On the subway home from the last game of the Yankees season, I struck up a conversation with some thoughtful and intense Yankee fans about the possibility that we had seen Jorge Posada’s last game with the Yankees. Posada not only had a great LDS, but showed once again that he is a true fan favorite as he was greeted with standing ovations and cheers of “Hip, Hip Jorge” every time he came to bat. Our conversation shifted into a discussion of where Posada fits in the pantheon of Yankee greats. I argued that Posada was one of the twenty greatest Yankees ever. The two fans began by disputing that claim, butby the time I got off the train seemed to be persuaded that it was not a crazy assertion. The drunken fan half passed out in the same subway car as us simply took the opportunity to yell out “A-Rod isn’t a Hall of Famer,” every time any of us mentioned Alex Rodriguez or the Hall of Fame.
The question of where Posada fits in among Yankee greats must be preceded by where he fits in among Yankee catchers. Many fans would place him fourth, but by now it is clear that he was, over the course of his whole career, a better player than Thurman Munson, so Posada is the third greatest Yankee catcher ever. Posada was not a lot better, but he played longer and hit more. Posada sustained an OPS+ of 121 over 7,150 plate appearances while catching 1574 games. Munson for his part had an OPS+ of 116 over 5,903 plate appearances while catching 1278 games. Munson’s career was cut short by his tragic death on August 2, 1979. Had not died in that terrible accident, Munson would have had more hits, RBIs and maybe even more championships, but he probably would have continued his declining production which had begun in 1978 as well. Munson was the better defender, but not by enough to make up the offensive difference with Posada who hit better over a longer career.
In addition to Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey, the two greatest catchers in Yankee history, there are nine other players who were either clearly better than Posada, or comparable but broadly viewed as better. These players are pitchers Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Lefty Gomez, and Whitey Ford and infielders and outfielders Lou Gehrig, Derek Jeter, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle. This brings the total number of Yankees who were clearly better than Posada to eleven.
There are also a number of players who are either comparable to Posada or favorites of a particular generation. Fans in their 30s might argue that Bernie Williams, Mike Musina or Don Mattingly were better than Posada. Fans in their forties might raise names like Roy White, Lou Piniella, Willie Randolph, Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry or Graig Nettles. Fans of the 1947-1964 Yankee Dynasty might cite Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Phil Rizzuto, Gil McDougald or Mel Stottlemyre as players who were better than Posada. Older Yankee fans, or those with an interest in history might point to Tommy Heinrich, Charlie Keller, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, Bob Meusel , Herb Pennock, Bob Shawkey or Waite Hoyt. There are 20 players in this group, many of whom are seen as better than they were due to the relentless Yankee glorification of their impressive past. Nonetheless, it is clear that some, but not all of these players were probably better than Posada.
There is a third group of players including people like Goose Gossage, Rickey Henderson and Joe Gordon who were great players, but did not spend enough time with the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez might fit this category, but his Yankee career has already lasted eight years and will last several more, so he will eventually surpass Posada among Yankee greats, if not Yankee favorites.
Posada’s rank among Yankee greats depends on where he ranks among the players in group two. Nostalgia aside, he was clearly better than Skowron, Howard, Piniella or Meusel. It is also clear that good arguments can be made for Winfield, Randolph, Williams or some of the others. According to Baseball Reference, the only non-pitchers from this group to accumulate more WAR with the Yankees were Randolph, Lazzeri and Williams. Interestingly, these players along with Posada are possibly the most underrated or forgotten Yankee greats. Among pitchers from that group only Guidry and Ruffing accumulated more WAR than Posada with the Yankees. If these five player are rated higher than Posada, that brings the number of Yankees better than Posada to 16.
The question of whether or not Posada is among the top twenty Yankees ever comes down to whether four of a group that includes Mussina, Mattingly, Winfield, Nettles, Rizzuto, Combs or Keller, as well as Rodriguez, were better, during their time with the Yankees than Posada. Posada probably ranks towards the top of this group, better than Rizzuto who did not hit enough to rank with Posada, McDougald who was another underrated Yankee, but not quite in Posada’s league, Winfield who did not play long enough with the Yankees and Mattingly who had too few good seasons. However, Combs, Rodriguez, Keller and others were, and are, great ballplayers who contributed many good years to the Yankees. By my count, that leaves Posada with the twentieth spot, but not by much.
The question of whether or not Posada is one of the twenty greatest Yankees will have to be left to future, and longer, subway rides, but his place in the top 25 is reasonably secure. The same ambiguity around Posada’s place in Yankee history will probably surround his Hall of Fame candidacy, but there is no ambiguity around his role in the last four Yankee championships. If game five of the LDS was indeed Posada’s last game, he will be missed by all Yankee fans, whether hunched over their computers looking at numbers or cursing A-Rod while semi-conscious on the subway.