When the San Francisco Giants came to bat in their first game of the 2012 regular season, Buster Posey -- catching and batting cleanup -- carried any number of unknowns with him to the plate.
After all, the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner was making his first regular-season plate appearance since a devastating collision at the dish had ended his 2011 campaign after 45 games, and few had any sense of what to expect from his return. Posey then assembled a blistering start to the year, posting a 1.016 OPS in the first month, returned to more pedestrian numbers in the next two months (a .768 OPS in May-June combined) and then embarked on a three-month cruise that was, by turns, remarkable, uplifting and essential to the success of his ballclub.
From his 71st game on July 1 through his final game on Oct. 3, Posey batted .371 with an on-base percentage of .448, slugged .618 with 40 extra-base hits in 78 games and posted a 1.066 OPS over the course of 326 plate appearances. This extraordinary work, combined with his efforts through June, yielded an NL batting title, a raw .957 OPS, and an historic 172 OPS+. With the batting crown, the subsequent NL Silver Slugger and MVP Awards, and the contextualizing of his OPS, Posey had emphatically filled in all of the blanks, and in the process, he turned in one of the more impressive batting seasons ever produced by a catcher.
Unlike some other iconic hitting seasons from catchers (Mike Piazza's 1997, Roy Campanella's '53, to name just two), Posey's batting excellence doesn't necessarily jump out on the first glance. For example, consider some of his numbers and his ranks (all ranks are for Posey's place among players -- since 1893 -- with at least 75 percent of their games at catcher, with all rate stat ranks compiled for those who qualified for the batting title):
His 291 total bases are tied for the 23rd most; his 64 extra-base hits are tied for the 24th most; his 24 home runs are tied for the 88th most;
His .336 batting average is tied for the 29th highest; his .408 on-base percentage is tied for the 45th highest; his .549 slugging percentage is tied for the 29th highest; his .957 OPS is tied for 21st highest.
Posey put together the 27th season of a catcher reaching a .300/.400/.500 line.
Understandably, a strict reading of the raw numbers and their placement in the line of catchers keeps Posey somewhat in the shadows. But the offensive environment in which these numbers were produced elevates his season significantly, so much so that his adjusted OPS+ (his OPS compared to the league OPS, adjusted for ballpark) comes out tied for the second highest for any qualifying player with at least 75 percent of his games at catcher, with only Piazza's iconic 1997 season ahead. The following table presents the top eight seasons since 1893:
Backstops who dominated at the dish
1893-2012: Players who played 75 percent of games at catcher and qualified for the batting title, sorted by OPS+
1.070 / .744
1.006 / .739
.957 / .718
1.031 / .764
1.058 / .761
.850 / .628
.920 / .680
.985 / .738
In this perspective, Posey's season ascends from the merely impressive into the almost unimaginably good. Furthermore, we can play around with some of his accomplishments and tighten up the connections to create a more refined idea of how common (or how rare) any of these achievements are. Just a few to ponder:
Posey led the Majors in OPS+ in 2012, with his 172 just ahead of Mike Trout's 171. The most recent season before 2012 in which a catcher led the big leagues in this category was 1997, when Piazza's 185 topped everyone, including Frank Thomas and his American League-leading 181. These are the only two instances of a catcher leading the Majors in this category since the AL debuted in 1901.
With his .336 average, Posey joined Joe Mauer, Ernie Lombardi and Bubbles Hargrave as the only catchers to be honored with a batting crown.
While Posey's .300/.400/.500 line was the 27th for a qualifying catcher since 1893, he became the 15th backstop to join the club. And since he did it in his age-25 season, there is seemingly time to compile another. Six catchers -- Bill Dickey, Gabby Harnett, Mickey Cochrane, Piazza, Hargrave and Mauer -- have had more than one. Incidentally, among the 27 individual seasons, only Mauer, in 2006, was younger than Posey was this past season.
Mauer's second .300/.400/.500 line came in his age-26 season in 2009, when he batted .365, assembled a .444 on-base percentage and slugged .587, with each of those figures leading the AL. In topping the Junior Circuit in each of those categories, he became the first player in the league since George Brett in 1980 to claim that achievement, and the only catcher in either league to do it. It was -- by so many definitions -- a career year, with Mauer more than doubling his previous high in home runs, collecting the 11th-highest amount of total bases for a backstop and finishing with the highest batting average for any qualifying catcher since Babe Phelps hit .367 in 1936. And for a time, the season even looked -- for those who bend toward hopefulness -- like it could be more special.
On June 16 of that season, Mauer collected four hits in four trips to the plate to raise his batting average to an almost-incomprehensible .429; no June 16 had ended with an AL player holding a batting average that high since the one in 1922, when George Sisler was sitting on a .439 mark. During Mauer's next 41 games, he hit only .288 to lower his average to .358 and silence any real talk of the first .400 campaign since '41, but a .377 finish at least allowed Mauer to claim his unprecedented third batting crown as a catcher and inhabit a level almost never seen by a backstop. And with an OPS+ of 171, his season was only looking up at Piazza's '97 and '95 campaigns.
In a way, it's quite amazing to review those top OPS+ seasons once again and realize that the top four values have all been produced in the past 18 seasons. The ascension of Mauer and now Posey into slots just behind Piazza, and ahead of seasons from Campanella, Hartnett, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk or any of the other top-shelf catchers might lead to any number of conclusions. But for now, it seems safe, and more than enough, to simply recall the magnificence of Posey -- batting title owner, MVP Award claimant -- and his brilliant offensive season in 2012.