San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey announced his retirement at the end of 2021, after a resurgent season that saw him make his seventh and final all star appearance. The former NL MVP has battled injuries throughout his career and is definitely leaving on a high note.
The lifelong Giant has an impressive trophy case – Rookie of the Year 2010, NL MVP 2012, five Silver Sluggers, one Gold Glove and three World Series Championships.
After the news broke, there was a debate over whether Posey was a ‘first ballot Hall of Famer or not.’ But the consensus seemed to be he was heading to Cooperstown.
Although I agree Posey belongs in the Hall, his stats are not as jaw dropping as the Awards suggest (admittedly injuries played a huge role in that).
There will be an influx of top-tier catchers appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot in the coming years, including Canadian backstop Russell Martin. The Quebecois catcher finished ninth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2006, never finished top-10 in MVP voting, won one Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, has no World Series rings and has been to four all star games.
Based on this comparison Posey and Martin would appear to be of a completely different breed but if we dig a bit deeper we see the latter is better than his resumé suggests.
Finding consistency and logic among the Hall of Fame electorate can be a losing battle. I would argue there are three main categories that guide voters – gut feelings, counting stats and analytics. Here is how these two catchers compare in each of these three sections.
As noted above Posey is one of the most decorated catchers in recent history. If you didn’t feel Posey was a Hall of Famer, a quick look at his player page would probably convince you.
Unfortunately this is the most unreliable way to truly measure a player’s talent. We saw earlier this year, Carlos Correa got in trouble for suggesting five-time Gold Glover Derek Jeter was not a great defender (something modern stats support). But the folklore surrounding Jeter’s defence still seems to outweigh the realities.
Posey on the other hand, may very well have been as good as we all feel he was. But Martin is probably undervalued by most fans and writers alike.
There has traditionally been a huge emphasis on counting stats amongst the Hall of Fame electorate. Voters would pick players who had 3,000 hits, 500 home runs or 2,000 RBI, while often penalize those who did not reach these arbitrary benchmarks.
With catchers, this has always been a complicated review, as offensive stats do not fairly reflect what the player offers his Team.
Buster Posey – 4,970 at bats, 1,500 hits, 158 home runs, 729 RBI, .304 batting average, .372 on base percentage, 23 stolen bases.
Russell Martin – 5,701 at bats, 1,416 hits, 191 home runs, 771 RBI, .248 average, .349 on base percentage, 101 steals.
The numbers that jump off the page are the discrepancy in average and the fact that Posey had more hits, despite having 700 less career at bats. Posey also hit over .300 for his career, whereas Martin never hit over. 300 in a season.
But Martin also had more home runs, RBI and steals (again with more at bats) and ultimately the discrepancy in on base percentage, which is considered a more reliable metric than average, is much closer.
It’s hard to imagine a Hall of Famer voter looking at these two lines and saying one is a first balloter and the other will not make it all – but with overcrowded ballots bogged down by steroid enthusiasts and players with moral baggage, sometimes a quick scan is all a player will get. I don’t feel these numbers would definitively set these two apart, so let’s dive a bit deeper.
WAR – what is it good for?
As baseball moves rapidly into the era of analytics, the Hall of Fame electorate is evolving as well. Whereas Hall of Fame debates use to be centred around how many RBI or home runs a player had, there is now analysis of more comprehensive stats, as well as catch all stats such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
There are three widely reviewed variations of this stat – Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Reference WAR and Baseball Prospectus WAR (known as WARP). Here is how these two all star catchers, score in these three stats.
Posey: BR WAR – 44.9, fangraphs WAR 57.6, WARP – 55.2.
Martin: BR WAR – 38.9, fangraphs WAR 55.1, WARP – 59.8.
It is a fair question – what good is WAR if we can’t even agree on a single system? According to Baseball Reference Posey was a significantly better player than Martin, Fangraphs suggests he was only slightly better and Baseball Prospectus suggests that Martin had the better total (admittedly with 700 more at bats).
In my opinion the more data involved the better, particularly for catchers. One main difference between Baseball Reference and the others, is they do not take into account pitch framing – which is an important job skill for any backstop. To give a very simplistic description of this stat, it quantifies how a catcher turns borderline pitches and balls into strikes.
The likes of Martin, Brian McCann and Yadier Molina are considered some of the greatest pitch framers in baseball history and you could make a case that without this stat all three are wildly undervalued. Posey is certainly no slouch behind the plate but this is an area Martin undoubtedly has the upper hand.
Back to the different types of WAR, the gap between Baseball Reference and Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus is stark. According to Baseball Reference Posey is the thirteenth best catcher of all time, Martin is 29th; For Fangraphs Posey is eighth, Martin 10th; and for Baseball Prospectus Martin is tied for eighth with Molina and Posey is tenth.
Obviously I could pick the one that best supports my case and argue based on that but I figured I would try and offer a balanced perspective.
So there it is three layers of analyzing a player/catcher’s career worth – the “gut feeling,” the counting stats and the analytical route.
Most look back on Posey and see a perennial all star, that led three World Series teams and who hit over .300 over an unfortunately injury plagued career.
In contrast Martin bounced around to a handful of teams, never won a World Series and has a low batting average and slugging percentage, that could turn off old and new Hall of Famer voters just the same.
Based on this Posey undoubtedly wins the “gut feeling” and the more traditional stats.
Luckily this article is not about Martin being a better player than Posey, it is to argue that the Hall of Fame electorate must try to be consistent when these two appear on the ballot. I would argue that if Posey is a ‘no doubt’ first round inductee, then the likes of Martin (and McCann and Molina for that matter) should not be far behind him.
Barring a comeback, Martin should appear on his first Cooperstown ballot in three years time (Posey two years behind him). Hopefully Canada’s greatest backstop will get the respect he deserves and be climbing up the ranks by the time Posey arrives. It is worth noting that Martin and McCann will head into the ballot together, we’ll see how the electorate welcomes them.
(Cover Photo: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)