SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- By this point in the exhibition slate, players are all-too-accustomed to the early wakeup calls that accompany a day-game-laden schedule. But for the Giants, Friday called for an even earlier arrival than usual, what with a Major League Baseball Players' Association meeting lined up for 8:15 a.m.
Of little surprise was what happened more than an hour earlier, when the first of the veteran players to stroll through the clubhouse doors was catcher Buster Posey, the heart and soul of the club that tends to win a title every other year. And if you need a little window into understanding how a great player somehow gets better, how a franchise face sets an unmistakable tone, you might as well start right there.
"I'm almost 29," Posey said after a quick breakfast cleared the cobwebs. "I look around at guys I've played with and other guys throughout the league, and you're seeing most guys are done at 35, 36 now. I try to keep the perspective that I've got six, seven years -- maybe more, but you never know -- so why not make the most of it?"
Odd year that it was, the Giants didn't win it all or even advance to October last season. So the casual baseball fan might not have noticed the discernible improvements Posey made on both sides of his game. Previously, the only real obstruction in the opinion of Posey being one of the game's elite defensive catchers was a caught-stealing percentage that had been consistently sliding south. But that number made a sudden surge of more than six percentage points in 2015. And Posey coupled that control of the running game with a batting line that for the first time in his career included more walks (56) than strikeouts (52).
If it is at all possible for a three-time World Series champion, one-time National League MVP and NL Rookie of the Year Award winner and three-time Silver Slugger winner who has caught three no-hitters to have an underrated season, Posey might have done just that.
"I think he's a goal-setter," said retired reliever Jeremy Affeldt, back in Giants camp as a special instructor. "I think he looks at [Yadier] Molina with the Gold Glove [eight years running] and says, 'I could win that.'"
Actually, Posey didn't come right out and say he's looking to steal Molina's annual hardware, but he has stolen elements of his throwing motion in the effort to improve. Posey watched a lot of video of Molina and concluded that part of what makes him so consistently successful at nabbing would-be basestealers is the consistency in the way he sets his front shoulder low and in line with his target, allowing for truer backspin on the ball with more drive and carry.
You can see an adjustment made by Posey even when comparing successful throws. Look at this one from 2013:
And compare it to this one from last year:
The latter throw is more direct -- a hard liner as opposed to a more looping fly ball.
Posey's season-by-season caught stealing percentages (with attempts in parentheses) are as follows:
Runners rarely wasted an opportunity to test Posey back in 2012 or '13, but his improvement in cutting them down has helped contribute to a decline in attempts.
"Ultimately it's all about trying to limit baserunners," Posey said. "Sometimes those outs are huge. It takes some pressure off your pitcher, and maybe you go from one out with a big bopper at the plate to two outs, and you can pitch that guy a little bit differently."
On the other side of the equation, opposing pitchers have no choice but to pitch Posey differently, because his approach has adjusted considerably in recent seasons.
Only 22 qualifying batters in the big leagues saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than Posey in 2015, and that's a pretty striking change from his MVP season in 2012, when only nine qualifying hitters saw more pitches per plate appearance.
"Bam Bam [hitting coach Hensley Meulens] talked to me about changing my mindset from pitch one, being ready to hit from pitch one," Posey said. "Just that mindset. But I do think sometimes I can be a little more patient and take that borderline strike, in the hope of getting a pitch I can handle later in the at-bat."
It's hard to find much fault with an approach that led to such an impressive walk-to-strikeout ratio last season, though Posey, ever the perfectionist, did take a balanced view toward the outcome.
"Who knows if I'll do that again in my career?" Posey said. "It was just one of those years where I felt like I got in a good groove where, when I got to two strikes, I had a good approach, to where I could cover a lot of pitches. I go back and forth as to whether that's a good thing or not, because I think there are certain times where, even with two strikes, you can take more of a shot. I think there's a balance, a fine line there. If there's two strikes, no one on base, maybe a tie game, it might be more beneficial to stay aggressive and hit a ball in the gap or maybe hit a homer. But I think it all depends on what's going on in the game."
Undoubtedly, Posey is one of the best things going on in the game today. The hard part, naturally, will be sustaining this elite performance and production at such a demanding position, especially at a point in the game's evolution where the industry consensus is that more is being asked of players. Little wonder that Posey is a public proponent of a shortened spring schedule.
But as far as the way Posey navigates the grind of the schedule, few are better. As Affeldt said, this is "a hard game to play and a hard game to get better at," but Posey has done just that.
"I don't want to look back and say I got to play the game that I love so much and didn't give it everything I have," Posey said. "As simple as that may sound, that's how I feel."