During a recent train ride, three guys sitting near me (loudly) debated which player was most important to the Yankees' success this year. After filtering out the occasional exaggerations ("Jeter is the greatest shortstop ever!") and potentially alcohol-induced fictions ("A-Rod accounts for like, 80 percent of the team's RBIs"), their basic arguments were as follows:
Guy 1: CC Sabathia is most important because it always comes down to starting pitching -- always, always, always -- and Sabathia is good for 220 innings, 18-plus wins and the kind of length that keeps a bullpen fresh. He is the bona fide ace the Yankees have been seeking forever and sets the tone for a rotation as good as any in baseball.
Guy 2: Alex Rodriguez is most important because he is at the heart of the Yankees' offense. If his injury keeps him out much longer than a month, there will be too much pressure on Mark Teixeira and little protection for him. Without A-Rod, the Yankees lineup -- which lost Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu from a year ago -- will be too thin and you can't win without scoring runs.
Guy 3: Derek Jeter is most important because he is the soul of the team. If he were injured for the entire season and/or slumped incredibly badly, his leadership would erode and the team wouldn't rally around him. It's an intangible thing. Plus, you know, he's Derek Jeter.
The problem with the debate (in addition to none of the participants using an "indoor voice" despite sitting in a commuter rail car) was that all three guys were both very wrong and very right. Essentially, the rationale behind each of their arguments was correct -- hitting, pitching and intangible leadership are crucial to the Yankees' winning -- but their selections as to who embodies those qualities were misguided.
Instead of focusing on only one of those attributes at a time, the three guys should have been looking for the player who encompasses all of them simultaneously. And if they had, they would have quickly realized that Jorge Posada -- and not A-Rod or Sabathia or Jeter or even Mariano Rivera (who I thought should have at least been in the conversation in the first place) -- is the most important player to the Yankees' success this season. If Posada stays healthy and can approach his 2007 production, the Yankees will thrive; if he doesn't (or can't), than they will falter.
- Posada handles all of the pitchers and is directly responsible for planning how they attack hitters. He helps them through days when they're struggling with a certain pitch and uses their weapons on days when they're sharp. He is the common link among the entire pitching staff.
- Posada is the emotional center of the Yankees clubhouse. While Jeter, his best friend on the team, is the captain, even Jeter admits that Posada's presence is irreplaceable. Posada does not make excuses for poor play, is brutally honest about his teammates (and himself) and has earned universal respect for being so fiercely genuine in a game filled with phonies. He is not afraid to call out a player or, as was the case with Orlando Hernandez, even get into the occasional fight.
- Posada is unique offensive presence among catchers. He will likely hit fifth in the Opening Day lineup and, as a switch-hitter, he offers versatility in terms of where he is most helpful once Rodriguez returns. More importantly, his production is overwhelming compared to others at his position.
Since 2004, Posada's numbers while batting as a catcher are: .290 batting average, .390 on-base percentage, .490 slugging percentage and 23.3 at-bats per homer. During that same time period, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the numbers from all other catchers the Yankees have used are: .214/.259/.324/56.9. The average production every other team in the league has as gotten from its catcher position during those seasons: .259/.322/.399/37.0.
In other words, Posada is miles better than the average catcher and has a legitimate impact on all three phases of the game that many believe are most critical to a Major League team's overall result. There is no other player on the Yankees roster with the same responsibility and so, by extension, no other player on the roster whose presence would be missed as much if he were gone -- either literally or statistically.
A cursory look at the most successful teams in recent years shows the trend to be universal. More often than not, a strong catcher is at the backbone: Joe Mauer with the Twins, Russell Martin with the Dodgers, Jason Varitek (minus last season) with the Red Sox and Geovany Soto with the Cubs, among others.
"A good catcher," Miller Huggins once said, "is the quarterback, the carburetor, the lead dog, the pulse-taker, the traffic cop and sometimes a lot of unprintable things. But no team gets very far without one."
Such is life with this year's Yankees, too. In a clubhouse filled with superstars, it isn't CC or A-Rod or Jeter who is the most important. It is the player who does a little bit of everything. It is Posada.