Ask Alex: Will Buster Posey prove immune to sophomore slump?

We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: Short of being afforded an entire season, Buster Posey(notes) couldn't have had his rookie year go much better. Two years after being selected with the fifth pick in the 2008 draft, he won the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award, finished 11th in the MVP voting, hit .375 in the NLDS to help defeat his hometown Atlanta Braves (and fellow Georgian catcher Brian McCann(notes)), and he smacked a homer in the fourth game of the World Series.

As Grant from McCovey Chronicles wrote:

The best position player prospect since Will Clark was ready to hit for a team that couldn't... And then Buster Posey won a division. And then he won a pennant. And then he won a championship. And then he won Rookie of the Year. You'd be stupid not to have him taking your NCAA bracket too. Posey over Duke, 89-61, with three Blue Devils caught stealing. They said there would be an adjustment period. If this was the adjustment period, it's hard to imagine what it will be like when Posey settles in.

The Question: After his spectacular debut in 2010, will Buster Posey prove himself immune to the sophomore slump in 2011?

The Analysis: There's no question that Posey is the real deal. That said, it is getting hard to see the player behind the hype. He's being anointed as the best fantasy catcher in all of baseball by some and ESPN the Magazine just called him NEXT.

As Mike Axisa wrote for Fangraphs:

Part of the pitfall of being the game's premier under-25 catcher is being overrated to a certain extent, especially in fantasy... Potential is a great, but Mauer and McCann are proven commodities at a scarce position. Sophomore slumps come in all shapes and sizes, and there's definite value in predictability. Posey doesn't offer much of that right now. That said, I'd be thrilled to have him.

As the ESPN piece notes, Posey only started catching four years ago, so his knees have experienced far less wear and tear than most catchers, which could help his legs stay fresh for longer. While it was remarkable that he hit the ground running as quickly as he did — his pedigree wasn't much different than that of Matt Wieters(notes), but Wieters has struggled to translate the superior power and plate discipline he showed in college and in the minors into production at the major league level. Posey basically just kept hitting.

And the major projection systems tend to believe that's just what he'll keep doing. Bill James believes he'll hit .308/.370/.506 with 21 homers and 74 RBI; Dan Szymborski's ZiPS calls for .298/.355/.480 with 21 homers and 92 RBI. But it's hard to predict anything but success for a man who has never known anything but success; the next time he struggles will be his first.

But catchers do often peak early — at least, they do when they get started early. So while Posey may get better, he may not get much better. Posey is one of 19 catchers to have a 15-homer season by the age of 23. All but four of the other 18 saw their rate stats decline in the following season (though many of them rebounded to post fine totals in their mid-to-late 20s); however, among those four were Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and near-Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Lance Parrish actually improved in their sophomore seasons.

Even still, Benito Santiago and Brian McCann's best seasons were at age 22, and Johnny Bench's best two seasons were at 22 and 24. Joe Torre and Rudy York were moved to the infield in their late 20s. Catchers who can hit are among the rarest commodities in baseball. Catchers who never hit a rough patch are nearly impossible to find.

The Forecast for 2011: There is nothing in Posey's past to suggest he'll do anything but hit. So I can't predict a severe sophomore dropoff. But, considering the history, I tend to agree with ZiPS that his power and batting average are likely to decline a bit, once he plays a full season behind the plate, rather than half a season in kneepads and a month at first base. I think 20 homers sounds about right, with a batting average a tick below .300 but an OPS comfortably over .800. Unless his bat goes nuclear, I doubt he'll finish quite so high in the MVP voting again: the 2010 Giants were a charmed team, and the world champion Giants as a team are likely headed for a bit of a sophomore slump themselves. But Posey will still be their best hitter by far. Maybe not quite as good as he was in 2010, but still one of the best two Georgian catchers in the league.

Do you have a question about the 2011 season for Alex? Email him here.

Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?, How many games will the Astros win?, Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?

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