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May 26, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Buster Posey Busted

by Jay Jaffe

The wee hours of Thursday morning featured some strange extra-innings baseball. Wilson Valdez's 19th-inning relief work provided a weird and wonderful reward for those who stayed up late enough to watch, as the Phillies' fill-in second baseman became the first position player to garner a win since Brent Mayne in 2000 thanks to a scoreless inning against the Reds. Alas, the 12-inning Giants-Marlins game produced a result with more lasting effect, as Buster Posey suffered a severe leg injury in a collision at home plate. Tagging up on a sacrifice fly, the Marlins' Scott Cousins threw a cross-body block on Posey, who was blocking the plate as he awaited the ball's arrival. The star backstop's left foot was pinned beneath him as the rest of his body rotated upon impact. In short, he got creamed. The Giants have yet to release official word on the severity of the injury, but the early report is that he has both a leg fracture and torn ligaments, the latter possibly in his knee, along the lines of last season's Carlos Santana injury. Posey's season is almost certainly done, and the looming question, beyond what this could mean for his career behind the plate, is whether the defending world champions are done, too.

Posey's agent and ESPN's Buster "Solidarity in Nicknames" Olney have both called for a rules change to prevent This Sort of Thing, but none of that helps the Giants right now. Despite Wednesday night's loss, they sit atop the NL West at 27-21, leading the Diamondbacks and Rockies by 2.5 and 3.0 games, respectively. They're rather lucky to be leading the division given that they've actually been outscored by two runs. They currently rank seventh on the NL Hit List, with an adjusted Hit List Factor of .508. They've exceeded their first-order Pythagenpat projection by an NL-high 3.2 wins, and are 1.7 wins above their third-order projection. Their pitching staff's stinginess (3.58 runs per game, third in the NL) is essentially equal to their offense's decrepitude (3.54 runs per game, third-to-last), and that is where the Giants' real problem lies.

Posey is hitting just .284/.368/.389, a significant step down from last year's stellar .305/.357/.505 showing as a rookie. Some of that decline owes to the league-wide offensive downturn, but it still represents a 44-point drop in True Average, from .310 to .266. Still, this is a player whose weighted mean PECOTA projection calls for a .295 TAv and a .292/.360/.466 line, significantly more muscle than he's currently providing. Oddly, his May performance (.311/.414/.351) had been thoroughly slaptastic, much differently shaped than April's .261/.327/.420 line.

Given that the Giants rank 11th in the league in batting average (.243), 13th in OBP (.308), and 12th in slugging percentage (.366), they're in no position to complain about help in any slash category, or from any position. Taking a page from last year's playbook, manager Bruce Bochy has relied upon his players' positional flexibility to shuffle his lineup amid injuries, but nearly every key hitter is underperforming, hardly a surprise given that last year's championship run owed much to career years from journeymen (Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres) and hackers on hot streaks (Juan Uribe, Cody Ross). Compare the performances of the 11 Giants with at least 80 plate appearances against their PECOTA projections:
 

Player

PA

TAv
(Actual)

TAv (PECOTA)

+/-

Andres Torres

88

.300

.262

.038

Pablo Sandoval

91

.323

.290

.033

Nate Schierholtz

96

.291

.264

.027

Cody Ross

107

.274

.266

.008

Freddy Sanchez

195

.264

.256

.008

Mike Fontenot

108

.256

.256

.000

Pat Burrell

138

.273

.274

-.001

Aaron Rowand

150

.239

.256

-.017

Buster Posey

185

.266

.295

-.029

Miguel Tejada

179

.207

.249

-.042

Aubrey Huff

195

.226

.276

-.050


Of that group, Sandoval is currently on the disabled list due to a broken hamate bone that required surgery, a major blow given that his improved conditioning helped restore his ability to hit as he did in 2008-2009. He's probably a couple of weeks away, but coming off a hand injury, his stroke could take longer to recover. Torres already missed three weeks due to an Achilles strain, though he thus far has shown no signs that last year's breakout was a fluke. Ross, Sanchez, Fontenot, and Burrell are delivering performances right in line with expectation, which is to say that they've collectively been very, very average. Fontenot has been overexposed by injuries to both Sandoval and Mark DeRosa (who again went down with a wrist injury), and by Tejada's suckitude, playing shortstop while the dessicated remains of Miggy shift back to third base; after hitting an improbable .264/.365/.547 through his first 63 plate appearances, he's crashed back to earth over his last 45 (.128/.244/.179). Rowand has been too much like himself for polite company.

Aside from the injuries, Huff is the real problem for the Giants' lineup. Rebounding from a terrible 2009, he emerged as both a rally-thonged leader and a mid-lineup force, hitting .290/.385/.506 with a team-high 26 homers last year while playing for just $3 million dollars. Naturally, general manager Brian Sabean saw the bountiful possibilities of a 34-year-old defensive liability coming off a career year, and rewarded Huff with a two-year, $22 million deal. Mind you, he did this with top hitting prospect Brandon Belt, a first baseman, coming off one of the biggest breakouts in all of the minors last season. After climbing from High-A to Triple-A over the course of 2010, Belt was so impressive during spring training that he was the team's opening day first baseman. Alas, not only did he not hit during his three-week stay (.192/.300/.269), he exposed Huff as a terrible outfielder, one who might spend more time on his stomach than on his feet.

Belt has been recalled from Triple-A Fresno, where he was hitting .337/.470/.525 while spending most of his time in left field. Obviously, he can't catch, so no matter where he fits into the lineup, the Giants take a hit elsewhere, whether that means sitting the offense's second-highest paid player (he'd look great next to its highest-paid benchwarmer, Rowand), or crowding out Burrell, Ross, or Schierholtz, who are at least producing. None of that figures to help a defense with a .702 Defensive Efficiency, two points above average—particularly if Bochy takes Huff up on his threat to fill in at third base, where he was five runs below average per 100 games from 2000-2008, and closer to 10 runs below average towards the latter stages of that run.

As for Posey's substitute behind the plate, the Giants have nothing but replacement level fodder in 31-year-old backup Eli Whiteside and 29-year-old callup Chris Stewart. The former is a career .231/.283/.366 hitter, the latter is a journeyman with a .188/.235/.229 line in the majors; both have PECOTA forecasts for .227 True Averages. Their starting catcher in Double-A, Johnny Monell, is vaguely intriguing but fringy, a 25-year-old former 30th round pick who's currently hitting .221/.299/.400 but who did hit .273/.350/.487 in the hitter-friendly California League last year before getting a brief taste of Triple-A. He's a lefty slugger with subpar plate discipline and raw receiving skills, but a good enough arm to throw out 29 percent of stolen base attempts last year.

The Giants will need to go outside the organization to get any kind of real production from their catcher, with the Pirates' Ryan Doumit (.272/.337/.446) the most obvious option; the Bucs have spent more than a year trying to trade him, but he broke camp as the team's starter in the wake of Chris Snyder's back woes. Provided a big enough backhoe, Sabean could disinter 36-year-old Bengie Molina for old times' sake, but he hit just .265/.285/.442 last year, and is forecast for a .236 TAv. For that matter, the GM might as well chase down brother Jose Molina, who is enjoying his quadrennial Hit Like a Normal Person cycle, batting .296/.367/.444 in a slim 61 plate appearance slice for Toronto, though PECOTA is doubled over laughing at the thought he might maintain that given his .212 TAv forecast. The Angels' Bobby Wilson, out of options and buried behind Jeff Mathis and Hank Conger, could be available, but he owns just a lifetime .228/.286/.398 line, and his forecast for .247 TAv doesn't offer tremendous promise. There exists no shortage of flatlining backups with experience—Pudge Rodriguez, Kelly Shoppach, Jason Varitek, hell, even Jorge Posada, who was drafted on Sabean's watch in 1990—but if you're going that route, you might as well just page Dick Dietz, whose bat has more life.

Even given his diminished production, Posey is going to be nearly impossible for the Giants to replace directly, though given the collection of underperformers on hand, the team could upgrade just about anywhere to help the offense; as discussed earlier this week, Jose Reyes would provide a real upgrade at shortstop. Fortunately, the Giants still have a top-notch rotation headed by Tim Lincecum, who could well win his third Cy Young award, and four other starters, including Barry Zito fill-in Ryan Vogelsong, with ERAs under 3.80; the unit's collective 3.21 mark is third in the league. The problem, of course, is support; as the 1-6 Madison Bumgarner is showing, it's very tough to win when you don't get any. The 2.3 runs per game he's receiving is the league's third-worst rate, and only Vogelsong and Matt Cain (4.3 and 4.1 runs per game, respectively) are matching or exceeding the league average.

The NL West isn't exactly a powerhouse this year. The Rockies are reeling from the loss of Jorge de la Rosa and the struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez, Carlos Gonzalez, and others. The Diamondbacks are a game above .500, but their run differential is in the red, and their pitching staff leaves plenty to be desired. The Dodgers are in injury-stack hell, with a low-OBP lineup that's even worse than San Francisco's. The Padres are so last year. With a half-decent replacement for Posey, the Giants could still take this field, but that challenge is much, much harder than it looked less than 24 hours ago.
 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Andres Torres,  Year Of The Injury

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