Bible: When will Posada be replaced?Steven Goldman looks inside the numbers of catchers Posada's age and older
Posada will be entering his age-35 season this year (baseball ages are usually reckoned by the player's age on July 1 of the season, so even though Posada has been 35 since last August 17, we consider him to have been 34 last year and 35 this year). Assuming he performs well enough this year that he would remain an attractive candidate in 2008 and onward, his new contract would have to take him from age 36 to at least 37, if not 38.
If that is the case, the Yankees would do well to start asking stalemated first base "prospects" like Shelly Duncan to see if they can make the throw to second, because the team could find itself with very disappointing production at catcher in relatively short order. The list of catchers who have had outstanding, or even passable, offensive seasons from ages 35 through 38 is extremely short.
Since 1900, only 115 catchers ages 35 and up have played a full season, liberally defined as 300 or more plate appearances, and half of them were Carlton Fisk. That seems like an exaggeration now, but given the longevity of his career he shows up quite often. We've used Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement (WARP) as a method for ranking seasons. WARP considers offense and defense and also accounts for park effects, position, offensive level of the era, and Margaret Thatcher. We'll go through the catchers in each age group and see if we can come to any conclusions about Posada's possible future.
|TOP 10 SEASONS BY CATCHERS AT AGE 35|
Ellie Howard won the Most Valuable Player award for his 1963 season, but his 1964 season was nearly as good. Unfortunately, there would be no encore as Howard's bat vanished with this season. As veteran catchers go, Howard didn't have a great deal of mileage on him in career terms but 1964 had to be stressful. Manager Ralph Houk thought of his bench players as season ticket holders with really good seats. They didn't play so much as observe. Howard caught 146 games in 1964, the most of his career, and perhaps as much as age the overwork contributed to his fade.
Posada doesn't strongly resemble any of these players with the bat. Fisk and Hartnett are probably the closest models. Fisk, batting second for the White Sox in 1983, helped them to a 99-63 record and an AL West title. He played for another 10 years and had many fine seasons left. Hartnett had a terrific age 36 season (as depicted a few lines down), then slid into a part-time role as the Cubs' player-manager. Of the rest of the players on the list above, Whitt and Cooper retained a large percentage of their offensive value for a time. Todd, rated highly here because WARP likes his glove, Girardi-ed his way into for a few more years of work. Similarly, Lollar's bat had already quit, but his glove would keep him frisky for another year. The others were done.
The key thing to note here is how thin the list is. A 9.5 WARP represents a borderline-MVP season. A player in the 7.0s might be an All-Star. Below that we're in the realm of the merely pretty good. In other words, in the history of the game, there have been just three real star turns by a catcher at age 35. If you think about it, Yogi Berra spent his last full season behind the plate at 34. Johnny Bench retired after his age-35 season. Bill Dickey last caught 100 games at 34. Beanballs had finished Mickey Cochrane at 34. Mike Piazza was trying out first base at 35. It's a tough position.
|TOP 10 SEASONS BY CATCHERS AT AGE 36|
Just 30 catchers at age 36 have had seasons of 300 or more plate appearances. Hartnett had a terrific last hurrah in a league which hit .272/.332/.382. The rest of these fellows had neither time nor productivity on their side. The closest player to Posada among this group is probably ex-Yankee Schang, who was with the Browns in 1926 after spending the previous five seasons with New York. Like Posada, Schang was a switch-hitter who walked a lot and wasn't noted for his defense (the reason his offensive season doesn't rate more highly here). Schang's career rates were .284/.393/.401. Translated to a neutral time and place, those rates become .259/.371/.446. Posada's translated rates are .276/.386/.496. Keep in mind we're checking in on Posada at mid-career; by the time he's done those rates will have fallen a bit closer to Schang's. Schang had three useful part-time seasons left after 1926. One wrinkle here is that Posada showed a surprising improvement in his defensive game last year. If it wasn't a fluke, he's going to buy some extra old-age time behind the plate. Unfortunately for Schang, he never got to work with Tony Pena.
|TOP 10 SEASONS BY CATCHERS AT AGE 37|
Mike Piazza's 2006 offensive comeback (largely disguised by Petco) would have pushed him higher on the list but for his glove, which WARP sees as evil bad, as do most casual observers and the Hubble space telescope. Fisk returns after injuries held him to 102 games in 1984. His batting average was in the .230s for the second straight season, but he hit a career-high 37 home runs. Lombardi had another year of part-time play left before age and immobility ended his major league career-he played a bit for Casey Stengel with the Oakland Oaks before finally retiring. The oft-injured Greg Myers had a fluke season; he had all of 30 at bats left in his career. Santiago had one vaguely decent year left. Piazza becomes a DH in the spring.
The best season by a catcher in this age-group who doesn't meet the 300 PA qualifier was turned in by Earle Brucker of the A's, a minor league vet in his sophomore season at 37. He batted .374/.437/.561 in 191 plate appearances.
Another thought about Posada: he's an unusual player. Among catchers with 5000 or more plate appearances, he ranks fourth in isolated power (slugging average minus batting average) behind Piazza, Bench, and Javy Lopez. His walk rate is the third-highest in that group, trailing only Mickey Cochrane and Darrell Porter. It could be that this unusual player will age in an unusual way. That could mean that he ages more slowly, or more rapidly, or he breaks both legs during the annual Running of the Rhinos in Kenya.
|TOP 10 SEASONS BY CATCHERS AT AGE 38|
Just 11 catchers have had 300 plate appearances in a single season at age 38. The missing man here is Elston Howard's 1967. On the other hand, the unstoppable Al Todd is back! Bob Boone floats to the top because WARP feels he played crazy great defense in 1986; obviously Hartnett and Schang were far superior with the lumber. Continuing his strange, brief career, Earle Brucker of the A's batted .291/.381/.442 in 199 plate appearances.
|TOP 10 SEASONS BY CATCHERS AT AGE 39 AND UP|
There are just 11 catchers in this group as well. This time the odd man out is Uncle Wilbert Robinson's 1902. You aren't missing much. Carlton Fisk solidifies his hold as master of the weird by turning in the fourth-best season of his career (by WARP) at age 42. It goes without saying that any team that signs a catcher in this age group to play more than a part-time role is trying to hit seven with a six-sided die.
The Yankees really have little choice but to try to sign Posada to (in a best-case scenario) a two-year contract. The catchers likely to be free agents after the season, a group that includes Pudge Rodriguez and Paul Lo Duca, are of the same vintage but are less likely to produce as they age, having less power and patience than Posada. He's really the only game in town.
BLAH, BLAH, BLAH
Yesterday, Alex Rodriguez was asked about the opt-out clause of his contract. He didn't say he wouldn't use it. He didn't say he would use it. He didn't answer the question. There's zero reason to get excited about this until it actually happens. By the fall it could be something both sides want, or neither side. If Rodriguez chooses to leave, then the Yankees will get a new third baseman from somewhere. Whoever he is, he won't be as good, but it will be like any other situation in which a free agent departs or a player retires or has to be replaced because of injury. The team moves on, life goes on. There are always problems to solve. Third base would be one of them. Until then: move along, nothing to see here.