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What Should the Giants do with Buster Posey?

May 27, 2010

The last time the Giants had a highly touted position player prospect was in 1986, with a young first baseman out of New Orleans by the name of Will Clark.  Since then, there haven’t been any position player stars to develop under the organization’s watch- Pablo Sandoval is looking to be the first, but his rapid ascension to the Major Leagues prevented much hype to build up around him.  When the Giants selected catcher Gerald D. (“Buster”) Posey from Florida State University with the sixth overall pick in the 2008 draft and signed him to a club-record $6.2 million bonus (which was, coincidentally, the largest up-front bonus in Major League Baseball at the time), they sent a message to their fans: that they’re not afraid to spend a substantial amount of money for premium talent, and that they’re serious about bringing in premium hitters.

Posey absolutely lit up the Minor Leagues in his inaugural professional campaign, posting a .419 wOBA across both Single-A and Triple-A, a combined +34 runs above average in only 497 plate appearances.  He was on pace for +41 runs per 600 plate appearances, which is the equivalent to Chase Utley, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, and Kevin Youkilis’ 2009 seasons.  In other words, he completely demolished Minor League pitching.  Granted, most of his success came against High-A pitching- but his performance was so outstanding that Giants talent evaluators determined he was ready for some time in The Show.  Posey saw 17 plate appearances in his stay in the Majors, and to the dismay of many, the majority of time that he could have spent gaining experience behind the plate was instead given to Eli Whiteside- a 29-year old career Minor Leaguer.

Since then, there’s been a bit of a debate about Posey.  The Giants entered the 2009/2010 offseason with the idea in mind that they would sign a veteran catcher to hold the fort until they felt Posey was completely ready for full-time catching at the Major League level- only to see free agents like Gregg Zaun and Ivan Rodriguez sign elsewhere.  The Giants made it clear they were unwilling to offer a multi-year deal to a free agent catcher, and for good reason.  Not only that, but said catcher needed to be fully aware that Buster Posey was the catcher of the future for the organization- and that they must be willing to step down when the time came.  It was only logical, then, for the Giants to cut ties with their former backstop, Bengie Molina- who was seeking a lucrative multi-year deal as a reward for his performance as the Giants’ cleanup hitter the previous two seasons.  Unfortunately for the Giants, they had very little leverage in the market.  Unwilling to give in to the demands of free agent catchers hoping for multiple years or for a contract that would have surely overpaid them, the Giants stood pat and watched the market dry.  It was at that moment where they began to concede their stance on Posey’s “unreadiness” for the Majors, stating that they would be comfortable with him as their starting catcher.

Posey’s chances of playing for the Giants diminished immediately when the Giants announced the re-signing of Molina to a one-year, $4.5 million deal.  Molina, who was frustrated by the lack of interest in his services, came back to the Giants due to his familiarity with the pitching staff and the organization.  It was at that moment in time when Posey supporters knew that young Gerald’s chances of breaking in with the Big Club were slim, and that the odds of him receiving regular playing time was essentially gone.  It made little sense to keep Posey with the Big League club as a backup for two reasons- the first being that he needed experience; the second being his arbitration clock.  Had he been starting from day one, it would make sense- otherwise, the Giants would have surely lost a year of team control over Posey to keep him as a backup.  For an organization that desperately needs good hitters, and with Posey profiling to be an excellent one, it is imperative that they maintain club control over him for as long as possible.

As it stands today, the Giants have scored 179 runs in 44 games, or 4.07 runs/game.  Over the course of a full season, that extrapolates to 659 runs; two runs more than their 2009 total.  Granted, extrapolation is dangerous with such a small sample- but that does not negate the fact that the Giants’ offense looks downright miserable.  Once again, the Giants are right near the bottom of the league offensively.  They’re still below average when it comes to On-Base Percentage- .323, compared to a league average of .330.  They lack punch, with an ISO of .133 (compared to a league average of .147).  Really, the only facet of offense the Giants seem good at is situational hitting- which may shock some.  The Giants have been exceptional at manufacturing “productive outs,” i.e. moving the runner over by making an out 40% of the time (7% greater than league average).  They’ve also been outstanding at advancing runners from second to third (47%; league 42%).  While doing the little things certainly helps, the Giants desperately need better on-base and slugging capabilities if they wish to improve their offense.  Could Buster Posey be the answer to those problems?  Does he have anything left to prove in the Minor Leagues?

The short answer is…no.  He doesn’t.  If we look at the most effective hitters in the PCL thus far in 2010, these are our top five players:

Name, LWTS

John Lindsey, +26.7

Kila Ka’aihue, +17.5

Buster Posey, +17.2

Alex Gordon, +15.7

Jay Gibbons, +15.7

LWTS, if you are unfamiliar with them, stand for Linear Weights.  These are simply the marginal run values of a given event based on the run environment to assess a player’s offensive performance in a neutral lineup.  The formula I’ve generated for the 2010 PCL separates strikeouts from non-K outs and accounts for basestealing.  The out values, of course, are reconciled so that the league average sums to exactly zero.  In other words, the +17.2 runs you see here for Posey imply that Buster has generated 17.2 runs above an average hitter in the same amount of at-bats by virtue of his ability to move runners over with extra base hits and get on base.  Buster’s the third-best hitter in the PCL so far (without adjusting for park), and all of the hitters directly above and below him are corner infield/outfield types.  Posey is the youngest of the group, and he is currently hitting .346/.441/.525.  His ISO of .179 is impressive, and his non-intentional walk rate of 12.8% is exceptional.  In other words, it looks like he has little left to prove in the Minors, at least offensively.  Brian Cartwright’s Minor League translations have Posey hitting .282/.368/.410 in San Francisco- not at the same torrid rate he’s going at in the Minors, mind you, but still solid nevertheless.  Cartwright’s translations, by my calculations, has Posey at +3.0 runs right now.  Bengie’s currently at +0.7, so it seems as though Posey would already represent an offensive upgrade over Molina at this point in time.

There is a major caveat with this translation- and this holds true for any translation- it does not work as a crystal ball.  There is absolutely no guarantee that Posey would hit this well if the Giants were to call him up tomorrow; rather, it simply implies that his level of production would be similar to, if not greater than, Molina’s at this current point in time.  Given his rapid ascension through the Minors, his statistical performance, and scouts’ evaluations, it would appear that Buster’s certainly ready to hit in a Major League lineup.  There are no glaring red flags, and there’s really nothing left for him to prove.

The major question is whether or not Posey is a Major League ready defender.  A brief glance at his current Minor League numbers indicate that he’s exceptional at throwing out opposing basestealers- he’s doing so 44% of the time, saving his team roughly +2.6 runs already- and he’s allowed only one passed ball in 31 games, while committing only one error.  I have him as saving approximately (and I say “approximate” because I’m working with games, not innings) +5.6 runs overall.  There is absolutely no indication that he has issues with passed balls or making an excessive amount of errors, and his ability to throw out attempting basestealers is impressive.

These facets of the game are only but a small part of a catcher’s job behind the plate- he has to manage his pitching staff, and he needs to call a good game.  Personally, I think the concept of game calling is a bit overrated- ultimately it is the pitcher that decides the pitch and it is the pitcher that executes it- but that is a debate for another time.  Rather than wildly speculating on his game calling acumen, it would behoove me to quote the opinion of Buster’s former batterymate, Garrett Broshuis:

His glove and the “ability to call the game” are the two traditional knocks on him. Having thrown to him, I can say that his hands are great. He’s only been catching a couple of years, and so the experience with catching pitches with movement still needs to come, but the hands are there. They will continue to develop.
I thought he called the game adequately. He’s a smart guy, and there is a solid thought process to his game-calling. Of course, this improves with experience as well. Just don’t expect him to be Bengie Molina upon arrival.
So, all in all, I have no problem saying Posey can play in the big leagues right now. He may not be an All-Star catcher yet, but he could more than hold his own.

So, it appears that Posey is adequate as of right now. This is, of course, the opinion of just one pitcher, and it would be interesting to hear others’ honest assessments of him.  In any case, it’s encouraging to hear that he’s picking up on the nuances of game calling rather quickly.  The Giants’ pitching staff loves pitching to Bengie- and they say he calls a great game.  But I’m not convinced that he represents that large of a difference, despite all of his years of experience.  Buster is, by all accounts, a very intelligent young man.  It would seem that he would be able to make adjustments rather quickly.  And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with former catcher and current manager Bruce Bochy calling a pitch here and there in a worst-case scenario.

What I’m saying is this: given his offensive and defensive performance in the Minor Leagues, and based on a report from a primary source, it sounds that Buster Posey is absolutely ready to don the orange and black and make an impact in San Francisco.  But this doesn’t mean that he should.  At least, not yet.

This sounds rather counterproductive, of course.  After all, the Giants are struggling offensively and they need a bat that could make an impact in their lineup.  While Posey isn’t an Albert Pujols or a Joe Mauer, he would certainly provide some fresh life- both in his ability to work the count and get on base, and to drive the ball gap to gap- for a lineup that sorely needs quality hitting.  But where could the Giants possibly play him?  Bengie Molina is firmly entrenched as the everyday catcher, and having Buster play as a backup makes no sense when his bat is so valuable.  The Giants cannot play Buster over Bengie unless they were to ship Bengie off to another organization via trade- and while I like Bengie as a person, he’s quite sensitive and has made it abundantly clear that he cannot and will not accept a role as a backup.  This leaves the Giants with three choices:

1. Trade Molina. This is highly unlikely.  Bruce Bochy’s affinity for Molina would prevent Brian Sabean from pulling the trigger, and this only becomes more muddled when you realize that Sabean himself has an affinity for Molina as well.  The Giants aren’t very good at evaluating hitters, and allowing Molina to continue batting cleanup is one example of this.  They believe his bat to be more valuable than it really is.  Even if they did place him on the market, I get the feeling that they’d ask for too much in return.

2. Shift Posey to another position. This has been suggested before, and the Giants have had Posey play some first base while in Fresno.  This just doesn’t make sense to me.  The Giants have specifically left him in Fresno to work on his defense, and calling him up to the Majors only to shift him to another position makes little sense.  It’d be a waste of his talents as well, seeing as how he profiles as a very good defensive catcher.  “But the bat will play anywhere,” you might say.  Well, this is true.  But what’s harder to find- a good hitting catcher, or a good hitting first baseman?  First base is a position filled with good offensive players, while catcher is quite possibly the most scarce position to find quality hitters at.  It’s far easier to find a good hitting first baseman than it is a catcher, and to stick a good defensive catcher that is a good hitter at first base is preposterous.

3. Keep Posey in the Minor Leagues. Given the current situation at catcher, the only logical and realistic conclusion I can come to is that the Giants need to keep Buster in the Minor Leagues for a while longer, if not for the remainder of the season.  There is absolutely no point in bringing him up to the Majors unless he’s playing every day- as a catcher- and that doesn’t seem very likely.  The Giants won’t deal Molina, and they can’t play Posey without Molina causing a stir in the clubhouse.  Unfortunately, bringing back Molina will most likely impede Posey’s arrival in San Francisco; and, as a result, will impede the Giants from improving both offensively and defensively.

One of the organization’s top hitters is essentially stuck in the Minor Leagues when he’s Major League ready because of a veteran with a sense of entitlement.  That’s The Giants Way.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lawhit88 permalink
    May 27, 2010 9:02 PM

    Posey is from fsu not uf

    • triplesalley permalink*
      May 28, 2010 3:41 AM

      I knew I was going to make a mistake somewhere- thanks for catching that!

  2. Zach Foreman permalink
    May 28, 2010 12:14 AM

    Great analysis! Sad to see that excessive veteran loyalty can be so destructive. If you were GM for one day and could trade Molina and maybe some other Giants, what would you do?

    • triplesalley permalink*
      May 28, 2010 3:47 AM

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I haven’t put much thought into it, actually- but I think that’d make for a great future post. Perhaps I’ll brainstorm some ideas as the trade deadline approaches based on where we’re at in the standings. 🙂

  3. downsos permalink
    May 28, 2010 10:16 PM

    Great post as always.

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