The 2010 NL Rookie of the Year played in just 45 games last season because, and solely because, he is a catcher.
On a sac fly in the 12th inning of a late May game, Florida's Scott Cousins flung himself like a battering ram, bending Buster Posey over backwards and tearing three ankle ligaments and fracturing a fibula. Giants GM Brian Sabean called it "malicious," saying that if Cousins "never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we'll all be happy." Yes, on repeated viewings of the replay, Cousins probably could have gotten in on a hook slide, but in real time the decision was instantaneous and instinctual, and the next time there's a bang-bang play at the plate in a Giants game, the baserunner isn't going to stop to consider Posey's injury history. He's a catcher, and he's armored, and he's going to get steamrolled.
Well, maybe not. After the first workout of spring training, manager Bruce Bochy met with the media and told them that Buster Posey will no longer be blocking the plate. For Posey, it's the swipe tag from well out of harm's way. This means forfeiting a few runs over the course of a season, but from San Francisco's cost-benefit analysis, it's easily worth it to keep Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside out of the lineup. Buster Posey's bat is too valuable to risk letting him play the position the way it's supposed to be played.
A step further: what if Buster Posey's bat is too valuable to risk letting him catch at all? In the wake of his injury, Posey's agent raised the possibility of changing the rules to outlaw home-plate collisions. But home plate collisions, as noisy and spectacular and highlight-worthy as they are, aren't the scourge of catchers. Think of it like the concussion in football: attention gets paid to the "Jacked Up"-style crushing hits, but all available research shows the real danger comes from the small, repeated hits. For a catcher, it's the wear and tear of regular games that takes the toll. Day after day, year after year of foul tips to the mask and crouching in that unnatural position leave catchers without their speed and their cartilage. Catching is inherently dangerous and career-shortening. Why feed Buster Posey to the catching position just because he's able?
Posey said yesterday he briefly flirted with the idea of changing positions—he thinks he'd be good as a first baseman—but is now committed to catching as long as he can. In the short term, this is ideal for San Francisco, because it's always easier to find a hitting 1B than a hitting catcher. Position scarcity isn't just for fantasy baseball: if you've got a backstop who can rake, it's almost like having an extra bat in the lineup. But five, ten, fifteen years down the line is a different story. Maybe the Giants aren't thinking long-term because they won't be able to afford Posey forever, or just because you can't predict the future with young players, but Posey's health and his bat would be better served by making the position switch now. Or, ideally, four years ago when they drafted him.
The hitting catcher feels like a relic from the 90s. Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Piazza and their ilk made it seem normal and necessary to have a backstop who wasn't a liability at the plate. If you've got to throw a mask and shinguards on some hulking, plodding slugger to get 25 home runs out of that lineup slot, so be it — even at the expense of pitch-calling and cutting down baserunners. It wasn't always this way: Johnny Bench, hailed as one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time, had a career OPS of .817 — there were seven catchers who matched or beat that figure last season.
As the steroid era looks more and more like an anomaly instead of a lasting plateau, perhaps it's time for a return to the days of the .220 catcher with a good arm, when the good hitters were promptly moved to first or the outfield where they can't cause too much damage. Players like Dale Murphy, Craig Biggio and Jayson Werth were spared in this way, and Jesus Montero and Bryce Harper aren't going to wreck their knees squatting. If you want a player to be effective into his late 30s, you don't let him catch.
These are your choices: you can start making the transition early, like with Victor Martinez. Martinez averaged 132 games behind the plate over his first four full big league seasons, and 69 over his next four. Or maybe you don't make the transition until it's too late, like with Joe Mauer, who's shaping up to be the Giants' worst-case scenario with Buster Posey. Mauer's never had that one bone-rattling collision like Posey, but he hasn't needed one to start breaking down. Over the past three years, Mauer has missed time with ailments like back pain, sacroiliac joint inflammation, knee inflammation, a hyperextended neck, and the mysterious and ominous "bilateral leg weakness." Mauer made his debut at first base last season, and is expected to spend more time there this year. But Mauer's only 28 years old, he's already missed serious time, no one's sure what his baseline effectiveness will be from here out, and the Twins still owe him $161 million.
So that's what Posey could be looking at, whether or not he blocks the plate: a decline beginning when most players are entering their primes. Bengie Molina says Posey's far too valuable to let catch, and he's right. If you've got a young hitter who shows every indication of having a long and productive career ahead of him, why wouldn't you remove him from harm's way? Catching is the natural enemy of the long and productive career.