Buster Posey, the former National League MVP whose team won three World Series titles over the last five years, and nobody outside of San Francisco seems to notice the true splendor of his 2015 season.Extraordinary people aren't supposed to be able to camouflage themselves into the goings-on of everyday life, and yet here is
Posey is the finest catcher in baseball today, the most well-rounded since Joe Mauer's prime, the likeliest threat to Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra's place atop the best-ever list. He hits for a high average and power in a home stadium that is like a baseball blackout. He walks more than he strikes out in an era where such hitters get rarer by the day. He throws out a higher percentage of attempted base stealers than anyone and frames so well he should work at Michael's. Were he more hare than tortoise, Posey would be the platonic ideal of a catcher.
True excellence can go unrecognized when in the presence of transcendence, so perhaps Bryce Harper is to blame for Posey's season lurking under the radar. It's not the only one, of course, though how it's possible for someone like…
1. Buster Posey to be two-thirds of the way to one of the greatest seasons ever from a catcher with barely a mention of just how great it's been is almost as incredible as what he has done.
First consider Posey's offensive line: .327/.385/.495. In history, only 11 other catchers who played 75 percent of their games behind the plate put up such a line. Posey was the last to do it in his 2012 MVP season. Mauer did it twice, as did Bubbles Hargrave and Hall of Famers Gabby Hartnett, Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane. Only Mike Piazza reached the thresholds three times.
While his bat is as good as ever, Posey's ability to stifle runners is newfound and damn near unfair. In 2012, runners stole a major league-high 87 bases off him and were caught 30.4 percent of the time. This season, in 44 attempts, Posey has thrown out 20 runners – a big league-best 45.5 percent caught stealing. Combine that with his annually tremendous framing skills – Posey has saved an estimated 16 runs turning balls into strikes at a higher rate than all but three other regular catchers, according to statcorner.com – and not only is he the top offensive catcher in baseball, one could argue he's the preeminent on defense, too.
Between Posey and …
2. Joey Votto, it's almost like it's 2012 again. Votto put up the Vottoest season of his career that year, slashing .337/.474/.567 and losing out at his shot for a second MVP only because he missed nearly a third of the season with an injury.
Now 31, with eight years and $199 million remaining on his contract, Votto is back to his on-base-machine self. Only Harper and Paul Goldschmidt have a better on-base percentage than Votto's .437. His power stroke reappeared this season, too, with a 30-homer season more than possible.
Over the last 30 games, Votto has been a particularly conflagrant version of himself. The .404 batting average is wonderful and the .697 slugging percentage excellent. It's the .563 OBP that makes him so unique. His 34 walks in that time are seven more than every other player in baseball. Over the last month, Votto has more walks than Brandon Crawford, Adam Jones, Lorenzo Cain, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista and …
3. Nelson Cruz combined. Which is to take nothing away from Cruz, who is in the midst of a whisper-quiet run at the American League Triple Crown. He's a few points back of the batting-average lead at .321. His 36 home runs are the most in baseball. The final piece is another story.
Because Cruz plays for the Mariners, and the Mariners do not have a single regular outside of Cruz with an on-base percentage above .326, the chances of him coming up with runners in scoring position enough to make up the 13-RBI gap between him and Josh Donaldson are slim. Cruz is hitting just fine in such situations this year (.307/.392/.553), a touch worse than his season line (.321/.389/.611).
Seattle's disappointing season has rendered Cruz's accomplishments practically moot, or at very least minimized what on a contending team would merit MVP talk. Cruz is but a lonely producer, left to toil away in hopes that the Mariners' desperate search for offense yields an out-of-nowhere surprise like …
4. Justin Turner that can string together two of the most underappreciated seasons possible. What looked like a fluke last season from Turner hasn't just been duplicated but exceeded this year, and perhaps the most vital piece of the $300 million Dodgers' offense this season has been a career utilityman making $2.5 million.
Turner, 30, rejoined the Dodgers this week after a disabled-list stint to heal from a MRSA infection. He signed with Los Angeles when the Mets non-tendered him following the 2013 season because, according to reports, the team thought he lacked hustle on the basepaths.
A career .260/.323/.361 hitter going into last season, Turner hit .340/.404/.493 in 322 plate appearances last year and followed up with a .321/.380/.560 mark in 293 times up this season. His versatility – he has played all four infield positions – has served the Dodgers well this season and should next, as they try to figure out a rejiggered infield that could replace Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick with some combination of Turner, Kike Hernandez, Jose Peraza and Corey Seager, arguably the best hitting prospect in the game.
The Dodgers remain in first not because of their payroll as much as their significant under-the-radar contributions, from Turner to catcher Yasmani Grandal to closer Kenley Jansen, whose strikeout rate (16.5 per nine innings) is almost as impressive as his strikeout-to-walk ratio (59-to-4). Team success from multiple sneaky-great players isn't a guarantee, as evidenced by …
5. David Peralta and A.J. Pollock and Brad Ziegler in Arizona. The Diamondbacks are exceeding expectations, certainly, hovering around .500 with their two outfielders and closer providing Goldschmidt with a nice supporting cast.
Peralta is the best story of the bunch, a 28-year-old who flamed out as a pitcher with the Cardinals, reinvented himself as a position player and slogged through three seasons in independent leagues before the Diamondbacks signed him in 2013. Last year, he debuted with Arizona, and now he's hitting .304/.371/.526.
Pollock is in Peralta's neighborhood (.313/.367/.477) and wields one of the best center-field gloves in the major leagues, too, which helps soften the blow from the trade of Adam Eaton to the Chicago White Sox, their partner in another ill-fated deal that netted the Diamondbacks deposed closer Addison Reed.
When Reed pitched himself out of the job early in the season, Ziegler took over and did what he does: throw slow pitches from an ultra-funky sidearm angle and get outs. Ziegler's 1.61 ERA is among the 10 best in the NL, and his groundball rate – which at 66.2 percent for his career is the highest since the statistic was charted about a decade ago – is 70.7 percent, an absurd figure if not for the fact that …
6. Zach Britton is at 77.3 percent. If the number holds, it would be the highest yet, surpassing Ziegler's 75.5 percent in 2012 and improving upon Britton's 75.3 last year. Moving Britton to the bullpen was among Buck Showalter's most deft maneuvers, and installing him as the Orioles' closer last season has proven even more vital.
Nobody in baseball combines Britton's ability to generate groundballs with his propensity to strike out hitters. His 10.3 strikeouts per nine are nearly twice Ziegler's 5.3. Britton might own the best sinker in baseball, and even though he throws it nine out of every 10 pitches, hitters still can't touch it. Sitting at 96, topping out at 99, it's a murderous pitch, the kind that plays up out of the bullpen and renders hitters worthless.
Because he's not Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel, Britton doesn't get the play he warrants as one of the game's best closers. The Orioles can take solace in that, knowing that at least they've been able to witness him blossom in their uniform instead of suffering through the same pangs of regret they do every time …
7. Jake Arrieta throws a pitch for the Chicago Cubs. He is the Orioles' one who got away, traded for a three-month rental of Scott Feldman, who gave Baltimore 15 below-average starts. Arrieta, in the meantime, has grown into one of the game's best pitchers, good enough to warrant consideration to start a potential one-game playoff ahead of Jon Lester, whom the Cubs guaranteed $155 million this offseason.
Following Saturday's victory – Arrieta's 11th consecutive start going at least six innings and allowing three or fewer runs – his ERA sat at 2.39, his strikeout total at 163 in 162 innings, his batting average against .206, his opportunity to win 20 games palpable (he's 14-6). All thanks to some mechanical tweaking and the adoption of a cutter that led to his blooming in Chicago. At 29, Arrieta is long past the expected breakout age for pitchers, though the Cubs aren't likely to argue with it as they chase the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central.
(A quick aside on the Cardinals, whose entire team deserves recognition for being the least-assuming on-pace-for-104-wins group possible. The Cardinals' pitching staff in particular is filled not with big names or monster stuff but guys who straight deal. Think about this: In more than 1,050 innings this season, the Cardinals have a 2.61 ERA, have struck out around eight per nine innings and walked about 2.79. Angels closer Huston Street has a 2.64 ERA with 8.32 strikeouts and 2.84 walks per nine. Essentially, every inning thrown by the Cardinals this year has been the equivalent to having an effective closer on the mound.)
Arrieta has been even better than that, proof that the most horrifying scenario for a general manager is trading a pitcher who breaks out somewhere else, a reality for which the Cleveland Indians are particularly thankful, with …
8. Corey Kluber doing just about the same thing he did last season when he won the AL Cy Young. Because his ERA this season is nearly a full run higher, the delight of Kluber belongs more to the informed than the masses.
Rest assured, he is every bit the pitcher he was last year. Kluber leads the AL in innings pitched (180 2/3) as well as strikeouts (193). While his K rate has dipped this season, so has his walk rate. He's still great at limiting home runs, and he has actually given up fewer hits per nine this year than last. So what gives? Mainly runners in scoring position tuning him up at a .271/.341/.390 clip this year compared to .207/.277/.284 rate last year.
With runners on base, the numbers this year are even worse: .292/.335/.434. Much of that, it would seem, is attributable to bad luck: Hitters have a .370 batting average on balls in play against Kluber with runners on base, compared to .318 last year. Working out of the stretch could be a goal of Kluber come the offseason, something that would make him even more devastating, another late bloomer in a long line that includes …
9. Lorenzo Cain looking like one of the best players in the AL. The 29-year-old Cain's star turn in the postseason last year yielded to something even better this season: a bat-glove-and-run combination damn near unparalleled in the game.
The glove and run portions of the proceedings weren't in question coming into the year. Cain deserved a Gold Glove last year and almost assuredly will win his first this year. His speed in center field was evident and translated to the basepaths as well.
Cain's bat, long a lingerer, no longer fails to stand up to the rest of his game. He has hit 12 home runs this season and easily could equal the 17 he had in the first 1,261 at-bats of his career. His .506 slugging percentage is nearly 100 points ahead of last season's. Along with Eric Hosmer – who is hitting over .400 in the past month and has just as quietly turned into one of the AL's more dangerous bats – Cain is driving the playoff-bound Royals' offense to 4.38 runs per game after scoring 4.02 last year.
With this sort of offense, the Royals look even more dangerous this October than they did last postseason. The one thing they never want to see again is …
10. Buster Posey and his San Francisco Giants, the quietest band of marauders in the game. Between hitting and fielding, no team matches the Giants this season, something of a surprise considering their championships came on the backs of superior pitching.
These Giants are deep and strong and seem to do just about everything right, and nobody exemplifies that better than Posey. Always a conscientious hitter, his evolution this year into someone who knows exactly what he wants is evident. Posey swings and misses on just 5.6 percent of pitches, one of the lowest rates in baseball, and has taken pains to find the proper pitch more than ever this year.
Posey is now offering at 71.4 percent of pitches in the strike zone, far higher than any of his past seasons, and making contact with a career-best 92.6 percent of them. The result: 41 walks and 39 strikeouts. Of the 154 players who qualify for the batting title, only Posey, Michael Brantley and Andrelton Simmons have more walks than strikeouts.
This is a player at the apex of his game, and perhaps he gets taken for granted because he is so unassuming, so matter of fact, so damn good at what he does. Not that Posey minds. Let Harper soak in that adulation. He deserves every bit of it. Only 20 players have put up the slash line Harper is this season, and the last 13 such seasons came from 1993-2008, the highest run-scoring environment in more than four decades.
Posey will swing his stick and frame his pitches and throw out batters and do his best to run and live his baseball life where he's most comfortable: under the radar and always primed to grab one more ring.
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