Others have begun to discuss Buster Posey and his case for the 2012 National League MVP award, and as should surprise nobody (especially since I’ve mentioned this before), I’m also on the “Posey for MVP” bandwagon. The competition for NL MVP is rather tight, with several players standing out as strong candidates. The contenders can reasonably be cut down to the following seven players: Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina, David Wright, Jason Heyward and Chase Headley. You could actually make a serious case for a few others (Aaron Hill, even?), but those are probably the big seven.
Let’s begin with the basics: offensive output. Buster Posey, as of this writing, ranks second in the NL in batting average (just behind Melky Cabrera), first in OBP (at a remarkable .410), and third in slugging percentage (behind Andrew McCutchen, .557, and Ryan Braun, .600). Given where Posey falls in the triple-slash stats, it’s not surprising that he rates well by the total offensive metrics: he has a 172 adjusted OPS+, which is not only the highest mark in the majors, but also the second-highest mark by any qualified catcher ever. Part of that, assuredly, is due to this year’s wonky SF park factors, but it’s worth noting that Posey has a significant lead over the others: McCutchen is second, at 165, and Braun is third, at 160.
In terms of wOBA, which better accounts for the value of getting on base, Posey is second in the NL at .404, two points ahead of McCutchen and 15 points behind Braun. The 15-point gap can be attributed to base-stealing — Posey has been inactive in that regard, whereas Braun is 30 for 37 on stolen base attempts — and park factors, as Posey doesn’t have the benefit of playing half his games in the hitter-friendly confines of Miller Park (after park adjustments, Braun is at a 166 wRC+, while Posey is at 160).
Recently, I’ve started to navigate toward TAv (True Average) as a preference for total offensive valuation, as it includes some important stuff that stats like wOBA (and wRC+) and OPS (and OPS+) ignore: namely reaching base on errors, grounding into double plays, and situational hitting. By TAv, Posey comes out ahead in the NL, and nobody’s even close: Buster stands at a league-leading .350, while Braun and McCutchen are at .334 and .330, respectively.
Now one significant factor that hasn’t been discussed yet is playing time accrued. This is why Joey Votto and Carlos Ruiz, despite impressive numbers, haven’t really found themselves in the MVP debate; they simply haven’t played enough. Here’s where the Posey argument loses some steam as well: his rate stats are wonderful, but he’s also had only 600 plate appearances, roughly 60 fewer plate appearances than Braun and McCutchen, and 85 fewer than Chase Headley. (Yadier Molina, for the record, lags even further behind, at 555 plate appearances). This is where counting stats come into play: on a cumulative basis, where does Posey’s offensive output rank among the other contenders? The following chart shows total offensive contribution in runs by TrR (TAv-based), as well as total offensive contribution in runs above average by wRAA (wOBA-based).
Posey is second to Braun by both measures, and while he’s neck and neck with the competition in terms of TrR, Braun is way ahead in wRAA. It’s reasonable to conclude that Braun has been the better hitter this year, perhaps even by a large gap. Additionally, it’s reasonable to conclude that Posey has been better offensively than the rest of the competition, and in the cases of Headley, Wright, Heyward, and Molina, by a large gap as well.
But enough about pure hitting. There are other critical aspects of value, and we must delve into those departments (position, defense, base-running) to get a better overall picture. The crux of the Posey argument lies in his position: he plays the most important defensive position on the diamond, one that notoriously takes a beating on players. Wright, Headley, Braun, and Heyward all play corner positions. McCutchen plays centerfield, which is a position of scarcity (it’s not easy to find a quality defensive centerfielder that can hit), but not nearly to the extent of the catching position. Hence, the positional adjustment, which is implemented in all calculations of WAR. For this reason, all things being equal, production out of a catcher is estimated to be worth +20 runs (per 600 PA) more than the same production out of a left fielder. (Though one should note that Posey has made roughly 20% of his starts at first base).
Perusing the Fangraphs positional adjustments for this season, Posey has a +13 run advantage over Braun and Heyward, and a near-4 run advantage over Wright, McCutchen, and Headley. (Molina, having started all his games at catcher, actually has a four-run edge over Posey here).
Now, onto the base-running. For these purposes, we’ll look at Baseball Prospectus’ base-running metric (BRR). Do note that it includes base-stealing, meaning we’re counting SB/CS twice when we look at this in combination with wRAA.
Posey is clearly the worst of the bunch, but there probably isn’t as big a gap between Posey and his main competitors (McCutchen, Braun) as you’d expect.
I’ve touched on everything, at this point, except defense. I’ll touch on that later. The thing about defensive metrics is: they leave a lot to be desired. Thus, it’s not a bad idea to look at everything else first, and then turn to defense. Enter VORP, which is just Baseball Prospectus’ implementation of WAR (WARP) without the defense, expressed in terms of runs above replacement (rather than wins above replacement). Posey is currently at a National League-leading +67.4 VORP. McCutchen is second in the NL…at +56.5. That’s a pretty huge gap, and given that Posey is clearly adept at catching, it’s hard to see how the others would close that gap on defense alone. Interestingly enough, McCutchen, Braun, Headley, Wright, and Molina are all in the low-to-mid 50s range, with Heyward way behind (+35.3). Heyward is a superb defender (+19 DRS, +21.5 UZR, +14.9 FRAA), and that’s enough to put him in the discussion, but not enough to put him near Posey.
As hard as it is to accurately assess defense for an outfielder, it’s even harder to get an accurate read on catcher defense. Catching is an intricate art: game-calling, control of the running game, pitch-framing, pitch-blocking, errors and whatnot. But what we do have at our disposal would indicate that Posey is, overall, an above-average defensive catcher. He’s only allowed two passed balls, and he’s gunned down 30% of would-be base-stealers (compared to a league-average mark of 26%). In August, Matt Klaasen published catcher defense ratings based on errors, passed balls, wild pitches, and base-stealing. Posey came out to +4.2 runs above average on the season. I’m not sure if there’s pitch-framing data on Posey available anywhere, but having watched him all season long, he seems to exhibit the traits of a good pitch-framer. He’s a stable, quiet receiver, without much movement in his mechanics. For an example, just check out the second .GIF on this page. That’s how you get a called strike on a pitch out of the strike zone. And those tend to add up — a really good pitch-framer can be extremely valuable (see: Molina, Jose).
By the way, Posey rates well by all three major implementations of wins above replacement. That should be no surprise, obviously, as we’ve gone over a lot of the components here, but a quick check: Posey is second in the NL in fWAR, at 7.8, just two-tenths of a win behind Braun; he’s fifth in rWAR, at 6.7, but still right up there with the rest of the competition — McCutchen, who leads the league in rWAR, only has a 0.4-win advantage over Posey; and Posey is first in WARP, a whopping 0.7 wins ahead of Braun.
There’s also a reasonable argument to be made that catchers are underrated by WAR. Bill of the Platoon Advantage, in fact, brought this up in his post on Posey’s MVP case (linked above, and right here). Consider this: there have been 687 seasons since 1901 in which a player posted 6.5+ rWAR. Only 22 of those were catchers — and two of those are Buster Posey and Yadier Molina in 2012. A large reason for this is playing time — catchers simply don’t play as much because of the toll that their job takes on their body. Another major factor is the effect that daily catching has on offensive production — it surely hampers it (that’s why you’ll generally see an uptick in production when a player moves from catcher to first base). Anyway, Posey is having an historically great season with respect to his position – arguably top-ten all time – and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give him a small boost for that.
Plus, there’s other stuff. Stuff that doesn’t matter all that much to me, but matters to a lot of the people that vote on this. Posey is on a playoff team, unlike McCutchen and Braun. Posey has had a great second half, which means to a lot of people that he’s been at his best when it’s mattered most. (That’s true in another way, too — he’s performed much better in medium and high-leverage situations than in low-leverage situations, which is certainly worth some bonus points). And the narrative surrounding Posey’s season — it practically writes itself. But there’s one more factor that might lead to Posey winning the NL MVP, one that isn’t about Posey at all — it’s about Ryan Braun. It’s inevitable that Braun, in the wake of the disputed testosterone test, has lost some votes (even if it’s not exactly fair). He’s probably lost a lot of votes. That’s why I expect that Posey will take home the MVP award — which he deserves, in my mind — even if it’s not for the right reasons.