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Jorge Posada’s Place Among Aging Catchers

Not many catchers make it to their late 30s. The wear and tear that results from squatting behind the plate for an hour or more per game often chases catchers from the game before age 37. In fact, only nine players in baseball history have caught more than 100 games in their age-37 season. Among them, Jorge Posada stands out. He has the highest BA, OBP, and SLG for age-37 catchers, marks he attained last year. But does this bode well for his age-38 season?

At the Bloomberg Sports blog, Tommy Rancel runs down third-tier fantasy catchers. After the top tier, Joe Mauer, and the second, Brian McCann and Victor Martinez, Rancel lists Miguel Montero, Matt Wieters, and Chris Iannetta. Completely absent from the article is Posada. His advanced age and recent injury history certainly plays into that. Even so, among catchers with at least 430 PA in 2009 Jorge led the way in ISO, and ranked second, to Mauer, in wOBA. So why leave him off the list?

History provides us with the beginnings of an answer. While nine players caught more than 100 games at age 37, only five did so at age 38* — and only three have done it since 1940. Only one, Benito Santiago in 2003, slugged over .400. Fred Jacklitsch holds the highest OBP in the group, .376, but he did it in 1914. Among the post-1940 players, Santiago’s .329 OBP leads the way. The catchers that did make it to age 38, it appears, were known more for their defensive skills than offensive prowess.

* To be fair, two other age-37 catchers also played that season in 2009, Jason Varitek and Ivan Rodriguez.

On the age-37 list, the only other catcher to post an OPS of .800 or above was Carlton Fisk, who posted a .348 wOBA in 1985. In 1986 he played in 125 games, but started only 65 behind the plate. But even if he had caught 100 games in 1986, his numbers would rank him as the worst among his peers. His OPS sat at a lowly .600 that season, resulting in a -1.5 WAR. Age 38 does not appear to be a catcher-friendly one.

Even if Posada’s skills don’t decline as dramatically as his historical counterparts, his recent injuries do present a cause for concern. After avoiding the DL for the first 11 seasons of his career, Posada succumbed to shoulder issues in 2008, missing 109 days. While his shoulder did hold up in 2009, he did miss 24 days because of a hamstring injury. That’s 133 days over the past two seasons missed to injury. With another year taking its toll on his body, we shouldn’t be surprised at all if Jorge gets hurt in 2010.

How far will Posada decline? Because he ranked so far ahead of his peers at age 37, because of his recent injury history, and because he was one of the top offensive catchers in 2009, it’s difficult to say. Maybe he’ll be like Benito Santiago, who saw only a small drop-off in performance from age 37 to 38. Or maybe he’ll be like Fisk, who completely fell off — but who also came back and posted a few more excellent partial seasons before retiring. That will be part of the joy in watching Posada’s 2010 season. He’s in rare territory, not only in terms of his age as a catcher, but his performance at that age. Can he do it for one more season?