Looking back on that fall of 2010 when he didn’t know any better, Buster Posey thinks the tight division race and final-day clinch helped him navigate October.
“It was nice to kind of have those playoff games before the playoff games even started,” the Giants’ All-Star catcher said.
That’s one edge Willson Contreras isn’t likely to get as his Cubs opened September with a 15-game lead in the division – the largest for a big-league team heading into September since the 2008 Angels.
But it shouldn’t prevent the Cubs’ rookie catcher from being a favorite to do what only Posey has done in the last five decades: reach the World Series as his team’s starting catcher, as a rookie.
It’s one of the rarest achievements in playoff baseball, with contending teams more often importing veteran catchers to handle their pitching staffs in the heat of elimination baseball. Just ask Pudge Rodriguez, who was acquired by the Marlins ahead of their 2003 championship and the Tigers ahead of their 2006 run to the Series.
Posey was the first rookie catcher to go to a World Series as his team’s starting catcher since Andy Ectchebarren for the 1966 champion Orioles.
In fact, only two other rookie catchers have started even one World Series game in more than 30 years: the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina in Game 4 of Boston’s sweep of his team in 2004, and Rod Barajas in Arizona’s Game 5 loss to the Yankees in 2001.
“That’s amazing,” Contreras said. “I would like to be one of those guys, too.”
His progress since his big-league debut June 17 has put him in position to do that. Already the Cubs’ strongest-throwing catcher the day he arrived, Contreras quickly proved to be their best-hitting catcher, too.
But the biggest – even remarkable – improvement since then has been how quickly he has become a competent big-league receiver and game-caller with a veteran pitching staff.
“He got thrown into a tough spot for sure, with some veteran guys in a playoff race, and he’s handled it well,” said the sometimes intimidating, cantankerous veteran, John Lackey. “The talent is all there. That’s the last step, and sometimes that takes a while, and he’s coming along really fast right now, and it’s been good for us.”
Kyle Hendricks, the major league’s ERA leader, said after his first start with Contreras that he spent the early part of the game shaking him off so much that he began to just stare in until he liked the sign he saw and then nodded.
After their last start together, last week on the road, Hendricks said he didn’t shake him off at all.
“We’ve been rolling fort the last five or six starts at least,” Hendricks said. “It’s been easy.”
Once the playoffs start, David Ross is a lock to catch Jon Lester’s starts. But Contreras is in play to make any or all of the other starts, depending how the final month of the season plays out and what lefty hitting Miguel Montero’s matchup status is.
That’s why manager Joe Maddon has had Contereras catch every pitcher, including Jake Arrieta, multiple times in recent weeks. “Holding the edges on Hendricks, being able to handle the really wild movement of Arrieta – he’s done both of those things,” Maddon said.
Contreras started more than half (15) of the Cubs’ games in August, and Maddon has suggested keeping him fresh into October is the biggest issue left with the rookie.
His pitchers have a 4.03 ERA when he catches this year – but 3.52 since the start of August.
“Every game that I catch, every pitch, my confidence level has grown a lot,” said Contreras, who’s hitting .270 with nine home runs heading into his next likely catching start, Saturday with Arrieta against possible playoff opponent Madison Bumgarner.
“I have confidence in myself,” said Contreras, who says he’s ready for the “do-or-die” responsibility of the playoffs. “I have an idea what I want to do with my pitchers. I talk to them before the games and we get ready to win every single game.”
Posey, who was called up near the end of May in 2010 (after a brief debut the previous September), was starting by June on the way to a Rookie of the Year Award – leading to the trade that summer of veteran catcher Bengie Molina.
“From the start when he went behind the plate, he instilled that confidence in us just in how he handled everything,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “And when you’ve got a young catcher, you can’t have a better mentor over there than Ross, who I’m sure has been working with him.
“When you have somebody that’s as talented [as Contreras] and can provide the offense like their kid’s doing – like Buster’s doing for us – that’s invaluable,” Bochy said. “As long as they’re doing the job behind the plate it’s a scarce commodity.”
Posey’s lasting memory of that first playoff run was how “the games are more taxing on you mentally, more than anything,” he said. “I just remember feeling tired – a good tired, but tired.”
His advice for Contreras?
“I can’t give him any advice,” Posey said. “I’m hoping we might see them in the playoffs.”
World Series Starts by Rookie Catchers Last 50 Years
- Player, team (Year), GS — World Series result
- Buster Posey, Giants (2010), 5 — Beat Rangers in 5
- Yadier Molina, Cardinals (2004), 1 — Lost to Red Sox in 4
- Rod Barajas, D-Backs (2001), 1 — Beat Yankees in 7
- Tom Nieto, Cardinals (1985), 2 — Lost to Royals in 7
- Steve Nicosia, Pirates (1979), 4 — Beat Orioles in 7
- Russ Gibson, Red Sox (1967), 1 — Lost to Cardinals in 7
- Andy Etchebarren, Orioles (1966), 4 — Beat Dodgers in 4
Note: Nicosia and Ed Ott started every other game for Pirates during ’79 Series.