Return to power

Bats of backstop guys are more at the forefront than any time since Gerald Ford

Updated: August 14, 2012, 12:23 PM ET
By Colin Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

tkDeanne FitzmauriceThe Giants know you need a catcher who hits like Buster Posey to contend.

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TWO WEEKS INTO a stretch in which he's batting .512, five innings into a game in which he's smashed two hits, Buster Posey steps to the plate with two on and one out and, smirking a little, stares down the Padres' Clayton Richard. Richard's first pitch on this July 23 evening is a 91 mph fastball without much movement. Posey waits on it, then takes it high and deep to right field. Only 14 times have righthanded Giants hit a home run to right at AT&T Park, but tonight Posey does it for the second time in his 247-game career. The three-run blast secures the win for NL ERA leader Ryan Vogelsong, who hadn't won in nearly a month, and keeps the Giants a game and a half ahead of the Dodgers in the NL West. "It's hard to put a value on what [Posey] means to this club," manager Bruce Bochy tells the media after the game.

He's not kidding. The Giants would end the month near the bottom of the majors in runs scored (25th, to be exact), batting .259/.318/.377 (BA/OBP/SLG) as a team. Meanwhile, Posey's line through Aug. 1 was .318/.385/.510, making him -- with very little exaggeration -- the only Giant hitting the ball with power. An argument can be made that Posey's presence in the middle of the order was why the Giants won it all in his rookie season and why they went nowhere when he was hurt last year. Bochy said as much on July 23: "We saw what life was like without him last year," most of which Posey missed with a broken leg and strained ankle ligaments. "But he's done an unbelievable job here the past few weeks, finding ways to get the runs in." Posey ended July with 21 RBIs.

Posey is the game's best catcher: At 6'1", 220 pounds, the 25-year-old four-year vet is an All-Star power hitter with an uncanny defensive mindset. During his perfect game in June, Matt Cain didn't call off Posey once. And, adds Bochy, "he's a good thrower. I'd say he's as high an impact player as you can get."

Posey isn't the only catcher powering the heart of a winning lineup and influencing games in ways that receivers haven't for years. The Rangers' Mike Napoli -- who started the All-Star Game ahead of Joe Mauer -- is a big reason Texas came within a pitch of winning the World Series last year and is dominant again. Matt Wieters' early-season play in Baltimore (an OPS of .937 in April) helped the Orioles start strong and stay a game and a half from a wild-card slot through July. So many catchers are producing this year, in fact, that they obscure the usual virtuoso tricks of Mauer himself (a .323 BA through July) and five-time Silver Slugger winner Brian McCann (18 homers). The Pirates' Michael McKenry, for instance, is a third-year player who had a 1.103 OPS for the month of July. There are the workaday, defensive-minded types who nonetheless rake: the Cards' Yadier Molina, whose .865 OPS was fourth among catchers through Aug. 1. Or the D-backs' Miguel Montero, who threw out 40 percent of baserunners last season, a career best, while batting cleanup and making the All-Star team. He has continued his offensive output this year, leading all catchers in RBIs through Aug. 1. Then there are the veterans still hitting for power: Carlos Ruiz, who led the Phillies in batting average through June 27 (.364) and then made the All-Star team. Through July, he had a 5.0 Wins Above Replacement, best at the position.

The top catchers haven't put up numbers like this since 2000, in the glory days of Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, or the 1970s, when sluggers Thurman Munson, Bill Freehan, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk were all behind the plate.

Like many of those stars, and few catchers since, Posey is the dominant player on a perennial contender. But on a recent Sunday in the Giants clubhouse, he is concerned with more than just the game. "I've got to turn this down," he says. Frank Sinatra pours out of the sound system as his team gets ready to renew its rivalry with the Dodgers, who have refused to go gently into that good night, threatening to pull even in the division as the trade deadline approaches. "I have to turn this music down."

The man has to think, after all: about the pennant race ahead, what he's done thus far and why defense, of all things, may explain all the offense the catcher spot is generating. "As a catcher, you have to put your focus on what you're doing defensively," he says. "You learn how to put your at-bats aside if you're struggling." Then he pauses. "That's the goal anyway."

[+] Enlargetk
Deanne FitzmauriceAn upside of being too slow to play shortstop is that you can move to catcher and mash.

Until the past few years, power-hitting young catchers -- Paul Konerko, Carlos Delgado and even Posey's All-Star teammate Pablo Sandoval -- were often converted into power-hitting corner infielders or DHs. The notion that catchers with potential as run producers should be freed from their defensive burdens was reinforced by Craig Biggio, who became a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter after he switched to second base after four years behind the plate.

But by 2006, Mauer's 6 feet 5 inches of brilliance -- he hit .347 with a .936 OPS that season, made the All-Star team (at 23 no less) and carried a .996 fielding percentage -- reminded MLB teams that catchers could be both offensive juggernauts and defensive weapons. Teenage stud catchers with big builds like Posey, who switched from shortstop to catcher in 2007 as a college sophomore, were now seeing a more promising path for themselves. Suddenly, anyone who could drive the ball but was too slow to excel at 3B or OF thought about catching. "If you have that hitting ability, you're an impact player," says Bochy, a former catcher. "You're going to be in high demand."

Ron Washington can appreciate that. The Rangers manager says he loves "everything" Napoli brought to the team in 2011, when Napoli had one of the best offensive seasons ever for a catcher: .320 with 30 homers and an OPS (1.046) better than any posted by Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Bench or Munson in their MVP seasons (nine total). Even though Napoli is slumping this year and has never been considered a great defensive backstop, Washington believes he will be key to Texas' finally winning a World Series. "When he puts a sign and a location down, our fielders can trust that pitcher is going to put the ball in the area, and that gives them a jump."

Sounds like Bochy's view of Posey. Or Posey's of the catcher who played the largest role in shaping him: Pudge Rodriguez. "Any game I could catch on TV, I would watch," Posey says. "I just tried to pick up little things: the way a guy sets up with nobody on or with guys on base, the way a guy framed pitches."

Just imagine how many teenagers this season are studying Posey the same way.

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