Buster Posey may have had the best season ever by a catcher for the Giants in 2012.
The 2012 season has a strong case to be the San Francisco Giants‘ best since moving to the West Coast. You already know about the World Series victory, but their 94-68 record is also their best regular-season performance since 2003, Matt Cain and Sergio Romo led a top-tier rotation and bullpen respectively with elite years, and a certain player may have had the best season ever at his position.
Allow me to present the case for Buster Posey‘s 2012 season being the best season by a catcher of all time.
Let’s start with the offense. Posey easily led a lineup of slap hitters with 24 homers, 103 RBI, and a .957 OPS. Moreover, his .336 batting average and 171 OPS+ (on-base plus slugging with park factors included with league average being a 100 OPS+) led the league in 2012.
These offensive numbers exemplified his career season, which led to an All-Star selection, Silver Slugger award, and being crowned the NL MVP. Great season? Definitely. Best ever by a catcher? Perhaps not solely based on the offense, but now let’s turn our attention to the defensive side of the field.
Buster Posey entered the majors as a polished prospect behind the plate. Since he debuted he has been lauded for his ability to call a game, manage a pitching staff, throw baserunners out, and frame pitches to steal strikes. Each of these traits were on full display in 2012.
In 2012, Posey caught 30 percent of runners stealing, a decent amount when noting a few of his pitchers had notable issues holding runners on, and that he was in his first season back from a devastating lower leg injury that ended his 2011 season.
Posey served as the Giants’ primary catcher for Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Barry Zito (Hector Sanchez caught most of Tim Lincecum’s games) in 2012. During that season, each of his pitchers performed as well or better than what would be expected from them.
Vogelsong and Cain posted close to career-best numbers, MadBum was still a 22-year-old ascending ace who didn’t truly lead the staff until 2013, and Zito was a seemingly washed-up salary albatross who finally performed well enough to have his best season as a Giant.
A significant portion of their success is certainly due to Posey’s superior pitch framing, which is where he truly shines on defense, although it’s a relatively under-the-radar skillset.
Before the 2019 season, Fangraphs incorporated pitch framing to their WAR metric. If you read that article (which I would highly recommend if it interests you), you can see the immense influence Posey’s framing ability ultimately had on his overall WAR (wins above replacement), adding 2.8 WAR to push his season total to 10.4 WAR.
It’s worth noting that WAR itself is a constantly changing metric, and incorporating the events of the 2019 season, Posey’s 2012 number shifted a little to 10.1 WAR. Still absolutely incredible.
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To provide a little bit of context on how impressive a season Posey had, last year’s WAR leader was (unsurprisingly) Los Angeles Angels’ center fielder Mike Trout with an 8.6 WAR. Since 2012, the only players who have a season with at least 10 WAR are current Los Angeles Dodgers RF Mookie Betts (2018) and Trout (2012 and 2013).
The last time a catcher hit that number? Never. 1972 Johnny Bench and 1997 Mike Piazza placed second and third-highest, posting 9.2 and 9.1 WAR seasons respectively. They will be the primary competition I consider.
In 1972, Johnny Bench led the league with 40 homers and 125 RBI, en route to his second MVP and fifth straight Gold Glove Award as an integral member of the Big Red Machine. Despite Bench clearly having greater power at the plate, Posey still had a higher OPS (.957 vs .920). Bench also benefitted from a much better lineup around him and a home ballpark that wasn’t the pitcher’s haven of Oracle Park.
Bench’s supporters certainly have an argument, and his team also experienced success in that year’s playoffs before ultimately falling in seven games to the Oakland A’s in the World Series. However, when including situational and circumstantial factors, it becomes evident to me that Posey has the slight edge, despite not winning a Gold Glove in 2012 like Bench did in 1972.
Moving on to Mike Piazza in 1997, his last full season as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, it becomes pretty evident that he had the best offensive season of the trio. He hit a truly absurd .362/.431/.680, with 40 homers and a league-leading 185 OPS+.
When paired with roughly average defense that season, it’s clear why he’s in this group. However, despite Piazza putting up incredible hitting numbers, he didn’t win the MVP and his team missed the playoffs.
Some might consider that nitpicking, and I have no problem if you think Piazza (or Bench) had the better season, but in my mind Posey in 2012 had the best overall package of hitting, defense and team performance of the three.
If you’re still not convinced, let’s now consider the narrative behind Posey’s 2012 being the best season ever from a catcher. Many of us remember on May 25, 2011, Miami Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins barreled over Posey during a play at the plate. The result of which led to a fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments that ended his campaign and hindered a promising title defense season for the Giants.
The year before the collision, 2010, Posey won the NL Rookie of the Year honors and the Giants won their first World Series in San Francisco. In 2011, to be frank, Posey suffered an injury that could have derailed the franchise for years and perhaps prematurely ended his career.
I’m certain very few expected Posey to roar back in 2012 and win a medley of awards: the NL Silver Slugger award for catchers, the NL Hank Aaron Award, the NL MVP, the World Series victory, and obviously the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He probably had a case to win the Gold Glove too, but Yadier Molina was in the midst of winning eight straight.
If we’re comparing careers, Bench and Piazza will likely have Posey beat. It’s unfortunate, but Posey won’t return back to his peak numbers. Nonetheless, his 2012 performance was a tremendous pinnacle season for the Giants leader on offense, defense, and as a team. In my mind he managed to beat out two of the best catchers of all time and every other backstop in history for the greatest single-season performance by a catcher of all time.
Let me know if you agree, disagree, or have some new info to add in the comments!