SAN FRANCISCO (CBS Sports) — Two months into the season, there was no Rookie of the Year debate in the National League.
There was just Jason Heyward.
He was the talk of spring training. He was the talk of April. He was the talk of May.
He was going to be the Rookie of the Year, and the only thing that could stop him would be an injury, a complete collapse or maybe a Stephen Strasburg no-hitter every week for the rest of the season.
“He’s so far ahead,” Cody Ross said right about then. “It’s not even a race, because Heyward got such a head start. … It would have been a fun race. Now it’s a boat race.”
It wasn’t a boat race.
And it wasn’t Heyward. And what makes Buster Posey even more impressive as the rookie of all rookies in this incredible National League class is that you can’t even say Heyward lost it.
He didn’t lose it. Buster Posey won it.
He was that good.
Sure, Heyward hit .181 in June, mostly because of a painful thumb injury that would eventually send him to the disabled list and keep him out of the All-Star Game. But Heyward actually had a better batting average and OPS in the second half of the season (.302, .875) than he did in the first half (.251, .821).
He didn’t lose it. Buster Posey won it.
Posey didn’t win because the Giants won the World Series. The votes were in at the end of the season, and at that point both he and Heyward had helped their teams to the playoffs and nothing more.
Posey won because as good as Heyward was, and as hyped as Heyward was, Posey was just a little bit better. He won because even though Heyward had a huge head start — the Braves outfielder was hitting .295 with nine home runs and 35 RBI in 44 games on the day Posey was called up to the big leagues — Posey was able to overtake him.
He won because as nice as it is to have a great all-around outfielder, with great instincts on the bases and great power, it’s even better to have a catcher who can hit cleanup for a team capable of winning the World Series.
Posey wasn’t the first rookie to hit in a key spot for a World Series team. Evan Longoria hit cleanup for the 2008 Rays, Dustin Pedroia led off for the 2007 Red Sox and Derek Jeter sometimes led off for the 1996 Yankees.
All those guys, of course, also won the Rookie of the Year award.
But none of them really did what Posey did, because none of them were catchers. If you’re looking for catchers hitting in the middle of the order for playoff teams, you’re looking at guys like Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench.
Berra hit third for the Yankees in the 1947 World Series (in five of the seven games), when he was a 22-year-old rookie. Bench hit cleanup for the Reds in the 1970 World Series, when he was also 22 — but he was in his third year.
The 23-year-old Posey hit third and fourth for the Giants against the Rangers a couple weeks back.
But there’s more to it than that.
Posey did it while catching a dominating pitching staff, one he had to win over after the Giants traded Bengie Molina to make room for him. He had to win their respect. During the World Series, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said a big moment came when Matt Cain made an early public statement supporting the rookie.
I was in Colorado watching the Giants in September, when Cain pitched a three-hitter to beat the Rockies. I was struck by the respect Posey had earned in the Giants clubhouse, and I was struck by something Cain said after that game.
“I think I shook him off once, and I almost kicked myself for it,” he said.
That week, I’d gone from watching Heyward and the Braves in New York and Philadelphia to seeing Posey and the Giants in Denver. I left the Braves thinking Heyward was the Rookie of the Year, then left the Giants three days later thinking maybe it really should be Posey.
As it turned out, the vote wasn’t that close. Posey got 20 of the 32 first-place votes, as opposed to nine for Heyward (with Jaime Garcia and Gaby Sanchez dividing the remaining votes).
“It’s surreal to have won it,” Posey said on a conference call, after mentioning Heyward and many of the other top candidates in a stacked NL class.
It’s something Posey couldn’t have imagined back on May 29, the day the Giants called him to the big leagues.
Everyone had been talking about Heyward for three months — because of his spring training home runs, which became legendary, and because of his first at-bat, an opening day home run against the Cubs.
“I definitely was following him,” Posey said. “I remember seeing him hit that home run on opening day. As a baseball fan myself, it was a cool moment.”
It was cool, and it seemed to shout out right from the first game that Jason Heyward was going to be 2010’s Rookie of the Year.
A couple of months later, it seemed just as sure a thing. Cody Ross was playing for the Marlins then, and he was thinking about the Marlins’ decision to leave Mike Stanton in the minor leagues for the first two months. He also was thinking about Stephen Strasburg, the other hot rookie at that time.
They didn’t have a chance, Ross said then. No one had a chance. With Jason Heyward, it was a boat race.
Except that it wasn’t.
It wasn’t Stanton who caught Heyward, and it wasn’t Strasburg. And it wasn’t Heyward falling off so much that he allowed someone to catch him.
No, it was Buster Posey, the guy so many of us were ignoring back then, the guy who needed a couple of months in Fresno and then needed to wait for the Giants to trade Molina.
It was Buster Posey, the guy who wasn’t the talk of April or May, but sure was the talk of September and October.
It was Buster Posey, the Rookie of the Year.
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