In our recap of perhaps the best Yankees team to never win a World Series, we turn to individual performances. 2003 was a year with a whole bunch of solid performances by Yankee players, but perhaps no single standout year the way we’ve seen in seasons past with guys like DJ LeMahieu or Aaron Judge.
Jorge Posada put up a career year for himself, and he gets my vote for team MVP, but it’s a close call between three Yankee stars. Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi both have credible cases, with Posada just ekeing out each.
Moose threw 214.1 innings in his third season in the Bronx, winning a Gold Glove but receiving zero Cy Young votes. This came in a campaign where his 130 ERA+ is comparable to vote-getting seasons in 1999, 2000 and 2008, and his 6.1 fWAR ranked him fourth in the AL.
Giambi, in a stellar sophomore year with the Yankees, is the team’s best overall hitter, leading the squad in HR (41), RBI (107), walk rate (15.8%), ISO (.277), OBP (.412), slugging (.527) and wRC+ (149). He receives some downballot MVP votes and continues to be one of the game’s premier hitters, and perhaps the Torre era’s most underrated Yankee.
But the season really does belong to Posada. The catcher finishes third in AL MVP voting, putting up a 145 wRC+ and a six-win year, while managing 142 games behind the plate. It’s a near-historic year, even for a team with the catching pedigree of the Bronx Bombers:
Posada has one of the five best full seasons of any Yankee catcher, in the conversation with his own 2000 campaign, Thurmon Munson in 1973, Yogi Berra in 1956 and Bill Dickey in 1937. Lest you think the warriors of old were tougher than Jorge, in 2003 he caught more games than either Berra or Dickeys’ best year.
Comparing Posada to his competition around the league is even funnier:
In a year that included really good seasons from Pudge Rodriguez, Jason Varitek and Bengie Molina, only the Braves’ Javy Lopez manages to be better than Posada, and Jorge notches a hundred more plate appearances. Posada was never the star of the Yankees and sometimes even seemed like a junior partner in the Core Four, but for 2003, there’s a very real case he was the best catcher in all of baseball.
It’s that positional adjustment that gives him the nod over Mussina and Giambi. Performance is absolute - runs are runs, and a run scored is the same as a run prevented - but it’s also relative. We expect first basemen to be more productive offensively than catchers, because they almost always are. So when a first baseman and catcher have virtually identical offensive output — a 4% difference, when considering positions, is a rounding error — the edge should always go to the more difficult position.
And while Moose has one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career, value can also be relative between pitchers and hitters. I’m not the kind of person to say a pitcher can NEVER be MVP, just that the difference between playing in 30 games against 145 means you really, really need to stand out as a pitcher. As good as a 130 ERA+ in the Steroid Era is, Mussina just doesn’t distinguish himself enough to overcome my bias towards every day players. I know there are a number of regular readers who think I’m too new-school, so enjoy that old-school take.
The Yankees have a long history of terrific catchers, all the way up to Gary Sanchez’s near-historic levels of power today. Yet 2003 gives us a remarkable season from the Yankee catcher, even given the team’s historical context, as Jorge Posada backstops a squad to 101 wins and earns the team’s MVP honor.