_03_ .250 _ 00
Bart___ 01_ 01_00 1.000 _ 00

Giants 162 107_55 _ .660 _16 (Plus 2 Combined Posey and Casali.)
7:17 AM Nov 11th
 
DaveFleming
Just a quick note for 3for3: all teams with good catchers will have a MUCH BETTER record in games when they don't play. If you look up any catcher...Berra, Roy, Cochrane, Mauer, Posada...and look up the team's record when they played and the team's record when they didn't play, the teams will always be better when the catcher doesn't play. They'll be .550 with Campy but .610 without him, or .585 with Gary Carter and .598 without him.

It seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when you think about it. Catchers won't start 20 or 30 games a year. A manager would typically trying to give catchers rest against weaker opponent: "we can probably beat KC today, but we have the Yankees tomorrow...take a breather today."

A lot of catchers will coming into the game on those off days if the score is close, but they won't come in if the team is ahead. Down 4-2 in the eighth with a runner on...maybe Connie Mack tells Mickey to pick up a bat. Up 6-2...enjoy the day off, Pudge.

This is true of most good players, but it's skewed even further for catchers, because they miss more games. Just a quirk of the stats, but an interesting one.
2:16 PM Nov 10th
 
MWeddell
Baseball Prospectus WARP tries to infer all aspects of catcher defense and separate it from pitchers and other influencers (as I understand it). Lots of guesswork, but probably the best career numbers for catchers available.

Here's their leaderboard:
Player PA WARP WARP/600
B. Posey 5607 55.2 5.9
Donaldson 5121 39.4 4.6
Stanton 5570 42.0 4.5
Tulowitzki 5415 40.6 4.5
Goldschmidt 6300 43.0 4.1
Longoria 7671 48.7 3.8
Altuve 6346 34.2 3.2
McCutchen 7588 38.9 3.1
Freeman 6660 33.9 3.1
S. Marte 4762 19.3 2.4

10:01 AM Nov 10th
 
3for3
I wonder how the Giants did without Posey in the lineup. We will see how the team does over 162 without him, however, I'd already expect a Giant (pun intended) reversion to the mean. With Posey and the rest of the '21 team, I'd have expected a ~85 win team in '22. Without him? A photo to break .500​
9:48 AM Nov 10th
 
abiggoof
I remain on the fence, but this article shows why Buster has to be at least seriously considered. Like Puckett, I don’t know if the output is enough, but the quality and legend are definitely worthy.
9:46 AM Nov 10th
 
MWeddell
TheRicemanCometh
Also side note, where did you find the Win Shares data? Since Baseball Gauge is dead did you just thumb through the old Win Shares book?
Win Shares is available on this website if one wants to look them up for selected players. Obviously the hard copy Win Shares book wouldn't have data for recent players given when the book was published.
9:42 AM Nov 10th
 
MWeddell
Dave wrote: "I think FanGraphs has done some overhaul with their WAR metric recently..."
Fangraphs incorporates catcher framing from 2008-present, so maybe that's what you're noticing.


9:40 AM Nov 10th
 
malbuff
Fine article. It's got a lot more "punch" than the Buster-for-the-HOF screed I posted on my Giants blog. The Cochrane comparison is both accurate and remarkable for its similarity.

Like you I live in western (not West) Virginia, and my son and I have gotten used to being the only Giants fans for miles around. I appreciate you making a solid case for the best catcher ever to put on that uniform.
9:01 AM Nov 10th
 
TheRicemanCometh
Buster is 100% Hall Of Famer no doubt. The Giants were a joke organization for decades who never won a Series in San Fran for 52 years before Buster came along. He's not the sole reason why but he was the best player on a 3-time Championship team. He was also the undisputed leader of that team. He's in.

Also side note, where did you find the Win Shares data? Since Baseball Gauge is dead did you just thumb through the old Win Shares book?
7:34 AM Nov 10th
 
StatsGuru
My dad grew up a Yankees fan and loved Bill Dickey, but he thought Cochrane was the best catcher of that era.
6:23 AM Nov 10th
 
villageelliott
Thank you for your comparing Buster Posey to Mickey Cochrane to showcase Busters true value. Despite Cochrane's slightly longer career.
I think you have shown Buster is a Hall of Famer.

I, too, have always been fascinated by Mickey Cochrane as the 1934 AL MVP. Being from St Louis, I never questioned if he deserved the award.
(My father, born in St Louis in 1913, was the same age in '34 that I was in 1964, was a Browns fan even more than a Cardinals fan. While he hated the Yankees, he spoke highly of Mr Mack's Athletics of 1929-'31, particularly the battery of Lefty Grove and Black Mike. He told me that while he loved the Gas House Gang, he felt a bit sorry for the Tigers and his two favorite non-Cardinals, Cochrane and Hank Greenberg.

Mick Cochrane's Similar Batters
Bill Dickey............(833.7) *
Walker Cooper......(805.7)
Thurman Munson..(805.7)
Ernie Lombardi.....(804.4) *
Buster Posey........(803.2)
Smoky Burgess....(795.8)
Jackie Robinson....(784.5) *
Lou Boudreau.......(776.7) *
Gabby Hartnett.....(774.5) *.
Spud Davis ..........(772.4)

Half of Cochrane's comps are in the Hall. Plus Buster and Munson, two qualified to be inducted.

Interesting that the only two non-catcher comps are another playing manager and Jackie Robinson. (I caught a lot of flack for faciscously comparing Buster and Jackie by cherry picking four stats.They thought I was serious
[CODE]
Rk Player Tm Gms Hits RBI BA
13 Buster Posey SFG 1371 1500 729 .302
14 Jackie Robinson BRO 1382 1518 734 .311
Mickey Cochrane A,T 1482 1652 830 .320 [/CODE]

Here are Buster's comps.

Similar Batters
Terry Steinbach.....(893.0)
Xander Bogaerts....(879.9)
Thurman Munson...(877.0)
Troy Tulowitzki.......(866.9)
Elston Howard.......(863.9)
Walker Cooper.......(862.7)
Ramon Hernandez..(856.3)
Jose Vidro.............(850.7)
Javy Lopez............(847.1)
Jason Varitek.........(846.4)

All but three of Buster's closest comps are catchers. He is more comparable to his tenth closest than Cochrane is to his first. Evidently Mickey is "more unique" than Buster
3:13 AM Nov 10th
 
chuck
I think Posey was a somewhat better hitter than Cochrane. Cochrane's splits show him having to face LHP (and him being a lefty) in less than 16% of his plate appearances. (The splits are missing about 200 PAs). The right-handed Posey faced RHP in 71% of his PAs.

Their OPS splits:
Posey ........ .797 vs same-side pitching, .916 vs opposite side.
Cochrane ... .825 vs same-side pitching, .912 vs opposite side.

At first glance, that bolsters your point about them looking similar. But a look at their leagues' OPS average (pro-rated to their PA's each year), and to their parks' batting indexes (also pro-rated) shows:

Hitter ...... Lg ops / Park
Posey ...... .722 ... 095
Cochrane . .752 ... 103

Their OPS relative to league:
Posey ....... .831 / .722 = 1.15
Cochrane .. .897 / .752 = 1.19

But now let's turn give Posey the same platoon advantage Cochrane had - having him face RHP just 16% of the time. That would change his OPS to a Cochrane-like .897.

.897 / .722 = 1.24, or 24% better than the NL average OPS, and that is before factoring in their park effects, which would drive the gap farther between them. Frankly, I don't understand how Cochrane's OPS+ is 129, given that his OPS was not quite 20% above league average and that his park might be assumed to be helping that number already.
2:14 AM Nov 10th
 
evanecurb
Thanks Dave. The Cochrane comp kinda jumps off the page as the right one. I can’t believe he’s just a year older than my oldest kid, and he’s retiring. Trout’s younger than my youngest…
10:11 PM Nov 9th
 
bearbyz
Good article, I think you explained why Posey should be a hall of famer. However, I was biased because I already agreed with you.

In the first paragraph you miss-spelled Lou Gehrig's homerun total. At first I thought you said fifty-nine but after looking at it closer I saw you hit an "i" instead of an "o".
9:25 PM Nov 9th
 
 
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