The Jorge Posada Conundrum

NEW YORK - JUNE 12: Jorge Posada #20 of the New York Yankees hits a grand slam in the third inning against the Houston Astros on June 12, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Its was Jorge Posada's 250th career home run. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Even though the importance of batting average has fallen by the wayside in many baseball circles, even the most ardent sabermetrician would still grant that when a player can't even manage to hit his weight, things usually aren't looking good.  That was the position Jorge Posada found himself in before Saturday night's High School Prom drama pre-game drama, and now, feelings have been hurt, things have been said that can't be taken back, and it has all played out in front of a fanbase that is torn between fond remembrance of days gone by and the ADD-driven demand for a DH who can actually live up to the second word of his job title. 

I'm not kidding myself.  Posada is about 90 days away from his 40th birthday, which is old by baseball standards and absolutely decrepit for somebody who spent 90% of his 15 seasons behind the plate.  His best days are behind him, and his remaining days, good or bad, may not extend into the 2012 season.

Despite this, I'm not ready give up on him just yet. 

With over a century of baseball statistics at our disposal, we've been able to pick up on some trends that pertain to the way players tend to age and eventually find themselves riding off into the sunset.  First, they lose bat speed, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually, which makes it difficult for them to handle the best fastballs opposing pitchers have to offer.  To compensate, they often start chasing more pitches out of the strike zone, but this usually backfires, because it eventually leads to fewer walks, more strikeouts, and more groundballs, the latter of which, when combined with the slow legs of most players in their late 30s/early 40s, really just serve to hasten the end.  This is currently happening to Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez:

(editors note: the second column should read "GB/FB rate".  We're not talking about football here)

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(Thanks Fangraphs)

If you're not familiar with O-Swing%, it measures the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that a hitter swings at. Ibanez's stats are just ugly.  He's chasing pitches out of the zone at a clip that's nearly 40% higher than his career rate, leading to the worst GB/FB ratio, lowest BB, and highest K rates of his career.  Put this together with his age (he'll be 39 in June) and this starts to look like the statistical profile of a hitter who probably doesn't have much left to contribute on a major league ballfield.

Let's take a look at the same stats for Posada:

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Clearly, something isn't working for Posada this season, but does it strike anybody that his profile looks absolutely nothing like Ibanez's?  He's not chasing bad pitches out of line with his career averages, nor is he pounding grounders into the infield, striking out, or walking significantly more or less than he ever has.

Of course, this doesn't prove anything conclusive, but the lack of conclusive evidence is actually my point.  These four components of hitting are all at least indirectly tied to bat speed, plate discipline, and the other skills that erode with age.  Perhaps Posada has already lost some of these skills but just hasn't yet begun to compensate for it by chasing bad pitches, but if that's the case, he will before long.  You simply can't lose those skills without impacting other areas. 

However, it's also possible that he's not a fundamentally worse hitter than he's been in the past few seasons, and until he actually shows some real regression in a statistic other BABIP, shouldn't we have a little more patience, especially considering the lack of suitable replacements (I'm not at all sold on Jorge Vazquez), Posada's $13 million salary, and the fact that the trade deadline is still two and a half months away?

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