Buster Posey’s injury last week was particularly devastating to the San Francisco Giants and their fans. Posey was not only perhaps the most difficult player to replace on the team, but he was one of the core players on their 2010 championship team. That team had six players, Posey, Brian Wilson, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner who were the heart of the team and poised to keep the Giants in contention in future years. The rest of the players, even sluggers like Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell were more fungible, able to play more than one position, or easily replaced by another misfit placed on waivers by another team.
Posey is now out for the rest of the season. It will be a good scenario for Posey and the Giants if he is fully recovered in time for spring training 2012. The Posey injury, because of both how it occurred, due to a collision at home plate, and because it happened to Posey, one of baseball’s best and most marketable young players, has drawn a lot of attention. Two major themes have emerged from this attention: whether or not baseball should change its rules to minimize the chances of collisions at home plate and young players of Posey’s caliber should be moved away from the catcher’s position to allow them to play longer.
The first question is a difficult one with strong arguments to be made on either side. Clearly, injuries like the one suffered by Posey are bad for baseball and could be avoided by changing the rules, but asking players to avoid contact at home plate, or asking runners to slide into a catcher who is wearing so much more heavy protective gear could result in injuries for the runners. There are ways to solve this problem, but they are neither easy nor obvious.
The second issue, however, is less ambiguous. It is, generally speaking, a bad idea. Star young catchers like Posey, Joe Mauer or, fifteen years ago Ivan Rodriguez, and 40 years ago Johnny Bench draw much of their value from being catchers, because they are very rarely among the game’s very best hitters. Very few players in the history of the game have been able to field the catcher position adequately while being among the very best hitters in the game for more than a year or two. The best, and perhaps only, example of this type of player was Mike Piazza, who was a sufficiently bad defensive catcher that a move to DH or first base might have been a good idea.
For example, last year as a 23 year old, Posey caught 75 games, while posting an OPS+ of 130 at the age of 23, making him one of only 23 players to post an OPS+ of 125 or better at the age of 24 or younger while catching that many games. This list, which has a total of 29 seasons because some players did this more than once, includes Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Bench, Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett and Gary Carter, great hitting catchers like Ted Simmons and Joe Torre and active stars such as Mauer and Brian McCann. It is a relatively elite group of players. If, however, the criteria are changed so that it includes players who put up those numbers at that age while playing outfield, first base or DH, the number of seasons goes to 352. While that still suggests a pretty good season, it is far less rare for a player at these offense heavy positions to hit like that. Posey’s value as a hitter, like that of many catchers, is largely due to him being a catcher. As a catcher he is an extraordinary young talent. As a first baseman he would have been just a good hitter.
A more historical context shows this as well. Only nine players in the history of the game have caught 1,000 or more games while having an OPS+ of 120, and only one, Piazza, topped 140. For first baseman, for example, 52 players had an OPS+ of 120 while playing the position for 1,000 or more games, while 12 equaled or bettered Piazza’s 142. This further demonstrates that the bar to be a great offensive catcher is much lower than at first base. Similar findings exist for DH and outfield.
Moving a young Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench or Gabby Hartnett to another position would have destroyed a Hall of Fame career, making the game’s greatest catchers just pretty good hitting first baseman or outfielders. Similarly, had Ray Fosse been moved to another position before his injury in the 1970 All Star Game, or if Posey had been the Giants opening day left fielder this year, they both might have avoided injury, but probably would not have become truly great players. That seems like a reasonable risk for teams to take. It is also possible that players like Bench or Berra would have become better hitters as they matured if they had spent less time behind the plate, but this is difficult to prove; and it is unlikely they would have been good enough to remain among the game’s offensive elite longer than they did.
Most baseball fans would like to see Posey come all the way back from his injury. The goal for Posey and the Giants should be that Posey can get back behind the plate in 2012 and get back to the business of being a key player on a contending team and being one of the best catchers in the game. If his injury forces him to change positions, that will be unfortunate, but unavoidable. If, however, the Giants move him to avoid further injury, they will be dealing Posey’s career, and his chances at greatness, another blow.