Despite a .347 batting average (which would rank 4th in the National League amongst qualifiers), Buster Posey appears to have reached a transition point in his career as a hitter. As I discussed back in March, one of the biggest concerns for the Giants heading into 2017 was whether or not Posey could recapture the form that made him a perennial MVP candidate. From 2012 – 2015, Posey averaged 20 homeruns and 90 RBIs while hitting .315. In 2016, however, Posey hit .288 with 14 homeruns and 80 RBIs – all career lows over a full season. To make matters worse, Posey hit only 3 homeruns after the All-Star break, and his .383 slugging percentage in the 2nd half was 16th among Major League catchers with at least 150 at-bats. James McCann, Sandy Leon, J.T. Realmuto, Mike Zunino, and our own Nick Hundley were just a few of the catchers who outhit the 2012 MVP during the second half of 2016. Needless to say, Posey’s start to 2017 was going to go a long way in determining the trajectory of the 31-year old catcher’s career from here on out.
2017 got off to a rough start as Posey was hit in the head by a 94mph fastball in the 1st inning of the Giants home opener at AT&T Park. Posey went on to miss 7 games, but had 3 hits upon his return against the Royals eight days later. Through 71 at-bats this year, one thing is certain – Posey’s exceptional hand-eye coordination has not diminished an ounce. To date, Posey’s average exit velocity on batted balls stands at 90.2MPH, right in line with Bryce Harper (90.8), Wil Myers (90.4), and Yoenis Cespedes (90.4). The concern, however, remains the lack of power production for the Giants main cleanup hitter.
As of tonight, Posey has only 4 extra base hits (2 doubles and 2 homeruns) in 73 at-bats and 4 RBIs. To put that into perspective, pitchers Adam Wainright and RA Dickey also have 4 RBIs each this season, and Madison Bumgarner has the same number of homeruns in 8 total at-bats. In fact, Posey still trails Chris Marrero and Gorkys Hernandez in RBIs in 2017.
While this trend has now surpassed a small sample size (well over 300 at-bats since the 2016 All-Star Game), I’m confident that the next few weeks will prove to be a pivotal point in the career of the 4-time All Star.
For those who study swing mechanics, Posey has a very distinguishable swing. Similar to Tim Lincecum’s ability to maximize the efficiency of his unorthodox pitching style, few hitters in the game could match the complexity and consistency of Posey’s swing. What makes Posey’s swing so unique is his ability to utilize a consistently-timed leg-kick to generate momentum with his lower-half, which he then forcefully transfers to his hands to drive the bat through the hitting zone. For those not overly familiar with swing mechanics, imagine the difference between punching a punching-bag in a batter’s stance with a short stride versus a big leg kick. The amount of power and momentum generated is significant with a leg-kick, yet the overwhelming majority of players choose not to incorporate it because it’s just too difficult. Staying balanced and maintaining proper timing is challenging enough with minimal movement, so an exaggerated leg kick typically is too much for hitters to employ.
Posey, on the other hand, was one of the only (if not the only) hitter who was able to hit for average and power with a leg-kick. Hitters like Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista both resurrected their careers by incorporating a leg kick, but both did so in a run-producer capacity, and for the most-part, sacrificed batting average for power production.
Up until this season, Posey hadn’t sacrificed the ability to hit for average or for power. However, with his struggles to recapture the ability to drive the ball, Posey appears to be phasing the leg-kick out of his swing and instead relying on consistency and timing to provide the corrections needed to get back on track.
Similar to Matt Cain’s transformation (discussed here), changing a fundamental aspect of what’s made you successful over 6+ seasons is not an easy thing to do. Posey’s mechanics and approach to hitting have stayed very consistent going all the way back to his time at Florida State. While somewhat difficult to recognize, you can see in the photos that his identifiable open-stance and leg kick have not changed much, and if anything, they’ve gotten more extreme as his career has progressed.
Last night when Buster faced Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, I immediately noticed a difference in stance and his approach to the ball. I wanted to make sure I held off in analyzing it further as simply facing the most dominant pitcher in the game can force a hitter to tinker with things. But as tonight’s game progressed, and comparing that with video of his at-bats throughout the start of the 2017 season, it’s clear that Buster’s fighting himself in an attempt to find something that works.
While this is mostly a good thing that Buster isn’t content just hitting singles, adjustments like these can take a while to become comfortable with. Posey is essentially trying to learn a new way to hit without the benefit of practice. As this point in the season, the majority of the work hitters get occurs in the controlled environment of a batting cage. It’s one thing for Buster to effectively make swing adjustments off a tee or against a coach throwing batting practice, but there is no substitute for game repetition. The speed of the ball, the adrenaline, and pitch location are all variables that you just can’t mimic outside of a live game. So assuming that Buster can just incorporate these adjustments and be off an running isn’t exactly realistic. If we look back again at Bautista and Donaldson, both were nearly run out of baseball, and took an entire off-season for each to become comfortable with their new swing. Bautista went from 13 homeruns in 2009 to 54 in 2010 after being traded to the Blue Jays, and Donaldson went from 9 homeruns to 24 after six full seasons in the minor leagues.
So let’s take a look back at the start to Buster’s season. In the WBC, Buster hit a solo homerun that looked like the Buster of old. Perfect balance, precise timing, and the textbook example of the controlled-violence in his swing. Notice this homerun occurred in a 2-strike count.
The second video occurred on April 6th in a loss to the Diamondbacks. In a 3-2 count, which is a count that strongly favors the hitter, you see Posey with a much more even stance, squatted, and choked up on the bat, almost as if he’s just focusing on shortening the swing and getting the barrel to the ball.
The third video comes during a 5-3 victory over the Padres 3 days later on April 9th. In this video, Posey is much more upright, and has reincorporated his open stance and leg-kick – a swing and result much more similar to the WBC.
The fourth video, coming from a 2-1 win against the Dodgers on April 24th, shows a half-leg kick in a 1-strike count, typically a count where you’ll see Posey really attack the ball.
The 5th video was from last night, where Posey eliminated the leg kick all-together and instead incorporated a toe-tap (similar to Barry Bonds) in his approach to the ball.
Buster stuck with the toe-tap in tonight’s loss to the Dodgers as you’ll see here.
Now a couple of things are in play here. Buster isn’t slumping – he’s amongst the league leaders in hitting, so these drastic adjustments over the span of a month have nothing to do with complete underperformance. However, for his 3 years in college, 2+ years in the minors, and 7+ seasons in the Major Leagues, the foundation of his swing has stayed very consistent.
To see him all of the sudden experiment with 3 distinctly different mechanical swings in a month is definitely something to take note of. In my opinion, Buster is finding that his body at 31 isn’t able to do the same things with the same consistency and violence as when he was 25. And what we’re seeing now as a result, is a how professional hitters go about making mechanical adjustments in-season.
In my experience as a hitting coach (8+ seasons, including 6 at the Division 1 level), swing-fixes don’t occur the first time around. The great hitting coaches have dozens of approaches to address each issue. All hitters utilize different mechanics, so the ability to treat a hitter’s individual skill set is critical. As it pertains to the Giants, hitting instructor Bam Bam Meulens can’t work with Hunter Pence on the same things he works on with Buster Posey – both swings are entirely different and need to be approached differently. What we are witnessing is Buster attempting to incorporate different swing mechanics to see what he likes and what he doesn’t. He’ll keep fine tuning until he finds mechanics that work well with how his body works together. And this isn’t just with a stride. It pertains to a stance, a load (negative movement to create the path to generate momentum forward), the hand path to the ball, the actual point of contact where the bat meets the ball, the extension through the ball, and the finish of the swing. These are just a few of the moving parts that make up the foundation of the swing. Altering one aspect of the process, changes the function, efficiency, and feel of the entire swing.
So back to Buster, my guess is that with the success he experienced with a toe-tap against Kershaw, he felt comfortable enough with it to carry it over tonight. For me, this will be a major story-line as we go forward because Buster’s ability (or inability) to find a swing that works would be a good indicator of how he’s going to be down the road. If he’s unable to incorporate these significant adjustments, we could see him abandon the whole thing and stick with that feels most comfortable – and let’s be honest, we can do a lot worse that having a catcher who’s hitting .350. His teammates could also do Buster a big favor by getting on base ahead of him. Regardless, Buster has been vocal about being more productive with the bat, and the adjustments we are witnessing mirror that assessment.
I will continue to monitor this progression, and while my expectations are tempered knowing full well the uphill climb Buster faces, if anyone in the Major Leagues can completely revamp a swing in-season, it’s Buster Posey.