Since Jorge Posada‘s retirement after a distinguished 17-year career, a consensus has emerged on his Hall of Fame case. Most people will probably place Posada in the “Hall of Very Good” with other Yankee legends such as Don Mattingly and Bernie Williams (presumably), and as a small hall supporter in general, I understand this viewpoint.
The anti-Hall case for Posada was articulated in a recent article on Fangraphs by Marc Klaasen. Klaasen argued that Posada’s career fWAR of 47.6 is well below the standard set by Andrew Dawson, a “baseline” hall-of-famer, who had a career WAR of 62.3. Klaasen also looks at 2 all-time great catchers, Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza, and determines that they are able to reach the “Dawson standard”, and as such, Posada is not hall-worthy. From this, he determines that WAR does not necessarily treat catchers unfairly in the same way that it does relievers (by not adequately accounting for leverage). In my opinion, however, the article takes an overly simplistic look at Hall-worthiness, by setting an arbitrary cutoff for accumulated career WAR as the main criterion.
What immediately came to mind when I read the article (and a number of commenters saw as well) is that comparing Posada to Dawson is an apples-to-oranges comparison that does a disservice to the great career that Posada had. I am not even going to get into winning multiple World Series titles, playoff performance, or intangibles such as “grit” and “leadership”, all of which could be used to argue in Posada’s favor. The main fallacy in comparing an outfielder to a catcher is playing time. Because catching is such a physically demanding position, catchers often wind up playing fewer games in a season, accumulating fewer plate appearances, and having shorter careers than other position players. Because WAR is a counting stat, two players with similar per-game production can have drastically different WAR values if one player had many more plate appearances throughout his career. This is the case with Posada and Dawson, since Dawson had about 3500 more plate appearances than Posada throughout his career, but their WAR per plate appearance would not be that different.
That’s not to say that longevity shouldn’t be rewarded, because the duration of productivity is clearly important. However, given that catchers usually don’t accumulate the same number of plate appearances in a career as position players, it would make sense to compare catchers to other catchers rather than other position players who inherently get more plate appearances. When compared to his peers, Posada comes in at #15 in WAR all-time. This makes a more compelling case for inclusion into the Hall of Fame, though there is still plenty of room for argument. In particular, one could look at Posada’s rather mediocre defensive career and argue that WAR doesn’t adequately measure catcher defense (as several studies have suggested). I don’t see him not measuring up to Rodriguez or Piazza (or other HOF’ers like Berra and Bench) as necessarily a strike against Posada’s case, because those 4 are pretty obvious candidates (maybe not Rodriguez because of his alleged PED use).
Even after accounting for playing time, I would probably still be inclined to leave Posada out due to his mediocre defense and horrifically awful baserunning. This article from Baseball Prospectus sums up Posada’s flaws, and how WAR may not fully measure how bad his defense has been. However, I just wanted to emphasize with the Posada case that a slavish devotion to arbitrary WAR cutoffs would lead catchers to be systematically underrated, since their playing time is typically decreased. Since I don’t think catcher is an inherently less valuable position (as opposed to a relief pitcher or DH), accounting for playing time and judging catchers against the standards set by other catchers seems to be the fairest way to evaluate their Hall-worthiness.