"The only thing that I can think is 2003. You know, I was close to the MVP. Didn't happen. Alex won the MVP and, you know, I think second, either Carlos Delgado or David Ortiz, I don't remember. But you know, I was almost there," Posada said. "You know what could have happened if, you know it's tough."
All respect to Jorge, whom I still like a lot - but there's no way he was the best in the league in 2003, with or without A-Rod's pharmaceutical adventures.
Posada had a great 2003, his best year by WAR – 5.9, a level that's usually not best-in-league, and was fifth among position players, but is as good as that of many MVPs. Posada's offensive WAR was actually 0.4 better in 2007 than 2003, but the defensive WAR stats comport with what we all remember: by age 35, his defense had declined badly. WAR actually sees Posada's defense as a plus his first six full years -- through 2003. If 2003 Posada was the league's fifth-best hitter, and he was a plus defensive catcher, and most guys ahead of him were on steroids... well, that's a decent MVP case.
Except Posada likely was always a bad defensive catcher – because his pitch-framing was awful. I think full pitch-framing data extends back only to 2007 (unless my research fell short, which is possible), so we don't know Posada's exact 2003 framing. But framing doesn't decline with age as quickly as pure strength-and-speed skills (Brad Ausmus and Jose Molina remained top framers through their late 30s), so Posada's 2007-10 framing stats are a decent gauge of his career-long ability. And his framing was terrible:
the difference between the best and worst catchers at framing pitches in any given season is something on the order of four to five wins. And not surprisingly, Posada has been among the worst, if not the worst, during most of the seasons for which we have data. From 2007-2011, Posada cost the Yankees an average of almost .003 runs per called pitch. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but catchers catch a lot of pitches, and all those fractional losses add up. For Posada, they added up to 50 runs.
Due to injury and moving to DH, Posada caught only about three seasons' worth of games (352 games) from 2007-2011, so his -50 framing runs amounts to about -17 runs per full season. So, roughly speaking, subtract about a win and a half from his WAR per full-time catching season. That would take his 2003 WAR down from 5.9 to 4.4 – still an excellent year, but far from MVP-caliber.
Don't believe this article? Believe the quants the Yankees employed in 2009, who found Posada's pitch-framing vastly decreased his value:
"[Alex] Rubin and fellow Yankees quants Dave Grabiner and Jim Logue produced a report that summed up the statistical evidence in a sentence that would have strained belief if not for the inarguable numbers that went with it. 'Jorge Posada could hit like Albert Pujols and Jose Molina could hit like Jose Molina, and Molina would still be better.'"
Even before you penalize him for his framing, Posada wasn't 2003's best "clean" American Leaguer. Three of the four ahead of him in WAR were proven or likely roiders: A-Rod, Manny Ramirez, and Bret Boone. But the fourth is Carlos Delgado, whom nobody has credibly accused of juicing; Tom Verducci may be overstating, but not by much, in calling him "the best 'clean' power hitter of the Steroid Era." If you exclude juicers, Delgado still bested Posada by 0.6 WAR (6.5 to 5.9), and was better by a wider margin if you penalize Posada for his framing. And if the question isn't "who was better" but "who actually would have won," it's still Delgado: he was second in the voting, behind A-Rod but ahead of Posada.
I don't mean to criticize Posada, either as a player or as a retired autobiographer looking back with a little bitterness. Even if he wasn't ever an MVP, he was a great player; being one of the maybe dozen best players in the league in his three best years, and a core star of a regularly championship team, is a career to be proud of. I also don't fault his indulging in some justifiable bitterness here: I played clean and hard, Jorge thinks, while a bunch of others cheated and won awards. So, no disrespect to Jorge's skill or upset here; he's just not right in closing his eyes and seeing a no-steroid alternate reality in which there's an MVP trophy on the Posada family mantlepiece.