Monday, December 14, 2009

Can Buster fill Bengie’s Shoes?

With the recent perplexing signings of old veteran catchers for multiple years and respectable salaries, it seems more and more likely that Buster Posey will become the opening day starter for the Giants in 2010. Brian Sabean was equally miffed and upset to hear that the Nationals had signed Pudge Rodriguez for 2 years, $6 M. Curious too was it when Jason Kendall received virtually the same compensation from the Royals. So why is Sabes so annoyed? It’s quite simple. Because of these signings, the other comparable catchers on the market will expect a similar compensation or better. The Giants, however, are not willing to offer a two year deal and furthermore, probably were not looking to spend $3 M + per year.

The Giants are reported to have had heated debate on whether or not Posey should step in at the outset of 2010 as the everyday catcher. They concluded in their meetings that he needed further seasoning in the minors, probably somewhere between a few months and a full season. These signings will likely have forced Sabean’s hand to give Posey the job. So the real question is: how can we expect him to perform in 2010?

Most scouts believe that a catcher needs to catch about 200 games in the minor leagues before being moved up to the major league level. Joe Mauer caught 202 but he was drafted out of high school. Brian McCann caught 205 and he too was a high school draft pick. Kurt Suzuki was drafted out of the NCAA and won the Johnnie Bench Award as the top collegiate catcher in 2004. He caught 266 games in the minors. Matt Wieters is a highly regarded prospect for the Orioles that was also considered one of the best NCAA catchers. He, like Posey, was drafted 5th overall one season earlier. Wieters caught 120 games in the minor leagues before getting the call in 2009. Posey will definitely be a little light on the minor league experience but having caught 103 games in the minors, you can make an argument that there is a precedence in Matt Wieters where a player made the jump sooner. It should definitely be noted that college players should develop faster than high school players, and thus, Mauer and McCann would have needed more time.

In terms of throwing, Posey projects nicely. He has thrown out about 45% of attempted base stealers. In the minors, Wieters threw out 36%, McCann 37% and Mauer 44%. It is extremely difficult to evaluate the defense of a catcher and even the Sabermetrics community has not found a proper statistic to analyze and evaluate them. Thowing out runners is a very small fraction of the duties a catcher must fulfill. The real question will be whether or not Buster can catch and call 100 + games in the Show. He also won’t be catching powderpuff stuff as the Giants have one of the most electric staffs in MLB. Jim Callis of Baseball America and Keith Law of ESPN among many others strongly believe that Posey is ready to step in and take the job. Actually, it seems just about everyone believes he is ready except for the Giants.

Aside from the obvious financial positive to put Posey in, many Giants will be curious to find out how he will do offensively. Buster, after all, is the brightest position prospect for the Giants since sweet-swinging Will “the Thrill” Clark. So how will he do? It’s tough to say. Catcher is the most difficult and demanding defensive position. The pressure to perform behind the dish as well as at it will no doubt be a sizable obstacle for him. What does he have going for him though? He converted from short stop to catcher (playing for the first time ever) after his freshman year in college at Florida State. The transition was seamless. Also, he moved from Single A-Advanced San Jose in 2009 all the way up to AAA Fresno without so much as batting an eye, smacking line-drives all over the fields of the California and Pacific Coast Leagues all the while.

I want to preface my analysis by pointing out the incredible physical and statistical differences between Buster and Bengie. Buster is an incredibly athletic catcher. Bengie would be considered athletic had he chosen a different profession, Sumo wrestling. Buster is a patient hitter who takes walks and works the count. Bengie swings at everything and quite frankly it seems he is trying very hard not ever to walk. Buster is anti-Bengie.

In order to see the true value of a player, you really must look further than the “counting” stats that have traditionally been used in Major League Baseball. You have to throw out grandpa’s statistics. Everyone believes Bengie has been a great offensive force for the Giants over the past 3 seasons, but I assure you, he has not been nearly as good as most would have you believe. He’s averaged about 18 HR and 85 RBI for the past 3 seasons. What does this tell you? It tells you 1) that he has pretty good pop for a catcher. That is good and fine. It also tells you that he has driven in some runs. Unfortunately, RBI’s are a statistic of circumstance and not necessarily of skill. Bengie Molina spent much of the last few seasons occupying the cleanup spot. Do you think he would have averaged 85 RBI if he were hitting 7th or 8th where he probably should and would have on any other league average offensive team? It’s nearly impossible for a cleanup hitter in a formidable lineup not to reach 100 RBI (a benchmark tattooed in baseball history) over a full season. I’m confident that Fred Lewis would have done just as well as Bengie Molina hitting cleanup were he given the opportunity in 2009.

The book Moneyball really opened up the eyes of those in baseball about how to evaluate players. OBP is probably the single most important and readily available statistic to evaluate players but for years it was ignored. Bengie Molina has a poor OBP year-in year-out because he does not walk. Why is OBP so important? Because each game each team has 27 outs unless extra innings are required. The more often a player gets on base, the better chances his team will score more runs. It’s so simple yet so overlooked. Bill James (the Father of Sabermetrics and true spawn of Moneyball) created ways to properly evaluate players’ contributions. With this in mind he created Runs Created or RC. The basic formula is very simple and there are also more complicated formulas with more variables to try and arrive at something more accurate. You will be shocked to see how accurate this formula can be. I will try to use the basic and advanced formula to evaluate Molina and project how Posey must perform in 2010 to equal Molina’s offensive output.

Basic RC:

Advanced RC:

Well now you have the formulas I’ve used but, as always, the proof is in the pudding. I’ll get to that! First, take a look at how the a few young catchers faired in their first full season (Wieters is an exception because his statistics come this year for which he did not play the full season). This is more or less something to chew on. You can take a good look and reasonable conceive that Buster could do at least do as well as the least talented of the 4, Kurt Suzuki, over his first full season. Wieters RC is lower because he played in much fewer games and thus accumulated many fewer at bats.

Now, if you’re not convinced that the formulas above work, take a look at the SF Giants 2009 stat line. All of the stats displayed are straight from the 2009 Giants. Take a look at the number of runs they scored, 657. Now take a look at the number of runs the two formulas predict. Isn’t that amazing? Now take a look at Molina’s stats line and see that he contributed about 60 runs or about the same number as Travis Ishikawa or Fred Lewis amortizing his at bats to equal the same number Molina had. Shocking indeed!
To get my projected statistics for Buster Posey in 2010, I simply took his 2009 Minor League statistics and discounted them by about 20%. So, for example, he had 31 doubles in the minors in 2009… so I multiplied 31 by .80 and projected he might hit 25 doubles in 2010. A decline of about 20% certainly seems fair given the obvious difference between the minor leagues and major leagues. Also, Posey will likely not perform in all-star caliber fashion in his first full season. That being said, you can clearly see that he won’t have to just to equal the offensive production of Bengie Molina in 2009, while making about $400,000 as opposed to the $6 M Molina was paid in 2009 or the $7-8 M he would have gotten had he been offered arbitration and accepted.

I believe Buster can absolutely perform adequately as the starter in 2010. Will he? It remains to be seen. Also, if Sabean truly sees Buster as plan B and insists on paying a few million to a stop-gap, we will never know… at least not in 2010.

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