He was the funny-looking one. The last to join the quartet, he had a big nose, a weak chin, a penchant for rings and worked sitting down. His contributions to arguably the greatest ensemble in his field have always been overlooked. Yet, even moreso than his Beatles analog, Ringo Starr, Jorge Posada was an equal partner in baseball's fab four, the quartet of Yankees teammates who debuted in 1995 and won seven pennants and five World Series together (though Posada, who played in just eight major league games in 1996, sat out the first of those).
That Posada is so comparable to Ringo, "the funny one," who wrote just two Beatles songs and two of the worst at that, helps explain why he has had such a hard time being taken seriously as an all-time great at his position. However, news of his impending retirement, first reported by WFAN beat reporter Sweeny Murti last weekend, gives us a much-needed occasion to revisit Posada's significance in baseball history. It's fitting that the news about Posada arrived just days before the announcement of this year's Hall of Fame class, as a case can be made that Posada is worthy of enshrinement, and it has nothing to do with his having kept time with sure-fire first-ballot inductees Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera or fellow borderline case Andy Pettitte, his Core Four brethren.
To some, declaring Posada a legitimate candidate for Cooperstown might come as a surprise. Indeed, his basic statistics don't jump off the page. He hit just 275 home runs, only once hitting as many as 30 in a season. He drove in 100 runs just once and never scored 100. He was a career .273 hitter who only once hit .300 over a full season and his 1,664 career hits got him barely half way to the total associated with automatic induction into the Hall. However, he was absolutely one of the greatest hitting catchers in baseball history. Among those who played 75 percent of their games behind the plate, Posada ranks 10th in Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement, behind seven Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett) and two men with clear Cooperstown credentials (Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza).
Posada succeeded his crosstown contemporary, Piazza, as the best offensive catcher in baseball. In the first decade of the 21st century, no other catcher came within 20 percent of Posada's 39.9 bWAR. Rodriguez, who would likely be the popular choice as the best catcher of the decade, was barely more than three-fourths as valuable as Posada in comparable playing time.
Some of that was good timing. Posada's peak just happened to coincide exactly with that span and came while Piazza was fading. Joe Mauer didn't debut until 2004. Posada was worth more than 2.6 bWAR just once outside of his 2000 to 2009 peek, but during those 10 seasons, he was worth that much or more in all but his injury-shortened 2008 season, averaging 4.4 bWAR in his nine healthy seasons during that decade.
That level of production from behind the plate gave his team a tremendous competitive advantage. While every other backstop in the game combined for a .258/.320/.398 line from 2000 to 2007, Posada hit .285/.390/.499 while in the game as a catcher. In no small part because of that contribution, the Yankees made the postseason in each of those eight seasons, with Posada starting every postseason game in that time. Then, in 2008, Posada missed 101 games due to a worn-out throwing shoulder, and the Yankees sat out October for the first time since before his rookie season. The next year, he returned to form and the Yankees won the World series.
That was the fourth world championship for the Yankees with Posada as their primary catcher, including two (2000 and 2009) in which he held down the everyday job. He had his share of memorable October moments along the way -- most notably the game-tying, eighth-inning bloop double that finally caused Boston manager Grady Little to remove Pedro Martinez from Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS -- but Posada was not a great postseason hitter. Posada often disappeared in the postseason, hitting .248/.358/.387 in 492 career plate appearances, posting an OPS more than 100 points below his regular-season mark. That was likely due in large measure to how many games he caught in the regular season. From 2000 to 2007, only Jason Kendall made more starts at catcher than Posada's 1,028. Tellingly, Posada's career numbers are worse for each successive round of playoffs, something that would suggest fatigue was to blame for those underwhelming performances.
Posada wasn't a great defensive catcher, either, though he did play a larger percentage of his games at the position than Yogi Berra or Johnny Bench. In fact, one could argue he was only briefly good behind the plate, if he ever was at all. From 1999 to 2007, he averaged more than 12 passed balls a year, twice leading the majors in that category. His caught-stealing percentage was only a hair above average. Some might be tempted to give Posada a share of the credit for the quality of the Yankees pitching staffs during his career, but praising Posada for the success of pitchers such as Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, David Wells, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera seems overly generous, and the New York experiences of Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, Jeff Weaver and Jose Contreras, among others, hardly help Posada's case. What's more, Mike Fast's recent groundbreaking study on catchers' ability to get extra strikes from umpires rated Posada as consistently below average in that regard from 2007 to 2010.
Despite those flaws, Posada was clearly a player who will demand careful study when he arrives on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2017. As for his actual worthiness, let's take a quick run through Bill James' Keltner List:
Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
Was he the best player on his team?
Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes. In fact, Posada was one of the greatest old catchers in major league history. He hit .285/.363/.522 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs at age 37 in 2009. Fisk (twice) and Piazza (once) were the only other catchers ever to hit 20 or more homers in their age-37 season or after, and only Fisk (thrice) and Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi (once) had more productive seasons (per Baseball-Reference's Batting Runs) as catchers in or beyond their age-37 seasons.
Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
This refers to James' own formula-based Hall of Fame Standards, which are listed on the player pages at Baseball-Reference. Posada falls just short, scoring 40 points against the average Hall of Famer's total of 50.
Jay Jaffe's JAWS system has Posada even closer (40.2 points to the Hall standard of 42.6), but still just shy.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Beyond positional adjustments, no.
Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
He's not eligible yet, but assuming Piazza and Rodriguez (who is still active) go in on the first ballot, Posada could one day be in a position in which this argument could be made on his behalf, though it wouldn't be a clear-cut case it was for this year's veteran's committee inductee, Ron Santo, and the steroid suspicious surrounding Rodriguez could complicate things further.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Posada finished third in the American League voting in 2003 and sixth in 2007. Those were indeed his two best seasons. He wasn't a serious candidate in any other year.
How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?
Posada made five All-Star teams, should have been on the team in 2004, and was good enough to be considered in at least three other seasons. Many players who weren't close to Hall of Fame worthy played in five All-Star games, and catcher Sherm Lollar played in nine.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
No. I'm thinking of the Brian McCann Braves here.
What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
By almost every measure, Posada falls short of induction, but just short, an impressive achievement for a player who had such a late start to his career. (He was converted from second base in the minors and blocked by Joe Girardi in his mid-20s, not getting enough major league at-bats to qualify for a batting title until his age-28 season in 2000).
I don't imagine Posada ever will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, nor should he necessarily, but he wouldn't be the worst catcher in the Hall if he was. More likely, he'll be lumped into the group of near-misses that includes Ted Simmons, Joe Torre (as a player), the Tigers' Bill Freehan, and fellow Yankees Thurman Munson and Wally Schang, though I imagine as time passes he'll begin to stand out from that group.
Jorge Posada may not be a future Hall of Famer, but his legacy as a member of the dynastic Yankees at the turn of the millennium, the primary catcher of the legendary 1998 Yankees and arguably the best catcher of the first decade of this century, is secure.