Jorge Posada returned to the Yankee lineup Wednesday night after over two weeks on the DL. If you don’t actively follow the Yankees, though, you may not have even realized he was gone. Posada is not the kind of marquee player whose injury would be national news.
Even though the last few weeks haven’t been the best for the Yankees, it’s not really like the Yankees have missed Posada so much—Francisco Cervelli’s surprising performance (he’s put up a .383 OBP and a stunning 1.442 OPS with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, albeit in an extremely small sample) has made Posada’s absence more palatable. Even before Posada’s injury, there was talk that he should become the team’s full-time DH to make room for Cervelli.
This isn’t really new. Being underappreciated seems to be Posada’s destiny. The most anonymous of the Core Four has flown under the radar throughout his career.
If you live in the New York area, have ever watched the YES Network, or picked up Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago, then you’re already familiar with the term “The Core Four.” This is how we insufferable Yankee fans refer to the quartet of teammates—Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada—that have been with the team since the beginning of the Yankee Dynasty in 1996. All four players made their MLB debut with the Yankees in 1995 and would go on to play major roles in the Yankee championships of the late ’90s, 2000, and then again last season. When critics point out (fairly) that the Yankees can sign free agents and assemble a roster of All-Stars seemingly at will thanks to their bottomless pockets, fans point to the Core Four as the four examples of homegrown talent that the Yankees didn’t have to “buy.” Earlier this season Jeter, Rivera, and Posada became the first trio of teammates in any major professional sport to play together for 16 consecutive seasons—a pretty remarkable fact in the era of free agency, even for the Yankees. Pettitte would have joined them, if not for a three-year stint with the Houston Astros from 2004-2006 that Yankee fans conveniently ignore in their memory.
Yet discussions of the Core Four generally center on Jeter, Rivera, and Pettitte; Jorge Posada always seems kind of like an add-on, like the “fourth wheel” on the Yankee triad. Whether it’s because of the general human fondness for the number three, because he doesn’t have the flair or media savvy of the other three, or because his face is often hidden by a catcher’s mask, Posada is generally overshadowed by the rest of the Core Four. Unlike Jeter and Rivera, Posada has never gone solo on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Unlike Pettitte, Posada has never been a star player in another city. He has placed in MVP voting twice—or the same number of times Jeter hasn’t placed in the voting. Even Rivera, a relief pitcher, has placed in the voting seven more times than Posada, while Pettitte has finished in the top six for Cy Young voting five times.
Basically, Posada does not seem as integral to Yankee lore as the rest of the Core Four. His name does not carry the same heft that the other three names do. He doesn’t seem like a legend—he seems more like an oddity. He’s a power hitter who never hit very many home runs; he plays the most important defensive position on the field, but never played it particularly well; he’s primarily known for his offense, but he has spent most of his career hitting near the bottom of a lineup; he is good at getting on base, but an atrocious baserunner. When comparing Posada to Ivan Rodriguez, Rob Neyer said, “Ivan Rodriguez is going into the Hall of Fame. Posada isn’t, and shouldn’t.” Neyer is echoing the common perception that Posada is a very good but not great player.
This perception, though, is just plain wrong. While Posada is generally treated as the worst of the Core Four, his Hall of Fame case is far better than Pettitte’s and nearly as good as Jeter’s or Rivera’s.
In fact, I’m surprised there is any debate at all about Posada’s Hall of Fame legitimacy. Of the five Hall of Fame catchers who played after 1947, Posada’s career OPS+ of 125 is better than Carlton Fisk’s (117) and Gary Carter’s (115), and even with Yogi Berra’s, Roy Campanella’s, and Johnny Bench’s. If you’re thinking that Posada has the advantage of playing in the modern era, when the Yankees have the luxury of DHing him to rest his legs, then you might have a point. Except that Posada has only DHd 64 times in his entire career, or about one-third the number of games Berra played in the outfield. In fact, Posada has already played more games as a catcher than Berra or Campanella ever did, and he has a chance to pass Bench when all is said and done.
But let’s compare Posada to his peers, specifically Ivan Rodriguez, to whom Posada shouldn’t stack up, if we’re to trust Rob Neyer. Rodriguez’s OPS+: 108. His career on-base percentage is a mediocre .336, a full 43 points lower than Posada’s. Rodriguez has over 50 more home runs than Posada—but his career slugging percentage is still not as high as Posada’s.
Neyer’s story seemed to make the case that Rodriguez has merely been past his prime for a few years, and that this is why Posada’s numbers for the last decade are better. With this in mind, then we should realize that perhaps Rodriguez’s last few subpar years are bringing down his career averages. So let’s look at their five best years: In 1999, Rodriguez won the MVP* with an OPS of 1.042. Posada never had an OPS that high…but his OBP in his best year was .426—43 points higher than Pudge’s career high. In fact, the OPS+s of their best years are virtually identical (155 vs. 153). Rodriguez, though, only had one other year with an OPS+ over 130, while Posada had four.
*In one of the biggest MVP tragedies ever. How Pedro in ’99 was not more valuable than Pudge is beyond me. Even if you don’t think pitchers should win, then why not Manny? He had 44 home runs and 165 RBIs!
Now, I’m not trying to make the case that Posada is better than Rodriguez overall—Pudge was a much better defensive catcher than Posada ever was—but I think Posada is definitely the better offensive player. If Rodriguez is such a surefire HOFer (which everyone seems to agree that he is), then Posada shouldn’t be such a close call. The reason Rodriguez’s perception is so much better than Posada’s, it seems, was that from about 1998 to 2002 Rodriguez seemed like the perfect catcher. He could hit for average, he could hit for power, and he threw baserunners out with embarrassing frequency (he threw out 60% of base-stealers in 2001). So even though Rodriguez never really hit for much power outside of 1999,* and even though he has been a consistently below-average hitter since 2004, and even though his defense has declined in recent seasons, people still think of Rodriguez as a great catcher.
*Which, it seems relevant, falls right smack in the middle of the steroid era.
Meanwhile, Posada was never the best catcher in the American League. By the time people stopped raving about Rodriguez, Joe Mauer was the next big thing. People kept comparing Posada to Jason Varitek, despite the fact that Posada was significantly better in every single major offensive category, because they were both in the AL East. It also didn’t help Posada’s perception that his great seasons never seemed to come consecutively: His best year was in 2007, his next-best year in 2003, and his third-best year in 2000.
Really, though, that is the most remarkable thing about Posada’s career: the length of his “prime.” Critics may point out that he’s only had one really great season, but he’s also only had one bad season. With the exception of 1999, he’s never had an on-base percentage lower than .350, he’s never hit fewer than 17 home runs, he’s had eight seasons with at least 80 RBI. His best season came at the age of 35—the age when Johnny Bench was playing his last year, when Mike Piazza was knocking in 54 runs, and when Pudge Rodriguez was OBPing .294. Posada may never have been the best catcher in the AL, but he’s one of the best three for over ten years. Obviously this season is far from over, and he has already missed time to injuries, but right now he is hitting .323 with a .404 OBP at the age of 38.
Of course, this is a recurring theme for the Core Four: All four of them seem to defy age with remarkable consistency. Pettitte is currently off to the best start of his career. As a 35-year-old shortstop, Jeter had possibly his best season ever last year. Since 2007, Rivera has an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00. None of the Core Four have won an MVP or a Cy Young, but only once since 1996 (2002) have none of them received consideration. In other words, all of their careers are notable more for the longevity with which they have been great, and not the brief stretches when they have been dominant.*
*People often point to Rivera as the exception to this. Pettitte has only intermittently been an ace, and Jeter only occasionally the best hitter on the Yankees, but Rivera has always been the best closer in baseball, they say. But this is not technically accurate. Between 2002 and 2004 both Eric Gagne and John Smoltz were probably better than him. In 2006 and 2007 K-Rod was right there with him. I’m not saying Rivera isn’t the best closer ever—he is. But it’s not his ability to dominate that makes him unique, it’s his ability to dominate for so LONG.
The difference with Posada, though, is that his career can’t be boiled down to single instants like those of the other three can. Jeter has done many brilliant things for the Yankees, but when I look back at his career in 20 years, I’ll probably think about The Flip (or The Dive, or his leadoff home run in Game 4 of the 2000 World Series, or his walkoff in Game 4 of the 2001 WS, or the Jeffrey Maier home run). Similarly, when I think of Pettitte’s career, I think of him out-dueling NL Cy Young-winner John Smoltz in 1996 for the pivotal 1-0 win in Game 5 of the World Seires, or I’ll think of how he was the winning pitcher all three series clinching games en route to the Yankees latest World Series win in 2009. Finally, when I think of Rivera I’ll think of “Enter Sandman,” and his 34 1/3 consecutive scoreless postseason innings from 1998 to 2000.
Posada, though, doesn’t really have those kinds of moments. His biggest hit for the Yankees—his game-tying double off of Pedro in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS—was a bloop that is associated more with Grady Little’s refusal to pull his ace than anything else.
Without an iconic moment, Posada doesn’t seem like an iconic player. But this isn’t really fair. A career does not come down to one moment or one image. These things can be helpful short-hands, or symbols of an entire career, but they’re not how we define greatness. Jeter’s Flip may be his most memorable play, but without the rest of his career it would have just been a pretty cool play. Conversely, that Posada doesn’t have that kind of iconic moment should not tarnish an otherwise stellar career. Jorge’s not just the fourth member of the Core Four—the Ringo to Derek’s Paul, Mo’s John, and Andy’s George. He’s a Hall of Famer and one of the best catchers of all time.