Although he is just 31 years old and is not yet technically eligible for enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has already crafted a more-than-worthy case for enshrinement among Major League Baseball’s all-time immortals.
The veteran backstop has been among baseball’s most valuable players since his rookie season in 2010, and has certainly been the sport’s most acclaimed catcher. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, an imperfect but generally well-respected metric, Posey ranks 12th among all players for the decade of the 2010s, seventh among position players and first among players whose primary position is catcher. He holds such a pronounced lead among catchers that if his MVP-winning 2012 campaign, one in which his 164 wRC+ ranked third among qualified hitters in Major League Baseball behind Mike Trout and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, were removed, Posey would still be the leader.
But Buster Posey’s credentials as a generation talent worthy of Cooperstown go far beyond a single number. Posey is also a three-time World Series champion, leading a revolving door rotation to October greatness. The Giants went from Tim Lincecum as its ace in 2010 to Matt Cain in 2012 to Madison Bumgarner in 2014, while the closer role circulated from Brian Wilson to Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla. In 2011, when Buster Posey suffered a season-ending injury on a home plate collision on May 25, the Giants’ record stood at 27-20, holding a three-game lead in the National League West. Once Posey was out, the Giants were a mere three games above .500 for the rest of the season and missed the postseason.
Of course, narrative-based Hall of Fame arguments are ultimately less satisfying than statistically-based ones. It isn’t that the narratives aren’t necessary or important in telling the full story, but they are inevitably clouded by subjectivity. So to get back to the numbers, while Posey is terrific by fWAR, he is even more valuable by Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, which is particularly relevant for catchers, as this metric more thoroughly measures catcher defense. Rather than relying solely on caught stealing data or ability to avoid passed balls, both of which certainly factor into catcher defense but don’t tell the full story, WARP includes factors such as pitch framing (the ability to disguise borderline pitches as strikes), which it contends is a wildly underrated part of the game.
By fWAR, Buster Posey entered 2018 with 37.1 Wins Above Replacement, which ranked 31st among catchers in MLB history. Because Posey, the best hitting catcher of his generation, is also a well above-average defensive catcher, he fares noticeably better by WARP, entering the season at 53.3. As it stands, Posey ranks higher than Hall of Famers such as Kirby Puckett, Alan Trammell, and Lou Brock.
He also ranks more highly than Yadier Molina. Barely.
With recent Yadier Molina events–his 2018 offensive renaissance, his elevation to the 2018 National League All-Star Team, his birthday being on Friday–there has been a decided uptick in attention given to Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case. And while I can understand several of the arguments against Molina’s candidacy, that the existence of Buster Posey is used as an argument against Molina falls into a logical fallacy trap which is common in Hall of Fame discussions.
Ted Simmons wasn’t as good as Johnny Bench, and thus Ted Simmons isn’t a Hall of Famer. Tim Raines wasn’t as good as Rickey Henderson, and thus Tim Raines had to wait until his final year of eligibility to make it to the Hall of Fame. But the sequencing of when their careers occurred shouldn’t be a factor, because the sheer value of each is largely independent of the other. If I, even as a biased St. Louis Cardinals fan, had to pick either Posey or Molina for the Hall of Fame, I’d take Posey. But it isn’t as though the Hall of Fame can only take one. Catchers have typically been underrepresented in Cooperstown, but this doesn’t mean they should be.
There is some room for differentiation–think of Yadier Molina as Ozzie Smith and Buster Posey as Cal Ripken. By most measures, while Smith was the superior fielder (and one of the all-time greats at his position), Ripken was the more well-rounded shortstop of the era, performing both very well defensive and far better offensively. Neither had a problem making it into the Hall of Fame. Whether that will be the case for the National League’s catchers emeritus remains to be seen.
The point is that being great is what makes a player a Hall of Famer, not simply being the greatest of his era. Would the Rolling Stones be excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame simply because they weren’t the most influential band in the world during their prime (side note: I’m not sure which catcher is the Stones and which is the Beatles in this analogy–feel free to discuss in the comments)? Chinatown missed out on a Best Picture Academy Award because it was released the same year as The Godfather Part II: does anybody believe it is a less worthwhile movie than Crash simply because Crash defeated the weakest Best Picture crop in the era of color movies (it probably shouldn’t have won anyway, but I’m really not gonna have this discussion here)?
You can argue all you want that Yadier Molina is better than Buster Posey–I don’t agree, but there is enough about evaluating catchers (and baseball players in general) that is murky that I’m willing to at least entertain the notion. But this is a separate matter from whether they are among the best catchers of all-time. They both are, and degrading one doesn’t make the other look any better.