Posada Is One Yankee That Can’t Be Replaced

Posada Is One Yankee That Can’t Be Replaced


Published : May 15, 2007 / The New York Times

Only three catchers in major league history have spent more games behind the plate than Tony Peña. For 18 seasons, Peña squatted behind hitters, cajoled pitchers, absorbed foul tips and collided with charging runners. He is an expert on longevity at baseball’s most rigorous position.

So when Peña, the Yankees’ first-base coach, makes predictions about his protégé, he is a reliable source. And here is what he said Sunday about Jorge Posada: “Jorge can catch until he’s 45. It would not surprise me, and don’t get surprised if he does that.”

Posada turns 36 in August and is in his 11th full season in the majors. He laughed at Peña’s comment and said, “We’ll have to see what happens.” Posada is unsigned past 2007, but this much is clear for the wobbly Yankees: they need him more than ever.

The Yankees are 17-19 as they play the Chicago White Sox tonight at U.S. Cellular Field. Their offense has disappeared lately, scoring two runs or fewer in four of the past seven games. But Posada is not the problem.

He is batting .365, second in the American League to Derek Jeter’s .375 through Sunday, and he is the only Yankee with a slugging percentage above .500 and an on-base percentage above .410. As a force of habit, Posada is never introspective about his hitting when he is going well.

“Just feeling good at the plate, helping the team, not getting away from anything,” he said. “I’ve been relaxed. It is secondary to defense.”

That is a mantra of catchers, whose primary function is to guide a pitching staff. Doing so has been especially hectic for Posada, who has juggled 10 different starters, including six rookies, this season. An 11th starter, Roger Clemens, could join the team by the end of the month.

At such an important defensive position, and with so few catchers capable of matching his offense, Posada could be the most indispensable player on the Yankees. His backup, Wil Nieves, is 1 for 25 this season.

“He’s been huge in the middle of our lineup, and we really miss his bat when he’s not in there,” Manager Joe Torre said of Posada, adding that everyday players like Bobby Abreu and Robinson Canó have been stuck in long slumps.

“Wil does a great job on the defensive end, but when we’ve struggled to score runs, he’s been a real void to fill. He does a heck of a job having good at-bats that seem to be at an important time in the game.”

The Yankees lost two of three games last weekend in Seattle, but Posada went 6 for 13 at the plate. More important, perhaps, he caught all 25 innings, and the Yankees pitchers allowed only seven runs.

The only game the Yankees won was started by the rookie Matt DeSalvo, who had also faced Seattle in his debut last Monday. Posada had to do more scouting for the second start, studying more tape and devising new patterns.

He called for DeSalvo to throw three forkballs, a pitch he did not use in his debut and had struggled to command in the bullpen. But DeSalvo did as he was told and used the pitch to get his first major league strikeout.

DeSalvo, who faces the White Sox on Thursday, said he shook off Posada only twice Saturday and not at all in his debut. In a typical game in the minors, he said, he might shake off a catcher four or five times. But Posada is not any catcher.

“I just trust him,” DeSalvo said. “He makes me feel comfortable. Even when I’d go 2-0 or 3-0 with a big hitter up, he’d make me feel that I was capable of throwing that strike in there, when in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to give up a bomb here.’ Just giving me that fist-pump, like, ‘You can do this,’ that meant the world.”

With the younger pitchers, Posada said, his biggest job is to keep them relaxed — essentially, to fool them into thinking nothing has changed from the minors. Peña said Posada’s best quality is the way he develops a game plan tailored to each pitcher’s strengths, whatever they are.

“If their strengths fit well with the hitter you’re facing, obviously you’re going to have a good game,” Posada said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go that well, but these kids are preparing and they’re ready.”

Peña said the grind of catching can sometimes be more taxing mentally than physically. But the physical challenge is undeniable, especially as a catcher gets older.

Posada made a concession to age before the 2006 season, reporting to spring training at his playing weight — 215 pounds, he said — and then staying strong through the playoffs. His weight is the same this season, and Posada said he felt more agile than he used to.

To keep playing for years, and to earn the next Yankees contract he wants, staying in shape is essential.

“He has a great body, and he works himself into that,” Peña said. “If he were to get fat and big, he wouldn’t be able to catch 130, 140 games. There’s no way. That’s why, when catchers get overweight, the first thing to happen is the knees go. They get hurt, they get surgery, and they’re done.”

Posada is one of only six active players with 10 years of service and no appearances on the disabled list. He said he was not thinking about his future with the Yankees, and he has never made an issue of it publicly. His best friend on the team, Derek Jeter, says he is not worried.

“He ain’t going nowhere,” Jeter said, definitively. With the way this season has gone for the Yankees — and for Posada — his conviction is easy to understand.