The Great Buster Posey/Jason Heyward Debate
I was originally going to give this post a title along the lines of “Fantastic Freshman” because I’m a sucker for alliteration, but ultimately decided against it. It’s too lame, even by my standards. And that’s really saying something. Besides, seeing as how this is a Giants-oriented site and this has been previously discussed, I feel like this post couldn’t possibly focus on all the rookies in the Majors- the analysis would primarily be on Buster Posey and Jason Heyward. Posey won the award the other day, bringing it to San Francisco for the first time since John Montefusco in 1975, and the voting was strongly in Posey’s favor- with 129 overall points (20 first place votes) to Heyward’s 107 (and 9). Fans of forums that I’ve frequented have unanimously voted for Posey, whilst acknowledging Heyward had a fine year. But should the voting have been so one-sided, and was Posey the more valuable rookie?
I hate that I have to ask that question. I wish I could scoff at the notion that Heyward might have been more deserving than Posey, but I just can’t. I know, I know- Posey was a catcher, and he handled one of the best pitching staffs in the majors while often batting cleanup and helped carry the team into the postseason. I’m not doubting that Buster was a real force on the Giants, but I don’t think Jason is getting his dues. So, let me break it down and we’ll see where this takes us.
Batting: Using straight linear weights (which incorporate reaching on an error, strikeouts, etc.), park-adjusted, I have Buster at +16 runs in 443 plate appearances and a .373 wOBA. That’s gorgeous. Jason is a +33 in 623 for a wOBA of .393. That’s 20 points of difference, and if Posey were a .373 hitter in Jason’s PA, the difference between the two would be six runs apart rather than seventeen. You’ll notice that the difference in wOBA is substantially larger in my calculations than on FanGraphs; this is because Jason reached on an error fourteen times. I get the feeling this is something that’s constantly being overlooked about Jason; he really excelled at reaching base. When it comes to situational hitting, I have Posey grading out as exactly neutral- his ability to move over runners with productive outs (+1) was negated by his double play runs (-1). Jason grades out as exactly average in situational hitting. Edge: Heyward, by 17 runs.
Baserunning: My homemade baserunning metric, which looks at stolen bases, outs made on base, times picked off and bases advanced above average- has both Heyward and Posey as +1 run above average. Edge: Neither.
Fielding: Sean Smith’s catching runs have Buster as a +5 defender behind the plate and my fielding runs a -1 at first base, and I have Heyward listed as a +4 defender with his range but a -4 with the arm (via UZR). So Heyward’s a neutral defender in right. The Fans had him as a +4, so I think the range runs are essentially correct. Edge: Posey, by 4 runs.
Positional Adjustment: I subscribe to the FanGraphs/Tango school of thought when it comes to positional adjustments. Heyward gets docked -6.2 runs for playing 83% of all innings in right field; Posey gets+5.7 runs for catching 662 innings and -2.2 runs for playing 248 innings at first base, for a total of +3.5 runs. Edge: Posey, by 9.7 runs.
Playing Time: 20 runs per 650 plate appearances: Heyward gets (623/650)*20 = +19 replacement runs; Posey gets (443/650)*20 = +14 replacement runs. Edge: Heyward, by 5 runs.
Putting It All Together: Heyward has +47 Runs Above Replacement; Posey +39.
By my objective standards, Heyward wins it. The argument could be made that with more playing time, Posey would have beaten Heyward. And this is probably true. With another 180 PA, Buster gains another six runs of replacement level, which narrows the gap to two runs. Sprinkle in some more runs for catching, and he gets another three runs or so- which pushes him ahead. Considering the uncertainty in the estimates, I’d feel perfectly comfortable saying that Buster is fully deserving of winning the award.
If you’re uncomfortable giving the award to someone who didn’t have the full playing time, like I am, do what I’m doing to make myself feel better- think of this as adding more plate appearances to qualify a hitter for the batting title. We hold Posey’s production at the plate and in the field constant at exactly zero runs above the average, but his replacement and his positional runs change. Some regression offensively would still put him ahead of Heyward- so while Buster might not have had the same playing time, I’d consider his winning of the award a perfectly reasonable and defensible choice.
Some extra thoughts- I disagree with some of the rationale used in the camps that heavily favored Buster Posey, and I want to point out the main points:
I don’t care much for the argument that Posey should get a huge bonus because he 1) caught the Giants’ pitching staff, and 2) that he hit in the middle of the lineup. First and foremost, the analysis I’ve done thus far on pitchers’ performances with and without Posey is not significantly different than they were with Bengie Molina or Eli Whiteside. So far, I’ve found that the starting staff performed slightly worse with Posey catching. The relievers- primarily Sergio Romo- were the ones that excelled with him behind the plate. There’s also the issue of just how much credit we should attribute a catcher. The catcher may call the pitches, but ultimately it is the pitcher that decides what to throw, and it is the pitcher that executes- or fails to execute- the pitch.
Secondly, hitting in the middle of the Giants’ lineup doesn’t really mean much to me. If he were hitting in the Braves’ lineup, for example, he may be hitting sixth. If Heyward were in the Giants’ lineup, for all we know, he could be hitting cleanup. Giving a player extra credit because of where he hit in the lineup is giving him credit for something he has little control over.