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Could Buster Posey's resurgence change the way baseball handles star catchers?

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Stop me if this sounds familiar: Buster Posey returned from time away Monday night with a bang, homering to lead the San Francisco Giants over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

That was only a brief IL stint, but it’s a microcosm of the rip-roaring resurgence Posey is experiencing at age 34. The superstar linchpin of the Giants’ championship runs a decade ago is batting .330 after opting out of 2020 entirely to care for his adopted newborn daughters. Fresh off a year on the sideline, he’s already slugged 13 homers, more than he had logged in any full season since 2016.

This unforeseen return to MVP-like form is inarguably a major ingredient in the Giants’ surprising leap to the top of the NL West, but it’s also an eyebrow-raising statement about the grueling physical toll of playing behind the plate in the majors. 

Already one of the dozen or so most accomplished catchers in baseball history, Posey was in precipitous decline last we saw him prior to 2021. A hip injury sapped his power and eventually ended his 2018 in August when surgery became necessary. Things did not improve in 2019 — his .257/.320/.368 line, which worked out to an adjusted OPS 17 percent below league average, was by far the worst of his career.

Hopes of Posey adding anything else of substance to his sparkling resume were, understandably, dimming. The hips of catchers in their mid-30s don’t tend to get healthier. 

Unless you take an entire year off, apparently.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JULY 04: Buster Posey #28 of the San Francisco Giants is congratulated by teammates after scoring against the Arizona Diamondbacks on an RBI double by Darin Ruf #33 of the Giants during the first inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on July 04, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
After opting out of the 2020 season, Giants catcher Buster Posey has roared back to peak form in 2021 at age 34. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Playing catcher is impossibly demanding

The grind of the catcher position is often discussed as a first half-second half split. Battered by blocked pitches and foul balls, backstops tend to wear down as the season goes along.

Posey’s career numbers would indicate sterling stamina for a catcher. His pre- and post-All-Star break on-base percentages literally match (.372), and he takes only a modest dip in slugging percentage, from .842 to .820. That story has deteriorated as he has gotten older. Over his past five seasons, so since 2015, Posey has a first-half OPS of .825 — 24 percent better than the average hitter by FanGraphs’ wRC+ metric — and a second-half OPS of .753, only 5 percent better than average.

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez, famous for taking on a tougher workload than any other contemporary backstop, is another example of this. Excluding the shortened 2020 season, Perez sports a 104 wRC+ in first halves, with certifiable slugger status. In the second half, he has been under water as a hitter, running an 89 wRC+. 

Lo and behold, when an injury shelved Perez for the entire 2019 season, he came back with a vengeance. In 2020, he posted the best 60-game span of his career by far, hinting at the rejuvenating properties of a sabbatical, even an accidental one.

Posey’s 2012 season might even support the idea. He returned from the broken leg that wiped out his 2011 after just 45 games with an MVP campaign. He may have done that regardless, given his status as a spry 25-year-old superstar at the time, but the extra rest couldn’t have hurt.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 28: San Francisco Giants Catcher Buster Posey (28) walks to a field during the MLB game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 28, 2021, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.  (Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Buster Posey takes the field as the catcher at Dodger Stadium. (Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Could Posey’s revitalization change how catchers are handled?

How to make the most of a highly talented catcher’s career is not a new quandary.

Perhaps trying to stave off the health concerns that plagued Joe Mauer, eventually forcing him from behind the plate altogether, the Giants used to spell Posey from catching duties with regular starts at first base. Under the new leadership of manager Gabe Kapler and baseball operations leader Farhan Zaidi, however, they have abandoned that.

Instead of a plan that occasionally spares him from donning the tools of ignorance, Kerry Crowley of the Mercury News explained earlier this season, the Giants have focused on achieving actual rest:

Prior to a stretch of games uninterrupted by an off day, Posey will meet with manager Gabe Kapler and trainer Dave Groeschner to discuss how they can keep him fresh. The group often targets day games that follow night games as rest days, and when Posey doesn’t play, he’s no longer considered an option at first base and rarely viewed as a potential pinch-hitter.

A lighter schedule for Posey often frustrates Giants fans who want to see the franchise cornerstone in the lineup every day, but seven of his 12 home runs this year have come in games that followed a rest day for Posey. Two others were hit in the first two games of the regular season.

“I think a lot of (Posey’s success) has to do with his body being healthier than it has been in a really long time and I think that’s due to two things,” Kapler explained. “First, his involvement in his own schedule and planning out his usage patterns and two, having the year off to recover and have that hip fully healthy, it’s definitely seeing him move well in the batter’s box and those things have been influential in helping his power.”

The second half will be an interesting measuring stick for the Giants’ modified plan, and the staying power of Posey’s sabbatical strength, but the outsized results so far — in combination with Perez’s eye-popping 2020 — are sure to plant some seeds about how catchers are treated going forward.

While many backstops simply don’t have the offensive skills to produce like Posey at any level of health, the magnitude of this spike is hard to ignore. 

Beyond the general truth that we could all use a yearlong sabbatical right now, could this become a more intentional part of baseball? Might star catchers in their 30s already making guaranteed money be willing to take, say, the first half of a season off to chase more impactful production? Would a team and player agree to shut it down in the second half of a disappointing campaign?

The logistical challenges of attempting this would be immense, and the competitive integrity questions would be fraught, but that typically doesn’t stop baseball teams from pursuing competitive advantages.

Still, the more realistic takeaway from Posey’s Undertaker impression is that catching might just be too taxing a job for a great hitter. If a robotic strike zone comes to the majors, as they could over the next decade, a huge piece of the value that made Posey special as a catcher would no longer be on the table. If teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates — who just selected catcher Henry Davis with the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft — see that coming down the pike, the more likely effect is much simpler: Posey might be the last hitter of this caliber who is asked to play catcher at all.

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