The Yankees made one thing clear early this past off-season: Jorge Posada was done as a catcher. Who would take over was anyone’s guess, but the conclusion came with no ambiguities. Posada wouldn’t even back up the new starter. Instead he’d slide into the full-time DH role, with the hope that a removal from the rigors of catching would keep him healthy and productive in the final year of his contract. The plan, as we’ve seen this season, didn’t follow the script.
If Posada had his way, though, he wouldn’t have shed the tools of ignorance. Instead, he would have moved into the backup role that Francisco Cervelli inhabits. As he told ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews, “I could have (caught) this year. I could have been a backup this year.” The only question is of whether this arrangement would work out better than the current one.
In purely offensive terms, it certainly would. Cervelli, after producing serviceable numbers in 2010, has in 2011 hit in a manner you’d expect from a backup catcher. There’s nothing wrong with that, since he is the backup, and it does appear that at least some of the pitchers on the staff — most notably CC Sabathia — like throwing to him. The problem is that we can’t measure that value. We can measure offense, though, and in those terms Posada comes out with a distinct advantage.
The Yankees have started the backup catcher in 29 games this year, 27 for Cervelli and two for Gustavo Molina. In that time they have combined to produce 1.8 runs below average. Posada, in his 92 games, has produced 1.9 runs below average. That is, in more than three times the number of games he’s been only 0.1 runs worse, meaning he’d be a ton better than the current backup catchers in those 29 games. (Some quick math puts Posada at 0.6 runs below average, using his 1.9 runs below average on a per-game basis.)
That leaves me with four questions, none we can answer with any certainty.
1) Would Posada have performed better, both at catcher and DH, if he had played behind the plate roughly 30 times?
2) Would Posada have remained healthy enough to stay behind the plate?
3) Would Posada, as the backup catcher, have started more than 30 times, therefore giving Russell Martin more time off and perhaps keeping him fresher and more effective?
4) What kind of effect would Posada have had on the pitching staff?
The first two questions can be answered only with guesses. Posada might have better career numbers as a catcher than as a DH, but those splits never tell the whole truth. How many of Posada’s ABs as DH have come when he’s been too banged up to catch? Wouldn’t any nagging injury that prevents him from catching also affect him at the plate as he DHs? To the second question we might guess that he wouldn’t remain healthy, since he hit the DL before catching 30 games in every season from 2008 through 2010. But again, that’s just a guess.
Chances are, if he stayed healthy, the answer to No. 3 would be yes. Again, it’s a guess, but I think it’s a better guess than the first two. The Yankees clearly avoided using Gustavo Molina early in the season, leveraging off-days in order to play Russell Martin in almost every game until Cervelli’s return. But Girardi almost certainly would have gone to Posada before he went to Molina, if only to keep Jorge sharp behind the plate. (Sharp being a relative term.) The other aspect of this answer plays into the next question, too.
It’s tough to tell what kind of effect Jorge would have had on the pitching staff, because we don’t have any reliable measure of such an effect. It is pretty clear, however, that Posada would not have started with either A.J. Burnett or Freddy Garcia on the mound. Both throw plenty of pitches in the dirt, and those would give the aged Posada trouble. That’s the only thing that might have held him back from starting more often than Cervelli/Molina. He would have been essentially limited to starting with Nova, Hughes, Colon, and maybe Sabathia on the mound.
Since Jorge hasn’t played the role of backup in over a decade, since we don’t know how he’d hold up physically, and since we don’t know how he’d affect the pitching staff, it’s difficult to find a solid answer to the posed question. Offensively the arrangement surely would have worked better, at least to the tune of a run and perhaps more, if you think that Jorge would have hit better if he played the field. But again, that’s an argument from theory with little usable evidence behind it. All we have to go on is speculation. Would Jorge have fit better with this team as the backup catcher, or would that have only led to more problems?