I remember fewer people in the dugout and fewer people caring after Ryan Vogelsong won the Willie Mac Award last year. It wasn’t Vogelsong’s fault that he was a rare bright spot on a team that spent the first half of the season patting itself on the back and the last two months of the season with its collective tail between its legs. But the facts were these: the Giants had won a World Series less than a year before, making a playoff-free existence seem like a frigid shower by comparison. Also, Vogelsong isn’t Buster Posey.

Writing this now, as the Giants take batting practice, it’s so clear how different things are. Simply by looking at the Giants take hacks, there can be no doubt as to how the Giants are poised to win their second NL West title in three years.

I know I focus too much on BP, but last year it was a stark reminder every afternoon that the Giants’ bats weren’t healthy. Those were dark days in the cage, a year of pop flies from Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera raining down around the screen just behind second base.

After Posey and Bruce Bochy talked about Posey winning the Willie Mac Award for a little bit this afternoon, I went up to the press box. I looked up from my laptop, and saw Posey launch one 15 rows deep into Sec. 138. Then Hunter Pence stepped in and hit the first pitch he saw 20+ rows back in Sec. 139, then sent a rocket to centerfield that one-hopped the batter’s eye.

Different times indeed. And instead of Vogelsong’s coronation marking the beginning of the end of the 2011 season, Posey’s comments about winning the Willie Mac Award focused more on winning another World Series.

Buster Posey, catcher

In person, Posey isn’t an intimidating physical presence. He isn’t small or big, he’s just Buster sized. I don’t know how else to put it. Nothing about Posey is freakish besides the trophy case. But as a relatively inexperienced clubhouse guest, it’s still easy to see and feel who has control of that room. I feel like people could’ve said the same thing about Will Clark in 1989 after he hit .333, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re watching a player in his prime whose number will someday be displayed between two sets of luxury suites in left field.

If a gruesome injury to a joint that handles so much stress over the course of a baseball season couldn’t keep Posey down for long, what could? The only potential blemish on his career resume (especially if he wins another award from the baseball writers at the end of the season, and I’m not referring to Comeback Player of the Year) is the lingering hope/fear (depending on who you are) that Posey is facing a permanent move to first base in the not-too-distant future. While Posey is a transcendant talent, he’s slower than MUNI during a major protest and isn’t a great defensive first baseman. Unless Posey continues hitting at this insane clip for the next decade or so, his offense won’t be valued as highly at that position.

The reason why I choose to believe Posey will continue as a most-of-the-time catcher for a good portion of the next decade is the same reason he won this award. Posey is a truly stubborn man, someone who never gives an answer he isn’t 100% comfortable with, never believed he’d miss any time this season, and considers himself one of the best catchers in the game. He probably feels like he’s the best, and who could blame the catcher who leads the NL in OBP and has thrown out the last six guys who’ve tried to steal off him?

With a healthy Posey, anything seems possible. WAR numbers would tell us this isn’t so, but I have a hard time believing the Arizona Diamondbacks would’ve won the West last year if Posey’s brilliant career went uninterrupted. And without Posey, the loss of Melky Cabrera probably would’ve sunk this team. Instead, Posey was borderline defiant in his public words on the day Cabrera left and the team has taken that attitude onto the field.

Melky’s gone, the starting pitching looks human and the Dodgers just absorbed a good portion of the Red Sox? Who cares, do you see what Posey’s doing since the Break (.392/.467/.658)? Who else has that?

Posey would’ve been voted as the Willie Mac recipient if he hit .275 with 15 homers, as long as he played in most of the games. And that would’ve helped the Giants keep pace in the NL West this season and perhaps even finish in first. But when Posey plays the way he has for weeks and weeks now, the Giants win and win. The Giants have won 78 of the games Posey has played, and here’s his slash in those games: .378/.462/.632. In 59 losses, .275/.332/.430. If you want to know why the Giants are 41-23 since the Break while the Dodgers have done their best impression of a mansion at the end of a crumbling Malibu cliff, the answer is Posey.

Unlike Vogelsong’s abnormally long journey through professional baseball, highlighted by dependable pitching that at times was sensational, Posey’s struggles were shorter and his climb back to the top keeps soaring to new heights. What heights will Posey lead the Giants to this season? Nobody knows, and that’s what makes the announcement of the 2012 Willie Mac Award a much more joyous occasion than it was a year ago.

In this video, Posey gives Henry Schulman a hard time after Schulman asks which teammate’s name Posey wrote down in the Willie Mac voting, then talks about Cabrera’s batting title forfeiture and what that means to his own chances of becoming the batting champion.

When Posey was seven or eight years old, his dad told him something that stuck with him. In this video, Posey explains what his dad said and how it influenced his even-keeled approach.