Why SF Giants Catcher Buster Posey Deserves the NL MVP
With all due respect to David Wright, Joey Votto, Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward and Ryan Braun, the chase for the National League MVP award is basically a two-horse race at this point.
At last check, fellow MLB Lead Writer Ian Casselberry had McCutchen atop his latest power rankings for the award. That's a spot McCutchen is used to by this point, as Ian and numerous other writers, analysts and talking heads proclaimed him the favorite for the NL MVP a while ago and have yet to back down.
I'm here to argue otherwise. I, too, have supported McCutchen's candidacy for the NL MVP award in the past, but I'm hereby defecting and casting my vote for Posey.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
My decision to jump ship and take up Posey's side in this argument is inspired in part by current events. McCutchen has brilliant numbers across the board, but he hasn't been as dominant as Posey as the games have gotten more and more important in the last few weeks.
Since the All-Star break, Posey has been one of the hottest hitters on the planet. His triple-slash line since the break stands at .400/.479/.686, and he has nine homers and 37 RBI in just 39 games' worth of action.
If you were to average Posey's second-half production over an entire 162-game season, he'd end up with 38 home runs and 154 RBI.
He'd of course also hit .400, which, you know, is kinda rare.
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McCutchen, meanwhile, hasn't hit the skids quite like he did in the second half of the 2011 season, when he hit .216/.330/.392 with nine homers and 35 RBI in 70 games. On the contrary, he's stayed hot, hitting .313/.404/.464 with six homers and 19 RBI in 44 games.
But there's hot and there's hot. The latter is what Posey is now, and it's what McCutchen was in June and July, when he hit .405/.462/.705 with 14 homers and 41 RBI over 52 games. The Pirates won 34 of those.
The Pirates are feeling McCutchen's relative coolness since the All-Star break, however, as they have a sub-.500 record of 21-23 and have fallen well off pace in the NL Central race. They're still in good standing in the NL wild-card race, but they wouldn't make the cut if the season ended today.
Posey's Giants, on the other hand, have a record of 26-17 since the All-Star break and are currently in first place in the NL West. If the season ended today, they'd be in the postseason, in no small part thanks to Posey's production.
Granted, the MVP award isn't just an award for half a season's worth of work. The obvious counterpoint to all of this is that Posey may be having a better second half, but McCutchen is clearly having a better season.
Actually, it's not as obvious as you may think.
Offensive Production Almost Even
No matter which offensive category one may be focusing on, one never has to look far to find McCutchen's name. He's been one of the most dynamic offensive players in the game, bested only by Los Angeles Angels super-rookie Mike Trout.
To date, McCutchen is hitting .345/.410/.568 with 24 homers, 79 RBI, 90 runs scored and 15 stolen bases. He ranks second in the NL in batting average behind Melky Cabrera, who was caught cheating, and he also ranks second in the Senior Circuit in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Posey is hitting .327/.403/.535 with 19 homers, 80 RBI, 58 runs scored and a single stolen base. What one notices right away is that his batting average is nearly 20 points lower than McCutchen's and his slugging percentage is over 30 points lower than McCutchen's. Posey also trails McCutchen in OPS, .979 to .938.
McCutchen is clearly having a better season, right?
Yes, but not so much as those numbers would suggest. One has to dig a little deeper.
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As far as weighted on-base average—a FanGraphs stat that measures offensive value—is concerned, Posey and McCutchen are just about even. McCutchen ranks second in the NL with a wOBA of .409, and Posey ranks third, just behind him at .398.
There's also a small gap between the two hitters in weighted runs created. McCutchen is at 161. Posey is at 154.
So despite the fact that some of McCutchen's stats look a lot flashier than Posey's, the advanced metrics tell us that we're talking about two players with very similar offensive outputs.
The hell of it is that we're comparing one player that plays a typically offense-friendly position to a player that plays a position where elite offensive production is scarce.
And this is an aspect of this discussion that must not be ignored.
The Catcher vs. Center Fielder Debate
I'm not about to insult anybody's intelligence by saying that having a good center fielder isn't important to a team's success. A team has to be strong up the middle in order to win games, and a good center fielder can make a huge difference.
Take what happened in 2011, for example, when star center fielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp led their respective leagues in WAR, according to FanGraphs. This season, sometimes-center fielder Mike Trout is putting together a year unlike any we've ever seen.
Here's the thing about center fielders, though: As great as they are, they're not as vitally important as catchers are. The catcher position comes with more responsibility than any other position in baseball by a significant margin.
Posey has to do more than just hit. It's on him to handle the Giants' pitching staff as well. This year, he's been more than equal to the task.
The Giants once again find themselves among the league leaders in ERA at 3.67. Their starters have an ERA of 3.60, a figure that ranks fifth in all of baseball. Hector Sanchez deserves his share of the credit for these numbers, but Posey is the guy that has spent the bulk of the time behind the plate.
Posey catches three starting pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs on a regular basis in Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, who has thrown exclusively to Posey this season.
When Cain threw his perfect game against the Houston Astros in June, he was basically just following Posey's lead.
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“I can’t thank Buster enough. I didn’t even question once what he was calling," he said, via The Sporting News.
No, Posey hasn't been able to figure out Tim Lincecum, who still has an ERA over 5.00 nearly 30 starts into his 2012 season. This can't be held against Posey, however, as Lincecum has an ERA over 5.00 this season regardless of who he's throwing to (see the splits on Baseball-Reference.com).
It's hard to measure a catcher's impact on defense, but the one knock that can be made against Posey is that he does seem to have lost something defensively. He has a minus-four DRS when he catches, according to FanGraphs, which is alarming seeing as how he had a plus-eight DRS as a catcher in 2010. Posey also has a lackluster 27.2 caught-stealing percentage.
Still, the Giants have to be happy that Posey has at least managed to stay healthy while continuing to lead the club's pitching staff. They also have to be grateful for the versatility Posey has brought to the table, as he's also filled in at first base on occasion this season.
McCutchen has only played center field. More to the point, he hasn't even played a great center field. He has a minus-6.0 UZR and a minus-six DRS, numbers that technically make him a below-average defensive center fielder.
The Pirates will take this trade-off as long as the offensive production keeps coming. And given the general unpredictability of their offense, they need as much production from McCutchen as they can possibly get.
This is true, but it's a lot easier for McCutchen to be productive in Pittsburgh's lineup than it is for Posey to be productive in San Francisco's lineup.
Lineup Protection Is a Factor
The Pirates have a reputation for being a below-average offensive team, and the fact that they're 20th in baseball in runs scored definitely backs that up.
But it's not like they're completely helpless. They have three very good hitters in McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones. To McCutchen's benefit, he's had either Alvarez or Jones protecting him in the lineup virtually the entire season.
Clint Hurdle started the season using an assortment of hitters in the cleanup spot behind McCutchen in the early goings, but he eventually settled on Alvarez as a full-time solution for the job in early May. That's when McCutchen took off, posting a 1.168 OPS with Alvarez hitting (admittedly not very well) behind him on pretty much an everyday basis between May 5 and June 2.
Jones took over as Pittsburgh's primary cleanup hitter in early June, and McCutchen kept right on hitting. He posted a 1.163 OPS between June 3 and the All-Star break with Jones as his everyday protector. From June 3 until now, he has a .997 OPS.
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Though both of them have been inconsistent at times this season, Alvarez and Jones are the kind of hitters who strike fear into opposing pitchers. Alvarez has an .811 OPS and 25 home runs. Jones has an .850 OPS and 21 home runs.
Posey would love to have either one of them protecting him in the Giants' batting order. He's hit cleanup all season long, and the list of hitters Bruce Bochy has used to protect him consists of 10 different names.
The bulk of the playing time in the No. 5 spot has gone to Angel Pagan, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, none of whom have an OPS over .800 on the season. Pence has been particularly disappointing, posting a mere .589 OPS since coming over from the Philadelphia Phillies.
Pence has at least provided some stability in the No. 5 spot since the Giants acquired him, but that doesn't mean he's solved the protection issues the Giants have had concerning Posey's spot in the lineup.
Case in point: Posey has been walked intentionally three times this season, and all three of those have come since July 31.
The Grand Conclusion
Breaking down the respective MVP races is more of an exact science now than ever before. We have all sorts of stats that tell us how well players are really performing, none more so than WAR.
Who's your favorite for the NL MVP?
Some will say this is what makes McCutchen a lock for the NL MVP award. The numbers tell us that he's more valuable than Posey, and the numbers don't lie.
They can, however, only tell so much of the story.
In this case, the stats are lacking some important elements of the story that tip the scales in Posey's favor. McCutchen is having a slightly better offensive season than Posey, sure, but he hasn't been at his best as the pressure has ramped up like Posey has.
To boot, Posey's value in his ability to lead the Giants' pitching staff and the added thump be brings to San Francisco's lineup are things that are very hard to quantify.
This is to say nothing of Posey's renowned intangibles, which are impossible to quantify.
Posey thus has everything an MVP is supposed to have. He's both an elite producer and a leader on a winning team that steps up when his teammates need him most.
McCutchen fits this bill as well, but not quite so perfectly as Posey does.
Note: Most stats came courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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