The Men Who Weren’t Buster

On May 25, 2011, I left work just after 5 pm, like usual. I walked a few blocks to the gym, did my workout, showered, and came home. I got home just after 8, and ate my dinner while I turned on the night’s Giants game. I had DVRed the game, and started watching on delay. As usual, I skipped through commercials, doing my best to avoid Facebook, Twitter, and all other social media  that might tip off the final score.

At 11:20 pm, the game on my DVR was in the bottom of the ninth inning. Aubrey Huff lined a single to left-center, scoring Pat Burrell and Freddy Sanchez and tying the game. My phone rang. Thomas Todd, my friend and co-host, was watching the game live. He was almost in tears.

“Oh hey,” I said. “Can I call you back in a few minutes? The game’s almost over.”

“We have to talk,” he choked out. “Call me as soon as you finish.”

Ten minutes later I watched Scott Cousins throw his full weight into Buster Posey’s right shoulder, knocking Posey’s entire weight back onto his left knee and ankle, snapping his fibula and rupturing tendons in his ankle. Posey’s mask flew off from the impact as he bounced back onto his stomach, clawing at the dirt as he was swarmed by trainers.

I called Thomas.

With Posey gone, Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart split the catcher job. Coming into 2012 Spring Training, only one will be able to stay on as backup backstop. Neither Whiteside nor Stewart has the ability to actually replace Posey, obviously, but each have their strengths and faults.

Whiteside falls into the I-was-injured-the-whole-time-you-can’t-take-my-stats-seriously category. While I’m sympathetic and value his work ethic, it was still pretty hard to watch. An injured Eli Whiteside hit just .197/.264/.310 last year, with just one home run and five extra base hits in the second half. He failed even more defensively, throwing out just 18 of 71 baserunners, or roughly 25 percent.

Still, Whiteside is a good deal better offensively if he’s healthy. Whiteside hit .233/.284/.368 in 275 plate appearances from 2009-10, and during that time he threw out 25 of 74 baserunners, or 34 percent. Assuming that a) his injury truly was sapping his hitting power and throwing ability, b) his injuries have healed in the offseason, and c) he avoids injury in 2012, I think we can expect something closer to his 2010 numbers. PECOTA projects him at .214/.270/.332, with 5 HR in 250 PA, and ZiPS sees him at .219/.274/.344, 4 HR, 67 OPS+. I’m more optimistic than each of those, but not by much.

Stewart, on the other hand, outperformed expectations last year. After 9+ mediocre seasons in the minors, Stewart got regular playing time for the first time. Stewart hit just .204/.283/.309 in 2011, but won the hearts of Giants fans with his Andres Torres-esque story, his youthful exuberance, and his killer arm. He hit his first few major league home runs, endeared himself to fans, and he fixed Tim Lincecum.

Projecting Stewart forward, though, is pretty tough. Stewart will almost certainly play less than he did last year, and it’s hard to know how much Stewart’s production suffered as a result of a sudden increase in playing time. PECOTA projects him at .215/.292/.291, and ZiPS projects a significantly more optimistic .239/.309/.331, 75 OPS+. Stewart threw out 22 of 56 baserunners last year, for 39 percent, and holds a stellar career rate of 45 percent caught stealing in the minors.

As I hinted at above, another source of Stewart’s value in 2011 came from his rapport with Lincecum after Posey’s injury. Lincecum performed substantially better with Stewart as a battery-mate than Whiteside, and Bochy made a point of pairing the two together for most of the season.

The problem, of course, comes down to which one should get the backup job in 2012. With Whiteside you’ve got a slightly better bat, with a bit more power potential. With Stewart, you’ve got the killer arm, slightly better plate discipline, and the Lincecum rapport.

So what do the Giants need? Well, given the fact that Posey will be playing a fair amount of first base, the backup catcher will end up playing more than in 2010. Either way, the offense will suffer, so it’s all about making it work. One solution may be to keep Stewart and play him every fifth day, when Lincecum pitches. We know they work well together, and the offensive decrease won’t be as much of a problem for The Freak. On the other hand, Whiteside knows the team and the pitchers better, and has more of a track record of decent hitting at a major league level.

For those talking about Hector Sanchez, I don’t understand the hype. Sanchez crushed in a short stint San Jose last year, hitting .302/.338/.533 in 52 games, but had trouble in Fresno, and didn’t do anything special during his cup of coffee in the majors. His promotion to AAA seemed like it had more to do with Posey’s injury than the natural progression of Sanchez’s development, and without that motivator, he should be put back to the level he belongs, be it San Jose, Richmond, or Fresno. I don’t know if the Giants’ plethora of catching prospects is prompting them to hurry their development, or what, but Sanchez should not be advanced too quickly just because of his untimely promotions last year. The fact that he’s being discussed for the 25-man roster out of Spring Training just seems ridiculous.

Which brings us to the original question. Team Whiteside and Team Stewart both have their pros and cons, but I think I’m leaning toward Stewart. Neither choice is particularly sexy, but the backup catcher position isn’t exactly supposed to be a source of strength for any team.

So, what do you think?

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2 comments to The Men Who Weren’t Buster

  • Lefty

    On Hector Sanchez, you didn’t consider his stellar winter ball season in Venezuela. Guy was raking, hitting for average and power, and was named Rookie of the Year, barely missing the batting title (which our Gregor Blanco won, along with the league MVP). He did well behind the plate in several major league starts last year, notably catching Zito three times in the minors (with great results and raves from Zito), Lincecum in a victory (and Timmy said after the first couple of innings Hector did just fine), and Vogelsong.

    So far Hector is hitting .800 in spring training with a homer, a double, two singles, and four RBIs. Two games is a small sample. But what if his winter ball season was a legitimate indicator that he’s a major-league ready hitter? If Posey can’t start at catcher 2-3 days a week, who would you rather have taking those ABs? With Stewart and Whiteside, you pretty much know what to expect, but with Hector, the potential for more is there (he’s only 22). Sure, we don’t really know yet, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous to have Hector’s name in the conversation, given that the alternatives are barely tolerable (and I mean that with all affection towards Stewart and Whiteside, both good Giants).

    If it’s not Hector, it’s an easy call: Stewart. You’re losing a lot offensively with either Stewart or Whiteside, so you might as well have the defense, and even a healthy Whiteside doesn’t come close to Stewart. Stewart also works very well with the pitchers. You mentioned Lincecum (less of an issue with Buster back), but Stewart also caught about 2/3s of Bumgarner’s starts from June on–and you might remember that Bum started dominating at that point.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about Sanchez, I just think we all know how tricky it is to translate Venezuela and Spring Training numbers to actual MLB production. My point was more that he should end up in the level that suits his development, not necessarily default to AAA just because of his promotion last year.

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