Is Buster Posey's Career off to the Best Start in Major League Baseball History?
Buster Posey will be a star for years to come if he stays healthy; that much is already Skip-Bayless-is-an-idiot obvious.
The youngster has played 308 games and accumulated 1,255 plate appearances over parts of four Major League Baseball seasons. Incredibly, given his national profile, he has only seen one full year of pro ball (2012).
All told, he's got about two years' worth of action. In that time, the San Francisco Giants catcher has amassed two World Series titles, the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award, the 2012 NL batting crown, a 2012 All-Star Game appearance, and finished 11th in the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player voting. To that gaudy list of accolades, you can now add the 2012 NL MVP Award.
In a race that was largely a formality despite the earnest arguments coming out of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Posey finished comfortably ahead of the Brewers' Ryan Braun for first. That means the 25-year-old will be bringing even more hardware back to the Bay Area as the annual squabble begins between the MVP-must-play-for-a-contender camp (smart people) and the MVP-should-be-all-about-numbers camp (whack jobs).
But let's focus on the winner for a bit longer. Posey made his pro debut in 2009, but only registered 17 plate appearances. In 2010, he didn't get called up to the big club until the end of May. Subsequently, he helped propel the franchise to its first Fall Classic win in 56 years (and first in San Francisco).
Buster's 2011 campaign was cut short by a questionable collision at the plate, which some of you may recall. Scott Cousins wiped out the Gents' chances to repeat and Posey's season after a mere 45 games.
Which brings us back to present day. He saw action in over 100 games for the second time, helped deliver a second World Series to San Francisco, and added the MVP trophy for good measure.
All for $615,000 per year...plus a $6.2 million signing bonus, but shhhh. Not too shabby.
In fact, the start of Buster Posey's career has been historically un-shabby. There have been 143 winners of the MVP award (or its equivalent from antiquity), and only three have earned the honor with fewer plate appearances than Posey. A handful have won it with similarly modest service time, but account for the other feats accomplished by Gerald Dempsey the Third, and you'll see he already stands in legendary company.
*All stats/info from Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Honorable Mention: The Pitchers
There are a couple pitchers who deserve mention but I've excluded since the difference between a pitcher and a position player is radical. For example, it's difficult to equate innings pitched to plate appearances because a full season's worth of innings has steadily decreased, while the equivalent for plate appearances has remained comparably consistent.
Regardless, these two guys won the MVP after less than two season's worth of innings pitched, so their names must be included in some form:
Vida Blue: 1971 AL MVP
Games Played: 57 (49 starts)
Innings Pitched: 392
Other Early Career Notes: won 1971 AL Cy Young Award, won 1971 AL ERA crown, led AL in WHIP (1971), 1971 AL All-Star
Blue can also boast the 1972 and 1973 World Series titles amongst the accolades amassed in roughly two years of innings pitched, depending on where you draw the line. If you're looking for the gold standard in terms of starts to a pitching career, Vida might just own it.
Roger Clemens: 1986 AL MVP
Games Played: 69 (68 starts)
Innings Pitched: 485.2
Other Early Career Notes: won 1986 AL Cy Young Award, won 1986 AL ERA crown, led AL in WHIP (1986), led AL in wins (1986), 1986 AL All-Star
Clemens would also collect the 1987 AL Cy Young and finished 19th in AL MVP voting that year. Additionally, he has a trip to the 1986 Fall Classic in his collection. Of course, the end to that World Series is a moment of some notoriety and arguably knocks the Rocket's initial phase (thank you) down a peg or two.
Paul Waner, 1927 NL MVP
Games Played: 299
Plate Appearances: 1,327
Other Early Career Notes: finished 12th in 1926 NL MVP voting, won 1927 NL batting crown, led NL in RBI (1927), twice led NL in triples (1926-27), led NL in total bases (1927), led NL in hits (1927), led NL in games played (1927), led NL in plate appearances (1927)
Paul Waner actually won the 1927 "National League Award," but that's close enough.
The Hall of Famer, who spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, actually played in nine fewer games than Buster Posey prior to winning the award. Of course, he also had 72 more plate appearances, so let's call it even. Either way, both ball players took home the honors while they were still wet behind the ears.
Big Poison also gets points for matching Posey's batting crown, leading the league in runs batted in, twice taking the triples crown, and placing in the top 15 of the MVP voting after his rookie year (like Buster). The Rookie of the Year Award didn't exist when Waner broke into the bigs, so toss its absence out the window. Ditto the absence of any All-Star honors, since those weren't created until 1933.
All in all, the Bucs' all-time great matches Posey's break from the gate almost stride for stride. Almost. The glaring difference between the two are the World Series titles.
Waner's Pirates didn't win any rings; Posey has yet to play over 100 games without winning a ring. While the world championships aren't the result of any single player's efforts, the Giants superstar was a major reason for both.
Sounds like a good tie-breaker to me.
Stan Musial, 1943 NL MVP
Games Played: 309
Plate Appearances: 1,285
Other Early Career Notes: finished 12th in 1942 NL MVP voting, won 1943 NL batting crown, led NL in on-base percentage (1943), led NL in slugging percentage (1943), led NL in OPS (1943), led NL in doubles (1943), led NL in triples (1943), led NL in hits (1943), led NL in games played (1943), led NL in plate appearances (1943), 1943 NL All-Star
Stan "The Man" Musial won his first MVP at almost the same exact point in his career as Buster Posey from a games played/plate appearances perspective (one more game, 30 more PA). Like Posey, Musial finished in the top 15 of MVP voting following his rookie year, won a batting title and added a litany of other league bests to his resume.
Again, the Rookie of the Year Award didn't yet exist as a national accolade, so we can ignore it.
And this time, Musial can flop his 1942 World Series ring down on the table.
Not the 1943 World Series ring, though. Yes, Musial's St. Louis Cardinals returned to glory by winning the 1944 Fall Classic, but who knows what Posey and his Giants have in store for 2013.
Even so, Stan the Man has a pretty good argument against Posey as far as starts to careers are concerned. Call it a toss-up between Musial's slightly better individual honors and Posey's slightly better team exploits.
Ted Williams, 1946 AL MVP
Games Played: 736
Plate Appearances: 3,285
Other Early Career Notes: Served in World War II during the 1943-45 seasons
Ted Williams had considerably more experience than Buster Posey when he won his first MVP award, but he gets an honorable mention nonetheless. The Splendid Splinter earned his award in his first year back from fighting the Nazis...or, at least, training to shoot them down.
Can't compete with that.
Willie Mays, 1954 NL MVP
Games Played: 306
Plate Appearances: 1,308
Other Early Career Notes: Served in the Korean War during the 1953 season, won 1951 NL Rookie of the Year Award, won 1954 NL batting crown, led NL in slugging percentage (1954), led NL in OPS (1954), led NL in triples (1954), 1954 NL All-Star
Willie Mays won't lose many exercises in career comparison, but it's nip-tuck when the Say Hey Kid comes up against Buster Posey in this context.
Mays lost almost two years after his debut in 1951 to military service, so, like Posey, his MVP award came after roughly two seasons' worth of plate appearances spread over four years. In that time, Willie matched many of Buster's bullet points—he was Rookie of the Year, snagged a batting crown, and helped the Nee Gothams to the 1954 World Series title.
Much like Stan Musial, however, Mays lacks the second world championship. So, again, we've got another pick-'em between Willie's slight individual edge and Buster's slight team edge.
Or you could consider the Hall of Famer's military service and kill the debate...
Fred Lynn, 1975 AL MVP
Games Played: 160
Plate Appearances: 656
Other Early Career Notes: won 1975 AL Rookie of the Year Award, led AL in slugging percentage (1975), led AL in OPS (1975), led AL in runs (1975), led AL in doubles (1975), won 1975 AL Gold Glove, 1975-76 AL All-Star
Fred Lynn is one of only two major leaguers to ever win the Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same year, doing the deed in 1975. To say Lynn had a good year in '75 is like saying Sarah Palin wasn't the best vice-presidential candidate—the dude packed a whole career's worth of excellence into a single season (unfortunately, that could be taken literally).
Lynn is probably the poster boy for the idea that everything that starts off glittering doesn't turn out to be gold.
Of course, Buster Posey and Giants fans can take solace in the fact that though Freddy beat Buster to the MVP trophy, he came up empty in the World Series department. After roughly 1,300 plate appearances, Lynn would get a second All-Star Game selection, and that's it.
Cal Ripken, 1983 AL MVP
Games Played: 345
Plate Appearances: 1421
Other Early Career Notes: won 1982 AL Rookie of the Year Award, finished 30th in 1982 AL MVP voting, led AL in runs (1983), led AL in hits (1983), led AL in doubles (1983), led AL in games played (1983), led AL in plate appearances (1983), led AL in at-bats (1983), 1983 AL All-Star
Cal Ripken makes it three entries in the "do you prefer individual or team achievement?" sweepstakes.
The Baltimore Oriole great didn't climb as high in the MVP voting after his rookie year and lacks the batting title that Buster Posey's resume features. But the rest of the individual accolades slants toward Ripken, as he led the league in a wider variety of categories during his MVP campaign. To boot, the Iron Man ushered the O's to the 1983 World Series title, the franchise's last.
Like Musial and Mays, though, Cal can't claim a second world championship.
I'd say the second ring tips the scales in Posey's favor, but I'm prepared to admit I might not be completely objective.
Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 AL MVP
Games Played: 157
Plate Appearances: 738
Other Early Career Notes: won 2001 AL Rookie of the Year Award, won 2001 AL batting crown, led AL in hits (2001), led AL in stolen bases (2001), led AL in plate appearances (2001), led AL in at-bats (2001), finished 17th in 2002 AL MVP voting, won 2001-02 AL Gold Gloves, 2001-02 AL All-Star
Ichiro Suzuki enters the fray as the second player in MLB history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. He gets an asterisk, however, thanks to his nine previous years of professional baseball in Japan.
Consequently, the fact that he beat Buster Posey to the MVP punch by about 500 plate appearances isn't quite as incredible.
And while the batting title matches one of Posey's more impressive feats, the Gold Gloves and league lead in stolen bases are the only other true eyebrow-raisers on Suzuki's early-season resume.
Match Buster's two world championships against zip for Ichiro, and Posey comes out ahead by a clear margin.
Ryan Howard, 2006 NL MVP
Games Played: 266
Plate Appearances: 1,094
Other Early Career Notes: won 2005 NL Rookie of the Year Award, led NL in home runs (2006), led NL in RBI (2006), led NL in total bases (2006), 2006 NL All-Star
Ryan Howard bopped his way to the 2006 NL MVP after about 200 fewer career plate appearances than Buster Posey. Other than that, however, the Philadelphia Phillie can't really compete with his fellow superstar.
Buster's batting crown gives him an individual accolade to plop down next to Howard's league-leading totals, though the individual calculus still tips in Howard's favor.
It's the World Series skunk that keeps Posey out in the early career lead. Howard and his Phils didn't win it all until 2008, about four full years into his career.
Dustin Pedroia, 2008 AL MVP
Games Played: 327
Plate Appearances: 1,405
Other Early Career Notes: won 2007 AL Rookie of the Year Award, led AL in runs (2008), led AL in hits (2008), led AL in doubles (2008), won 2008 AL Gold Glove, 2008 AL All-Star
Dustin Pedroia gets points for winning his MVP and the 2007 World Series with the Boston Red Sox as well for being pint-sized, but the good news stops there. I think most ballplayers would take a batting title over leading the league in runs and doubles. Additionally, Posey placed in the MVP voting following his rookie year and his MVP honors were beyond reproach.
Some baseball fans will debate to this day whether Pedroia was really the best candidate in 2008. That's not to diminish the Muddy Chicken's accomplishment except in comparison to Buster's.
Add Posey's second World Series ring to the mix, and you've got your clear winner.
I chose the MVP and World Series titles as the two key criteria because they represent the pinnacle of individual and team achievement in the sport. Stats come and go as the game evolves; what was amazing one year might be average in another.
But if you win the MVP, you always have the right to call yourself the most valuable player. Likewise, if you win the World Series, you always have the right to call yourself the best team.
I don't claim it's a scientific comparison, nor do I claim it's the only/best way to assess the start of a player's career.
You could argue somebody like Derek Jeter is an egregious omission because he was the 1995 AL Rookie of the Year, powered his team to victory in the 1996 World Series, finished 24th in the 1997 AL MVP voting and did it all under the intense scrutiny that comes with playing shortstop for the New York Yankees.
Or you could argue that someone like Miguel Cabrera should be included. The big fella never won an MVP during the first few years of his career, but he finished in the top 30 of the voting each year.
Contrarily, you could also argue that I've failed to account for the fact that Buster Posey has done everything he's done while more or less learning how to catch at the professional level. Remember, he was still a shortstop as recently as 2006 and made his pro debut in 2008.
And catcher is, by far, the most difficult position on the baseball diamond. So the fact that Posey's done it all from the squat should merit some sort of bonus.
But which player got his career off to the best start will always be a matter of debate (depending on what Mike Trout does for an encore) clouded by personal bias. I'd argue two World Series titles, an MVP trophy and Rookie of the Year honors take the cake, but I'm also a diehard San Francisco Giants fan.
The more absolute takeaway is that, to find someone whose early career rivals Posey's, you're talking about names like Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Cal Ripken.
In other words, Buster has already put himself in historic company with his first 1,255 plate appearances. Granted, the trick is not how you start a career, it's having a long and productive one. So as great as he's been, the harder work is left to be done.
Even so, if the rest of Buster Posey's career echoes its early form, a bust in Cooperstown might only be the beginning.