Posey will rejoin the Giants' lineup in 2012 after his sophomore season ended in late May. On a close play at home plate, Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins bowled over Posey, and the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year could not get up.
Posey suffered a broken left ankle and torn ligaments in his lower left leg. He should recover in plenty of time for spring training (and almost certainly for Opening Day), but since the moment Cousins collided with Posey, the question has hung heavy over the Giants, their front office and their fans: Will Posey remain at catcher going forward?
It's an important question. Posey has a .294/.353/.462 career batting line, which is hardly elite for a first baseman or corner outfielder. Behind the plate, though, that qualifies as premium production.
Catching in MLB is hard, hellish work. One can expect something like 250 foul tips per year to ricochet off their face mask, their chest protector or worse. They spend nine innings five days per week in a deep crouch, often in extreme heat, wearing cumbersome equipment. They spend roughly five times as much time in meetings and video rooms as the average position player.
For that reason, backstops are selected for their defensive chops. That's just the way it is. Offensive-minded catchers are few and far between. Yet, for those teams lucky enough to find one (and keep him healthy), the advantage of having such a player is tremendous.
Here are the 15 best offensive seasons ever logged by catchers, something to dream on for Giants fans who hope Posey can one day join the likes of Mike Piazza and Johnny Bench on catching's Mt. Rushmore.
Known as much for his (sometimes apocryphally attributed) aphorisms as for his awesome control of the strike zone, Berra, nonetheless, won three AL MVP awards and is one of the winningest players in baseball history.
He didn't win the MVP in 1950, but he might ought to have. He was 25 that year and, being a young man, had the durability to start 148 games behind the dish. Despite the physical toll that kind of workload ought to have taken, Berra's hands were lightning fast when he swung, and his eyes were razor sharp in the batter's box.
Berra walked 55 times in 1950 and struck out just 12 times. He struck out 12 times in 656 plate appearances. For good measure, he also scored 116 runs, bashed 28 home runs and batted .322/.383/.533. On contact skills alone, though, what a season.
Starting over 150 games (Carter started 151 in 1982, a career high) at catcher signals at least two of these three things to be true:
- Said catcher is a bit of a lunatic;
- Said catcher's manager is either a sadist or a former catcher; and
- Said catcher is entirely indispensable to his team.
As luck would have it, Carter's skipper on the 1982 Montreal Expos was Jim Fanning, a former catcher, and Carter (by virtue of career bests in OBP and OPS, plus 29 home runs) was utterly critical to the Expos' attack. It's impossible to rule out the notion that Carter might also have been deranged, but he had over 600 plate appearances in each of the three seasons after this marathon, so he knew what he was doing.
Few players in baseball history provided as much offensive value as Tenace with such a low batting average. Johnny Bench won induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989, Tenace's first and only year on the ballot; Tenace got just one vote.
Yet Tenace won the World Series for the Oakland A's in 1972, in seven games over Bench's Reds. Tenace hit four home runs in that series and helped decoy Bench into a key strikeout with a now-famous feint at an intentional walk.
In 1977, the unappreciated star shined his brightest. In 581 plate appearances, Tenace walked a league-leading 125 times and was hit by a league-leading 13 pitches. Though he batted just .233, his on-base percentage was a sparkling .415. His power was a bit diminished from prior years, but he offset those losses with all those easy routes to first base.
Gabby Hartnett hit "The Homer in the Gloamin," which sent the 1938 Chicago Cubs to the World Series. A thing like that inevitably defines one's career.
By 1938, though, Hartnett was 37 years old. He was well past his prime, which was part of what made his big moment so special. Still, his best campaign came not in that year, but in 1935.
In 116 games in 1935, Gabby Hartnett earned the NL MVP award. He didn't post gaudy counting numbers, of course, thanks to his limited playing time, but he hit .344/.404/.545 and cracked 51 extra-base hits.
There are 50 rounds in the MLB amateur draft these days, but once upon a time, it ran much deeper.
A good thing, too, because the Dodgers only drafted Mike Piazza as a favor to organizational icon Tommy Lasorda. (Piazza was a distant nephew.) He hit his way through the minor leagues, but little was ever expected of him.
Immediately upon getting his shot, though, Piazza proved what became common knowledge before he retired: He was the greatest offensive catcher who ever lived.
That 1993 season saw an explosion of offense, but in very few imaginable environments would Piazza's line of .318/.370/.561 not have been impressive. Piazza hit 35 home runs, ran away with the Rookie of the Year award and single-handedly punched the rival Giants out of their playoff race with the Atlanta Braves on the season's final day.
The great struggle of being a catcher, sometimes, is trying to stay in rhythm. The physical demands of the position and the mental tax of knowing every pitcher on one's team and every opposing hitter often necessitates off days.
So does being traded. Piazza went from the Dodgers to the Marlins to the Mets in little over a week in 1998, but he maintained his rhythm the whole time. He finished that season at .328/.390/.570, driving 32 home runs
Piazza is all over this list. If you have an aversion to him, kindly skip ahead—but also be prepared to dodge two more bullets during this slideshow.
In 2000, Piazza was the complete offensive package. He batted .324. He walked almost as many times (58) as he struck out (69). He cranked 38 home runs, finished third in MVP voting and when the Mets reached the playoffs, he got even stronger. Piazza reached base 25 times in 62 plate appearances, including six doubles and four home runs, as the Mets went to the World Series.
When players move off the catcher position, it's sometimes an unfriendly reminder that bats that look good "for a catcher" can look much less shiny at less premium positions. In Torre's case, though, the upside of playing less strenuous positions would eventually make his bat even more potent. He won the NL MVP in 1971, playing third base every day and batting .363/.421/.555.
It's telling, though, that even that insane line only allowed him to break even with his own 1966 season in terms of value.
Playing primarily behind the dish at age 25 in 1966, Torre swatted 36 home runs and had a .943 OPS. It was a terrific season, and his positional value made it truly historic.
Call it Year of the Catcher. Johnny Bench had his best-ever season in 1972. Tenace hit his huge home runs to win the Series. And Carlton Fisk, just 24, won the Rookie of the Year award in the AL in 1972. Improbably, Pudge led the league with nine triples. He also knocked 22 homers, an impressive total in 1972 and for a guy who played only 131 games. His final line was .293/.370/.538.
Cochrane won two MVP awards, in 1928 and 1934. His best year, though, came in 1933, a year during which he showed some of the best plate discipline ever demonstrated over a big league season.
Cochrane took the plate 542 times that season, and the term is not idle. He owned the strike zone, so thoroughly that he walked 106 times that year. He struck out only 22 times. His power was fair, as he popped 15 home runs and 30 doubles, but the true magic of that year was how often Cochrane got on base—a league-leading 45.9 percent of the time.
A transcendent talent from day one in the big leagues, Mike Piazza still had one phase to add to his offensive game as of the beginning of the 1996 season. He needed to learn to walk.
In his first three seasons, Piazza had totaled 118 walks and 231 strikeouts in over 1,500 plate appearances. That's not an unacceptable contact rate for a slugger of Piazza's caliber, but it signified too little plate patience. That's not common for great batters who catch, either: The knowledge of the strike zone gained from catching usually translates to good walk and strikeout rates.
Piazza finally figured that all out in 1996. In addition to batting .336 and bashing 36 home runs, Piazza drew 81 free passes and struck out only 93 times. His OBP was a sensational .422.
He has no case as the best offensive catcher ever, but Johnny Bench is in the top two or three, and in terms of overall value, he is the best of all time, bar none.
Bench had already won the NL Rookie of the Year (in 1968) and an MVP award (in 1970, when he swatted 45 homers), but he was as thirsty for greatness and adulation as perhaps any player in MLB history. He played through injuries without disclosing them, because he felt it was his duty to be the best at all times, regardless of circumstance.
Bench scuffled in 1971, the year after his first MVP, but he bounced back at age 24 and posted the best season of his career in 1972. He hit 40 bombs, walked 100 times against 84 strikeouts and finished with a .270/.379/.541 batting line. He was never as good thereafter due to accumulating injuries, but he had already posted five seasons of elite production by then.
By 2009, Mauer had already proved himself as an excellent contact hitter. He had two batting titles under his belt by age 25.
There were concerns, though, about Mauer's durability and about his power. He had never hit more than 13 home runs in a season. He had played only 109 games in 2007 and would start the 2009 season on the disabled list with a sprained lower back.
Mauer made his season debut on May 1, hit a home run in his first plate appearance and never looked back. He led the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging that season, and he leveraged that MVP performance into an eight-year, $184 million contract extension.
It's a shame the strike came in 1994 and wiped out games that season and the next, because Piazza might have been at the true apex of his powers then. He hit .346/.400/.606 in 1995 in only 112 games. Pro-rated for a full season's playing time, his 32 home runs could easily have become 40.
He had not yet developed great plate discipline, but Piazza was such a gifted and viciously quick, pure hitter that it didn't matter. After adjusting for the impact of calling Dodger Stadium home, Piazza's OPS was 72 percent better than league average in 1995, the best mark in the NL.
If 1995 marked Piazza's emergence as the NL's most feared batter, and 1996 showed he was ready to take control of the strike zone, the 1997 season was when he put it all together.
Piazza hit a staggering .362 that year. He clubbed 40 balls out of the park. In two more plate appearances than he had had in 1996, he struck out 16 fewer times. This time, his park-adjusted OPS was 85 percent better than average. No catcher has ever come close to dominating his league that way in MLB history.