During a rare season when the San Francisco Giants' starting rotation struggled as a whole, finishing with the seventh-highest ERA (4.37) in baseball in 2013, Buster Posey's decline in production went relatively unnoticed.
Maybe it's because Posey was still pretty good, posting an .821 OPS with 15 homers, 34 doubles and 72 RBIs in 148 games while ranking 20th in NL MVP voting. But as Barry Bloom of MLB.com pointed out, the bar has been set extremely high for Posey, and his manager knows it.
"I think it's fair to say that Buster had a little bit of down year," said Bruce Bochy, who has managed the team since. "Not a real bad year."
In the same number of games and only 15 more plate appearances in 2012, Posey had a .957 OPS with 24 homers, 39 doubles and 102 RBIs. He also won the NL batting title and was nearly unstoppable down the stretch.
Over the final three months of that 2012 season, Posey posted an unbelievable .371/.448/.618 slash line. His team had a one-game division lead at the beginning of that stretch. Eighty-three games and 50 victories later, the Giants had won the NL West by eight games and never slowed down upon entering the playoffs, winning their second World Series championship in three years.
So while the Giants' starting rotation has been a stable force for years, ranking third (3.54), second (3.28) and sixth (3.73) in ERA from 2010-2012, respectively, a Buster Posey-led offense has been the difference-maker in taking the team to a championship-caliber level.
The pitching staff was still great in 2011 when the team finished eight games behind first-place Arizona. But Posey had yet to heat up, posting a .756 OPS in 45 games when he sustained a season-ending leg injury during a home-plate collision. The Giants finished near the bottom of every important offensive category, including runs scored (29th in baseball).
They finished as a middle-of-the-pack offense in 2010. But until Posey was called up from the minors in late May, they were a mediocre hitting team without much of an identity. As he did in 2012, the eventual NL Rookie of the Year, carried his team for the final three months of the regular season with a .913 OPS, 17 homers and 57 RBIs.
At the beginning of that three-month span, the Giants were 40-37 and 5.5 out in the division. They went on to win 52 of their last 85 games and overtook the San Diego Padres late in the season.
Noticing a trend? Posey is capable of carrying the Giants and making them a World Series contender. If last season's pitching struggles weren't a fluke and those continue into 2014, they'll need him to return to his MVP-caliber form, or else, it could be another long season.
If the 27 year-old's Opening Day performance during the team's come-from-behind 9-8 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks is any indication—Posey went 2-for-5 with a tie-breaking two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning—the Giants have a chance to form a new identity in 2014 that is much more focused on the team's hitting prowess.
With a solid lineup full of veteran players who are capable of having big seasons, including Michael Morse, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval, and an emerging star in first baseman Brandon Belt, who had a .915 OPS in the second half of 2013 and went 3-for-5 with a homer in his 2014 debut, the Giants have the potential to be a great offense.
And it's a good thing because it's really hard to know what they're going to get from Matt Cain, who had a down season in 2013, or Tim Lincecum, who went from Cy Young to bust to solid, yet unspectacular, all within the last few seasons, or Tim Hudson, who is returning from ankle surgery at age 38, or Ryan Vogelsong, who had a 5.73 ERA in 2013 and didn't show any signs of turning things around this spring (19 IP, 19 ER, 33 H).
Posey can't do it by himself. But the other 24 guys on the roster can't do it without another MVP-like performance from Posey.