JAWS and the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot: Jorge Posada
- One of the core pieces of the Yankees' late-1990s dynasty, Jorge Posada was a terrific hitter as a catcher, but does he have the stats to join Cooperstown's elite club of backstops?
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Like fellow 1990 draft pick Andy Pettitte, '90 amateur free-agent signing Mariano Rivera and '92 first-rounder Derek Jeter—the other three members of the "Core Four"—Jorge Posada made his major league debut in '95, the year that the Yankees returned to the postseason for the first time since '81. But unlike the other three, Posada did not become a mainstay in 1996, the year that the team won its first World Series since '78. Blocked by Joe Girardi and Jim Leyritz, he needed until 1997, his age-25 season, to get a foothold in the majors, and until '98 to secure a starting job.
Once he did, the switch-hitting Posada emerged as one of the game's best-hitting backstops and a key part of the dynasty that flourished under manager Joe Torre, joining a strong up-the-middle foundation that also included Jeter and Bernie Williams. Williams and the Core Four—who thanks to the 1990–92 suspension of owner George Steinbrenner remained in the fold instead of being traded for veterans, unlike previous generations of Yankees prospects—anchored a squad that won four straight pennants and three World Series from '98 to 2001 and added another pennant in '03. After Williams retired and Pettitte returned from a three-year detour to Houston, the Core Four led the Yankees to yet another championship in 2009.
More than just an exceptional hitter with a keen eye as well as considerable pop, Posada was a respected staff handler and an emotional leader on a team that made the playoffs in every year of his career save for 2008, when a right shoulder injury required season-ending surgery. The five-time All-Star was also a fan favorite, his at-bats accompanied by a rousing cheer of “Hip Hip Jorge!”
Rivera and Jeter are bound for Cooperstown in short order; the former becomes eligible in 2019 and the latter in '20. Pettitte, also eligible in 2019, will have at least some support owing to his 256 career wins and his postseason resumé. But amid a crowded ballot that also includes likely Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez and in the shadow of 2016 inductee Mike Piazza, Posada could be in for rougher sledding. Like Williams, who lasted just two years on the ballot, Posada more than measures up to the offensive standards of his defense-first position, but his late start and patience at the plate suppressed his counting stats, and defensive metrics further damaged his cause. At best, he's a borderline candidate, though his career is worth a closer look.
|Avg. HOF C||52.7||34.2||43.4|
Posada was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1971, the son of a Cuban father and a Dominican mother. Havana-born uncle Leo Posada spent 16 seasons (1954–69) playing professionally as an outfielder, including three with the decrepit Kansas City A's from '60 to '62, and later became a minor league manager and instructor. Jorge Posada Sr., also an outfielder, drew interest from major league teams as well, but his outspokenness in opposition to Fidel Castro led to 2 1/2 years in prison. He escaped Cuba via a Greek cargo ship, defected and made his way from Greece to Spain to Puerto Rico and eventually spent 40 years as a Latin American scout for the Rockies, Blue Jays, Braves and other teams, most notably signing Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez and Juan Uribe.
Jorge Jr. played shortstop in high school and spent time dabbling in basketball, track and volleyball as well. The Yankees drafted him in the 43rd round in 1989, but he didn't sign; his father wanted him to go to a stateside college. Lacking the SAT scores for a four-year scholarship, he wound up accepting one to Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala., sight unseen; head coach Fred Frickie never scouted Posada, who never saw the campus before accepting the scholarship. He spoke little English at the time and had a tough go, encountering racism and getting into fights regularly. But on the field, his bat and arm caught the eye of Yankees scout Leon Wurth, as did his energy and enthusiasm. The team drafted him again in 1990, this time in the 24th round, two rounds after Pettitte. Posada played out his junior season at Calhoun, finally signing with the Yankees a week before the 1991 draft for a $30,000 bonus and an assurance that he wouldn't be cut over the next three years.
Posada began his professional career at Class A Oneonta (where Pettitte also played) in the summer of 1991, where he played mostly second base but also caught 11 games. Yankees vice president of player development Mark Newman and his cohorts felt that Posada lacked the agility to make it as a middle infielder, but they liked his soft hands. He spent the fall instructional league season devoting himself to the new position. "I'm not saying he couldn't have made it as a second baseman," said Newman in 1999. "We thought he also could've become a first-rate third baseman. But we knew he could become an elite player as a catcher."
Posada climbed the organizational ladder methodically, showing the power and patience that would typify his big league career at two other A-level stops but struggling to learn the ropes behind the plate. His bat earned him mid- and postseason All-Star honors in the Carolina League in 1993, but he also led the circuit with 38 passed balls. He played just seven games in Double A before leapfrogging to Triple A Columbus in 1994, where he wound up with all three of his future core-mates, but a broken left leg and dislocated ankle ended his season.
After hitting .255/.350/.435 with eight homers for Columbus in 1995, he joined the Yankees and debuted on Sept. 4, played just one inning as a defensive replacement for Leyritz. He didn't get to bat, then spent the rest of the month riding the pine while the Yankees went 19–5 after his debut to win the AL wild card. Manager Buck Showalter included Posada on the postseason roster; he pinch-ran for Wade Boggs in the 12th inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the Mariners, scoring the tying run in a game that the Yankees would win in 15 on a Leyritz homer, though they would lose the series.
Set behind the plate with Girardi and Leyritz, the Yankees considered trading Posada that winter, first in the deal that netted Tino Martinez from the Mariners, then in an attempt to acquire David Wells from the Reds; the latter deal, proposed by Steinbrenner, also would have included Rivera, but Reds GM Jim Bowden preferred to deal Wells for a pair of Orioles outfield prospects, Curtis Goodwin and Trovin Valdez. Posada returned to Columbus again for 1996, hitting .271/.405/.460 en route to International League All-Star honors. Called up to the Yankees four times, he played just one game in each of his first three stints before sticking around in September. In the nightcap of a Sept. 25 doubleheader against the Brewers, he singled off Scott Karl for his first big league hit.
On Dec. 5, the Yankees traded Leyritz—whose three-run Game 4 homer off the Braves' Mark Wohlers had turned the World Series to New York's favor—to the Angels, clearing a roster spot for the 25-year-old Posada. Backing up the light-hitting Girardi, he hit .250/.359/.410 with six homers in 60 games in 1997, though he allowed eight passed balls (the league's ninth-highest total despite his ranking 21st in innings caught) and caught just 20% of would-be base thieves. Still, the Yankees saw enough improvement to increase Posada’s workload in 1998. He made 85 starts and hit .268/.350/.475 with 17 homers and a 115 OPS+ in 409 plate appearances, and behind the plate, he improved his caught stealing rate to 40%, cut his passed balls to seven and played 312 2/3 more innings; on May 17, he caught Wells's perfect game.
Posada's was the type of potent performance in limited duty that typified the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 regular-season games and then went 11–2 in the postseason, capped by a World Series sweep of the Padres. Posada hit .227/.414/.500 with a pair of homers in the postseason—one in the ALCS opener against Cleveland, the other in Game 3 against San Diego, both with the Yankees already well ahead.
The Posada/Girardi job share continued in 1999, though neither hit as well; in fact, Posada's 91 OPS+ was the only time until his final season that he slipped below 100. The Yankees still won 98 games and steamrolled through the postseason with an 11–1 record, capped by a sweep of the Braves. Though Posada went just 4-for-22 in October, his ninth-inning–two-run homer off Boston's Tom Gordon in Game 5 of the ALCS put the final nail in the Red Sox' coffin.
The aging Girardi left the Yankees for the Cubs via free agency after the 1999 season, and Posada not only started 136 games the following year—the league's second-highest total—but also broke out offensively, hitting .287/.417/.527 with 28 homers, 107 walks (sixth in the league), a 139 OPS+ and a team-high 5.5 WAR. He made his first All-Star team, and while a dreadful, season-ending 3–15 slide held the Yankees to 87 wins, they still won the AL East and rediscovered their mojo in the postseason. Though he didn't hit much, Posada started all 16 of the Yankees' postseason games, and in Game 5 of the World Series against the Mets, he worked a two-out, ninth-inning walk off a tiring Al Leiter, then came around to score the go-ahead run on Luis Sojo's single; three Rivera outs later, the Yankees were champions for the third straight season.
That stellar 2000 campaign kicked of an eight-year run during which Posada hit a combined .283/.389/.492 for a 130 OPS+ and 35.6 WAR (4.5 per year), both tops among catchers; Piazza (three years older) and Rodriguez (three months younger) both had far more mileage on their legs by that point, though the former nonetheless outhomered Posada, 187–183, in that span. Posada also made four straight All-Star teams from 2000 to '03, plus another in '07.
The Yankees might not have won their fourth pennant in a row in 2001 if not for Posada’s heroics in Game 3 of the Division Series against Oakland, helping the team stave off elimination. He accounted for the game's lone run with a solo homer off Barry Zito, then tagged Jeremy Giambi at the plate following Jeter's famous out-of-nowhere flip.
Posada went 8-for-18 in the Division Series, after which his most notable October highlight was a solo homer off Brian Anderson in the Yankees' 2–1 win over the Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the World Series. The Yankees lost that one as Rivera let the lead slip away in the ninth inning of Game 7.
As several veterans from the 1998–2001 squad scattered to the four winds, Posada grew into a leadership role, underscored by the five-year, $51 million extension he signed in January 2002, just after it was revealed he had undergone surgery to repair a small tear in his labrum. Even as he worked on honing his defense with longtime catching instructor Gary Tuck (who had returned from a stint with the Indians), he put together one of his best offensive seasons in 2003. He batted .281/.405/.518 with career highs to that point in homers (30), RBIs (101), OPS+ (144) and WAR (5.9), ranking fifth in the league in both on-base percentage and WAR, sixth in walks (93) and eighth in OPS+. He swung a hot bat in the ALCS against the Red Sox, going 8-for-27 with four doubles, a homer and six RBIs, the last two via his game-tying–eighth-inning bloop double off a tiring Pedro Martinez, capping a three-run comeback in a game that the Yankees would win in 11 innings via Aaron Boone's home run. Pulling into second base, he let loose a cathartic Incredible Hulk flex-and-roar, perhaps my favorite moment of his career.
Alas, Posada struggled in a losing cause in the World Series against the Marlins. After the season, he placed third in the AL MVP voting behind Alex Rodriguez, the rare player to win while toiling for a sub-.500 club. Posada received significant MVP consideration again in 2007, after the $12 million option at the end of his five-year deal had vested. He had turned in his best offensive season, hitting .338/.426/.543 for 153 OPS+, all career bests; his OBP ranked third, his batting average fourth, his OPS+ fifth and his slugging percentage eighth, though his defense (-12 DRS) held his WAR to 5.4. He finished sixth in the MVP voting, with Rodriguez—by now his teammate in the Bronx—winning the award.
The Yankees parted ways with Torre after 2007 and replaced him with Girardi. Though Posada had just turned 36, the team re-signed him to a four-year, $52.4 million deal that unfortunately didn’t age well. Though he swung the bat well in April, he saw more time at DH than catcher due to right shoulder soreness that limited his ability to throw or hit for power and played just 51 games before going under the knife on July 30 to repair tears in his labrum and shoulder capsule. The Yankees' 13-year streak of reaching the playoffs came to an end without him; the team traded for Ivan Rodriguez to serve as the primary catcher in his absence.
That winter, the Yankees reloaded by adding free agents Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Posada rebounded at the plate (.285/.363/.522, 22 homers and a 125 OPS+ in 111 games), and the team won 103 games and the AL East flag. Starting all but two of the Yankees' 15 postseason games, Posada hit .260/.345/.420 with two homers and eight RBIs. His go-ahead solo shot in the seventh inning of Game 3 off Carl Pavano helped the Yankees close out a sweep of the Twins in the Division Series, and he drove in a combined five runs in Games 2, 3 and 4 of the World Series against the Phillies, all of which helped extend narrow leads. The Yankees won the World Series in six games.
The phrase "Core Four" became popular during this run, though the reference overstated Posada's involvement in their 1996 championship; he wasn't even on the postseason roster. Still, the term stuck, and the quartet was featured in a May 3, 2010 Sports Illustrated cover story by Tom Verducci, who gathered them together for a lunch for the first time outside of larger groups.
At 38, Posada had another solid season with the bat (.248/.357/.454 with 18 homers), but his defense, which had begun to deteriorate even before the shoulder injury, continued to worsen; via Defensive Runs Saved, he had been 12 runs below average in 2007 and 14 below average in both '09 and '10 even as his playing time decreased. After a foul ball off his mask on Sept. 7, he exhibited concussion-like symptoms, this at a time when awareness of the long-term danger of concussions had been heightened within the industry. In February, the Bergen Record's Bob Klapisch reported that Posada had actually suffered two concussions during the 2010 season, and that the Yankees had used the ImPACT screening system—which measures attention, memory, processing speed and reaction time—to evaluate him. Two of his three tests were "not good," to use the catcher's own words. Concerned about exposing him to further brain trauma, the Yankees declared Posada's days behind the plate over; he would primarily serve as a designated hitter going forward, with free agent Russell Martin taking over as starting catcher.
Despite Posada's strengths as a hitter and the Yankees' longstanding desire to keep his bat in the lineup, he had never liked being the DH, and it would stay that way. In 2011, his unhappiness with his new role combined with his ongoing differences with Girardi came to a head. Hitting just .162/.273/.352 and carrying a season-long 0-fer against lefties, he pulled himself from the lineup before a nationally televised May 14 game against the Red Sox when he found out he was batting ninth. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman exacerbated the situation via an in-game interview with Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, followed by a media briefing in the press box. Before the evening was over, phrases like "breach of contract," "release" and "retirement" were tossed into a surreally stupid scene. Posada apologized to Girardi the next day, drew a warm ovation from Yankees fans while pinch-hitting that night and managed to salvage some dignity during the remainder of the season, hitting .268/.333/.421 with eight homers the rest of the way while primarily facing righties.
During a 22–9 blowout victory against the A's on August 25, Posada made a one-inning cameo at second base, one-hopping a terrible throw that nearly pulled Nick Swisher off first base bag, though he held for the final out. On Sept. 10, Martin’s bruised thumb and backup catcher Francisco Cervelli’s concussion-like symptoms led Posada to don the tools of ignorance one last time. He immediately caught Howie Kendrick trying to steal and remained in the game for the final six innings. Posada capped his career by going 6-for-14 in a losing cause during the Yankees' five-game Division Series loss to the Tigers. In January 2012, he officially announced his retirement.
As far as his Hall of Fame candidacy is concerned, Posada's status as a key up-the-middle player on 14 postseason teams, six pennant winners and four champions is certainly a strong point in his favor, though his five All-Star appearances is a low total given that seven Hall of Fame catchers are in double digits and three others have eight. Posada scores a 98 on Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which measures how likely (not how deserving) a player is to be elected by awarding points for various awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on, with 100 representing "a good possibility" and 130 a virtual cinch.
Posada's counting stats don't jump off the page. He finished with 275 career homers, a respectable eighth among players who spent the majority of their careers at catcher; his 246 as a catcher—the strict split—also rank eighth. His total of 1,664 hits (1,472 as a catcher, 14th) is a bigger problem, as BBWAA voters haven't elected a single player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits. For Posada, that shortfall is a product of both of his late start and his keen batting eye: He didn't play regularly until age 26, and he walked 936 times, third among catcher types (those who spent a majority, etc.). His total of 7,150 plate appearances is 15th among that group, more than eight of the 14 enshrined catchers. The longer careers of Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Piazza—the last five catchers elected by the BBWAA—work against Posada on both the traditional and advanced statistical fronts.
In terms of rate stats, Posada's .273/.374/.474 batting line stands out more among catcher types. Among the 65 with at least 5,000 PA, his OBP is ninth and his slugging percentage is eighth; among the 18 at the 7,000 PA level, they're fourth and sixth, respectively. Both are at least partly products of playing in a high-offense era, but once we cross into advanced-stat territory and adjust for that, his 121 OPS+ ranks 12th at the 5,000 PA level and sixth at the 7,000 PA level. Meanwhile, his 204 batting runs—not runs batted in but the primary offensive component of WAR, measured relative to a league average hitter—ranks 10th among catcher types, behind six of the 14 Hall of Famers but not far off from Berra (225, seventh overall) and significantly ahead of both Fisk (168, 15th) and Carter (159, 17th).
The problem for Posada is just about every other WAR component. He was 34 runs below average on base running and another 15 below on double play avoidance; his combination of the two is lower than every catcher type save for Piazza (-56) and Bengie Molina (-50), though brother Yadier (-48) will probably surpass him. That cuts into the impact of Posada's bat. Then there's his fielding. Via Total Zone and, for 2003 onward, Defensive Runs Saved, Posada was 60 runs below average for his career, in a virtual tie with John Buck for the fourth-lowest mark of all time; only Piazza (-63), Ed Taubensee (-65) and Michael Barrettt (-72) were worse. While Posada wasn't as bad at throwing out would-be base thieves as Piazza (28% versus 23%), he was much worse at pitch blocking (passed balls and wild pitches); in fact, Piazza was very good at that aspect of catching, as Baseball-Reference.com founder Sean Forman showed in 2006.
Piazza, as it also turns out, was an exceptional pitch framer. Via Max Marchi's Retro-Framing methodology for pre-PITCH/fx-era catchers (which is based on called strike rates going back to 1988, when Retrosheet began tracking pitch-by-pitch data), he ranked among the top 10 framers of the pre-fx era. What we know of Posada's framing, by contrast, is brutal. By Baseball Prospectus' current methodology, Piazza was 99 runs above average in framing during his career; Posada was 131 below, including 106 below from 2006 to '10. No doubt the Yankees—well ahead of the curve in appreciating pitch framing—were aware of his decline, which may have owed something to slowed reaction times stemming from concussions.
Pitch framing isn't in the Baseball-Reference version of WAR, but those numbers are worth remembering once we evaluate Posada's place. Held back by his base running and defensive deficiencies, his 42.7 career WAR ranks 18th all-time—respectable, but 10 wins below the average Hall of Famer and ahead of just four of the 14 enshrined, including Roy Campanella, whose career was shortened by the color line. Posada looks better on the basis of his 32.7 peak score, which ranks 16th but is just 1.5 wins below the standard and is ahead of six enshrined catchers, only one of whom (Gabby Hartnett) was elected by the BBWAA. Posada is also 16th in JAWS, 6.7 points below the standard and ahead of just four enshrined catchers, including the BBWAA-elected Campanella. Given that Posada's Monitor score is modest, his postseason numbers (.248/.358/.387) lackluster and his framing numbers awful, I just don't see enough to overturn that JAWS verdict. Posada is not even the best Yankees catcher outside the Hall: Thurman Munson (45.9/37.0/41.5) ranks 12th on JAWS and is above the peak standard despite a career cut short after 10 1/2 seasons due to his death.
Having watched Posada play most of his career and having appreciated his contributions to those winning Yankees teams, that bums me out a bit. As far back as February 2004 (two months after my system's debut), I had tracked his progress with a version of JAWS that defined a player's best five consecutive seasons as peak and was called Weighted WARP score. I revisited the topic again in 2009, by which time JAWS had taken its current form but was still based on BP's WARP instead of B-Ref's WAR. I can't think of another player—even Jeter or Rivera, whose progress toward the Hall of Fame was more apparent early—whose career I've followed so closely in such a context.
Had Posada stayed healthier during his final four seasons, we might be talking about him beating those two to Cooperstown. Now I suspect his journey there will be as part of his more famous teammates' extended entourages, with his stay on the ballot a relatively short one.