If there is one thing I learned from spending the week talking to media members at Spring Training, it’s that Buster Posey hates answering questions about his ankle.
He shut us up a little bit by getting his first hit of the spring, an opposite-field home run off Tony Sipp in last Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Indians. Still, this type of injury and required rehab poses more questions than it answers and it remains to be seen if Buster Posey can regain his 2010 form, where he was one most productive catchers in all of baseball.
Fortunately for the fanalysts, there is a nice test case for a young catcher coming back from a devastating leg injury caused by a plate collision. Indians’ catcher Carlos Santana, who was the guy behind the dish when Posey took Sipp yard, suffered a strained collateral ligament in his knee in 2010 after a collision with the Red Sox Ryan Kalish.
Santana, 25, had been giving the Indians All Star-caliber production from the catcher position before Kalish ended his season. His .467 Slugging Percentage and .207 ISO (a power metric that is SLG minus BA) put him in the top ten among catchers in those categories and FanGraphs’ run creation metric WRC+ had Santana’s 2010 numbers as the best at his position. Now, 192 plate appearances isn’t gospel, but Santana was building his case for being the most famous Carlos Santana. Then…boom. Season over. Off-season of rehab and question marks and more question marks. How much catcher could Santana play? What is his value if he spends half of the season at first base? Will he be able to catch for ten more years?
All of these questions are being asked of Posey leading up to his 2012 regular season debut. It is clear that he will spend time at first base, get more off days, and be removed from games earlier. To set expectations for Posey’s playing time and production in 2012, let’s look at Carlos Santana’s 2011. In 2010 pre-injury, Santana started nearly all of his games at catcher, with only 5 appearances at DH (a luxury the Giants don’t have with Posey). The next year, to combat his creaky leg, the Indians started Santana at first base 63 times, with 88 starts at catcher (and 1 at DH for good measure). 152 starts is nothing to sneeze at, but a more realistic expectation for Posey would be in the 130-135 range, with more late-game replacements (double switches in the NL) and pinch-hit at-bats. Just how much of this is at first base is up to Bruce Bochy and the Battle Royale between Huff/Belt/Pill. Continued health of his ankle and some creativity by the Giants may get Posey to 500 plate appearances, which would be valuable for a team hoping to be relevant in September. But Giants fans shouldn’t hold their breath that Posey avoids the disabled list.
While Santana’s playing time didn’t really take a hit in the year following his injury, there was a noticeable difference in his approach at the plate. While he maintained his power numbers, Santana lost 21 points from his batting average (.260 to .239) and 50 points from his OBP (.401 to .351). He struck out in 5.1% more of his at-bats, up to 20.2%. Some of this can be attributed to the grind of a full season and a graduation from the Academy of Small Sample Sizes, but Carlos Santana wasn’t the same baseball player in 2011. A lot of his value was also hampered by all of the starts at first base, as first basemen are expected to hit at a higher clip than their counterparts behind the plate. Posey and Santana are valuable hitters at any position, but they are absolute studs when their level of production is coming from the catcher position.
My uneducated hypothesis (Dr. Todd only has a B.A. in History) is that lower body injuries to catchers are two-year injuries even in this crazy age of medical treatment and complex rehab. Therefore, Giants fans should be watching Carlos Santana closely this season as well. If he can solve his strikeout problems and get his rate of contact back to that of his 2010 numbers, there is no reason to think that even if Posey struggles in 2012, that the Giants can’t have their catcher back in 2013 and ride out his team-controlled years in Bustery bliss.