In all the discussion leading up to and after the announcement of Buster Posey's winning the National League Rookie of the Year award yesterday, I feel like something has been forgotten. And, actually, for purposes of the award, I think it should have been forgotten, but then a lot of things seem to have been remembered that I think should have been forgotten too, so this thing needs to be remembered again. Wait, let me explain.
That thing is this: Jason Heyward has a chance to be a really, really, absurdly good player.
I mention it because Buster Posey seems to have assumed mythical status among Giants fans, who seem to have taken much of the media along with them. As they said over on McCovey Chronicles (partially tongue-in-cheek, I assume, but it's too good not to use): "Posey is the definition [of 'a special catcher']. He’s like Johnny Bench crossed with Batman, but better." And I guess you can understand why they feel that way. Posey joined, in very late May, a team that had gone 26-22 without him, stuck back in third place. From that point on, they went 66-48 and took the division, league, and World Championship, while Posey batted over .300, slugged over .500, played brilliantly in the division series (if only well enough in subsequent series), and, reputedly, did an excellent job handling one of the league's best pitching staffs. There is a very real and powerful perception that Posey single-handedly saved the Giants' season, transformed it from utterly forgettable to the greatest season in most living Giants fans' memories. And while there are obviously a ton of factors that go into anything like that, they're not entirely wrong. Posey was fantastic, and was certainly a huge part of the Giants' success.
But it's comments like this, a reader's comment from one of the boss's posts on the subject, that I think illustrate what we're missing here:
Good-hitting outfielders are a dime a dozen, and come along all the time. Buster Posey is a generational talent, and frankly his contribution to this team goes far beyond quantitative statistics. . . . What Posey meant to the team as a player, as a leader, and as a representation of an entire franchise's hope for a bright future cannot be overstated.
If by "good-hitting outfielders" you mean, say, Josh Willingham or Marlon Byrd or Michael Cuddyer, then I think you're more or less right. Dime a dozen. If what you mean, on the other hand, is great-hitting outfielders who played most of the season at age 20, then I scratch my head a little bit. So in all the hoopla about Posey and the story about saving the season and winning the Series and all that, I think we're in danger of losing sight of just how exactly the opposite of "dime a dozen" Jason Heyward is. Some perspective:
Heyward turned 21 on August 9, making 2010 his "age 20" season. Posey is about two and a half years older; he'll turn 24 before the first pitch of 2011, making 2010 his "age 23" season. This isn't a big difference out here in the real world -- we're talking about a college junior against a guy just out of college -- but in baseball, it's pretty huge.
It's rare enough, first of all, for a player just to be good enough to get playing time at age 20. Heyward was one of just 29 players (or so--I may have missed one of the duplicates) ever to get 600 plate appearances in his age 20 season or earlier; his 623 PA were 25th all-time among players his age or younger.
It's even rarer, of course, for a player to be a good Major League ballplayer at an age at which most of his peers are in low-A or college. Among players who qualified for a batting title in their age-20 season or earlier (there are 59 such seasons, though not quite 59 players, since a few did it more than once), Heyward's 131 OPS+ ranks 13th all-time. The list of players in front of him, in its entirety (see the whole list here):
Ken Griffey Jr.
You can't make this stuff up. That's nine Hall of Famers, one guy (Magee) who likely would be one if there were anyone still alive to care about him, one (Tony C) who appeared well on his way before a freak injury...and Hoblitzell, a decent early 20th century hitter whose .308/.364/.408 was good for a 143 OPS+ in the pitching-dominated 1909 NL.
Names after Heyward on that list are predominantly very-good-to-great players, too: Mays, Mathews, Bench, Vaughan, Alomar, Aaron, McGraw, Cepeda. Hitters who can put up a 131 OPS+ at age 20 are very far from "dime a dozen."
How about WAR (Baseball-Reference's version, since it's sortable)? Heyward's 4.4 comes in 15th behind a very similar lineup of greats. All are Hall of Famers or sure-to-be Hall of Famers except Vada Pinson, a tremendously talented youngster who kind of flamed out at 27, and Claudell Washington, a pretty good hitter whose age 20 year was a bit of a fluke. Otherwise: Foxx, Hornsby, Williams, Bench, F-Rob, A-Rod, etc. And again, even for a ways behind him (say to about #40 on the list), more than half of the players on the list are Hall of Famers or close enough.
It's really hard to make Posey's season look as historically significant. Posey missed qualifying for the batting title by 59 PA, but even assuming he'd qualified and maintained his 129 OPS+, that season would rank approximately 230th among players 23 and younger, around 115th among players in their age-23 seasons alone (to keep the sample smaller). Limiting it to catchers, Posey would be 16th to 18th on the "23 or younger" list and ninth or tenth among catchers exactly 23.
Posey's WAR of exactly 3.0, as you might figure, doesn't really jump out from the pack, either. That puts him 43rd all-time among catcher seasons at age 23 and under, 22nd all-time among catchers in their age-23 seasons. Now, part of that is depressed because the Giants played him at first base for 30 games for some reason, and of course much more of it is depressed because the Giants played him in the minors for two months for some reason. But then the previous paragraph makes him look better than he is, since we were comparing him against guys with many more PA and would expect his OPS+ to drop a bit. Either way, what's clear is that as great as Posey's season was, it's hard to find anything truly special (as in, historic) about it unless you add in some stuff about being a rookie catcher in the World Series and such -- circumstantial stuff that doesn't actually speak to how great his season was.
So the point is this: if you're picking a guy most likely to become (as that quote above said about Posey) "a generational talent," the money has to be on Heyward. Yeah, he's just a corner outfielder, but he's a good one, and one who is already a very, very good hitter, and he's just recently turned 21. Posey has an incredibly bright future, and might well become a great player, even a Hall of Famer...but Heyward is off to a better start than that. His is the kind of start that -- far from a guarantee, of course, but more often than not, and can you imagine being able to say something like that about a 21 year old after one full season? -- turns into a guy people want to go on to tell their kids and grandkids about someday.
As I alluded to at the top, I don't actually think this discussion has anything to do with the Rookie of the Year voting. I think the award should go to the rookie who had the best season, period...and I think that was Heyward (but it was close, and it's hard to get too upset about Posey's selection, especially considering that they gave it to another one-inning guy in the AL, so it could be so very much worse). Just that if you were thinking about stuff like that -- generational talent and the future and their places in history and all that -- and you picked Posey, I think you picked the wrong guy.