Buster Posey and Overstated Decline

Some fans call him Superman, and for good reason. He hits for average and for power; he draws walks and barely strikes out; he plays premier defense at a premium position. He’s won Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, three Silver Sluggers, a batting title, a Gold Glove, and oh by the way, three World Series rings.

Yes, indeed, Buster Posey has done it all. In his remarkable career, Posey has slashed .307/.373/.476 with a 136 wRC+ and excellent defense in 899 games for the San Francisco Giants.

In 2016, however, Posey was human. He slugged just .434 with a 116 wRC+. It was the first time he posted a wRC+ below 135 since 2011, the year he sustained a season-ending ankle injury in May. Posey was 29 years old in 2016, so some decline was to be expected, and should be expected going forward. Decline, however, does not explain the dramatic dip in production for Posey, even though he’s a catcher.

As Dave Cameron noted in 2013, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, “There simply isn’t this huge early-30s drop-off that is widely accepted as a fact of life for catchers…Like players at all other positions, catcher aging is a mostly linear downwards trend, and there just aren’t certain ages at which player performance gets exponentially worse. Skills decay over time; they don’t evaporate over night.”

Posey’s skill erosion in 2016 was of the “evaporate over night” variety. He had a healthy .186 ISO and 126 wRC+ in the first half, but just a .101 ISO and 105 wRC+ in the second. While it’s not unheard of for catchers to wear down in the second half, it is unusual for Posey. In his career, Posey has a 137 wRC+ and .176 ISO in the first half, and a 135 wRC+ and .161 ISO in the second.

Posey missed time with an irritated nerve in his thumb in June and with back tightness in August. On Aug. 8, he slid awkwardly (to put it mildly) into third base during a game against the Marlins, and after the play Posey appeared to say, “I might have broke my finger.” Through Aug. 8, Posey was batting .291/.365/.461 with a .170 ISO and 123 wRC+. After Aug. 8, he had just a .095 ISO and 102 wRC+. While it’s easy to pinpoint the Aug. 8 incident as a major reason for Posey’s disappointing finish, he had just one home run and a .099 ISO from Jul. 8 to Aug. 8. Whatever the cause, a sudden and sharp decline (due to age and position) beginning in the middle of the season is probably not to blame.

Despite strong career second half numbers, Posey’s slow 2016 wasn’t the only time he’s faded down the stretch. In the second half of 2013, he slashed just .244/.333/.310 with an 87 wRC+. There was legitimate concern about Posey at the time, but he silenced his critics with a stellar 2014 campaign in which he hit .311/.364/.490 with a 142 wRC+, fueled by a second half in which he hit .354/.403/.575 with a 180 wRC+. Posey has now had two disappointing second halves, but he’s also had two monster ones, including when he put up a 200 wRC+ in the second half of 2012 on his way to league MVP honors.

The projection systems seem to agree that the dip in power for Posey last year was just an aberration. Steamer sees Posey rebounding to a .300/.370/.467 line with a 127 wRC+ and .166 ISO. ZiPS is slightly less optimistic, forecasting a .295/.359/.451 line with a 119 wRC+. The FANS (22) think Posey will put up a 126 wRC+ and .158 ISO. Even with some pessimism from ZiPS, all three systems expect Posey to be better in 2017 than he was in 2016.

In terms of fantasy relevance, now is probably a good time to buy Buster Posey. Despite evidence to the contrary, people still believe that catchers are more likely to suffer earlier and steeper declines than non-catchers, and Posey’s 2016 season feeds into that belief. However, as Cameron reiterates, “In general, catchers age about how we’d expect any other position player to age. They get worse, but they don’t fall apart without notice.” 2016 being the new normal for Posey would constitute “falling apart without notice.”

Instead, expect a solid bounce back season. While he certainly won’t be completely overlooked or undersold in fantasy auctions and drafts, there’s bargain potential here. Although Posey is entering his age-30 season, talk of a steep and inevitable decline is both overstated and unwarranted. Of course we should anticipate some decline at this stage of his career, but it should be gradual, not dramatic. A gradual decline for Posey would manifest as several more superstar seasons. While some may be convinced that age is kryptonite to catchers, who better to prove them wrong than Superman?

Ben Kaspick is the host Locked On Giants, a daily San Francisco Giants podcast on the Locked On Podcast Network. He is also a former contributor for the baseball statistics and analysis websites RotoGraphs and Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @BenKaspick.

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5 years ago

See also Podhorzer’s recent piece from 2/16 indicating that Posey was probably unlucky with BABIP last year and BLengino’s piece from 2/9 indicating he still has the best contact management profile of all catchers. I’ve thought for awhile that Posey is underrated in fantasy baseball.