Yadi's worst season so far?

Many will argue that this has been Yadi’s best season yet. He’s clearly having his best offensive season, presently sitting w/ slash lines of .306/.351/.395 – all 3 career highs. He has 7 HRs, 1 off his career high and scored 37 times (career high) and driven in 56 runs (another career high). He’s also had a career high PAs and probably just coming into his prime at age 25 so maybe it’s not all that surprising that those numbers are better than he’s posted in any of the previous 4 seasons.

While his offensive numbers are superior to any he’s posted in his big league career, many of us have noticed that his defense seems to have suffered somewhat this year. The basic numbers confirm that as he’s given up 34 wild pitches (career high) and yielded 37 SBs (2nd most) while throwing out the fewest baserunners of his career (18). The position of catcher has always been seen as a "defense-first" position and no organization has embraced that philosophy more than the Cards ever since Mike LaValliere donned the gear. From Tom Pagnozzi to Mike Matheny to Molina, the Cardinals have always seen the position behind the plate as one where you could stomach a lack of offensive production provided you got great defense. If Molina has had a poor defensive season (by his standards), even w/ a distinct improvement in his offense, is he having his worst season overall?

First, though, let’s evaluate his offense relative to previous seasons.

Year VORP BRAA BRAR RC/27 OPS ISO EQA
2005 -0.4 -6.70 -1 3.37 .654 .106 .226
2006 -19.7 -22.91 -11 2.62 .595 .106 .204
2007 9.4 -10.51 8 3.96 .708 .093 .250
2008 17.7 2.89 16 4.48 .745 .088 .263

Strangely, his isolated power has fallen each season though he’s become a better hitter overall. He’s clearly a more skilled and polished hitter this year as he has routinely demonstrated the almost uncanny ability to guide the ball through the hole on the right side whenever we need a single. He has an .862 OPS in 126 PAs w/ RISP and his OPS is 1.036 in 64 PAs w/ 2 outs and RISP. That’s partly attributable to his ungodly .383 BABIP in those situations.

His batting skills have clearly increased this year which makes me think that his season BABIP of .316 may not be a fluke. It’s certainly above average which leads one to believe that Yadi’s been particularly lucky this year, but since his K rate (6.6%) is the lowest of his career, and the best in the big leagues, his high line drive rate (21.1%) and high BABIP may not be a fluke and may not demonstrate much luck at all. It’s reasonable to say that all, or almost all, of that high average is a result of a demonstrable increase in skill.

He’s still not one of the best offensive catchers in the bigs or even in the NL, but he’s no longer a distinct liability at the offensive end either.

However, at the defensive end, Yadi’s play has fallen short of expectations this year. To wit:

Year SBA/G CS% WP+PB/G Assists Errors Fielding Win Shares
2005 0.29 54.8% .319 66 6 7.6
2006 0.55 41.3% .278 77 4 8.3
2007 0.48 50.0% .324 63 6 7.4
2008 0.44 30.6% .351 69 9 6.7

Last year, Molina definitely deserved the Gold Glove (though the complaints about Russell Martin’s defense here were outlandish – he’s also a very solid defensive catcher). This year, he definitely does not. He’s made more errors and given up more wild pitches and passed balls per game than in any other season. His CS% is, by far, the lowest of his career. Some may argue that there’s more to being a catcher defensively than stopping pitches and throwing runners out – that their ability to call a game has a profound impact on pitching. The argument would be that Yadi’s game calling is, at least partially, a reason for Wellemeyer’s, Lohse’s, and Looper’s performances this year. Unfortunately, that theory was pretty solidly debunked in BP’s Baseball Between the Numbers. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the theory that catchers have a demonstrable impact on pitchers’ performances. So, by any metric, Yadi’s performance this year behind the plate (as opposed to standing next to it) has been the worst of his career.

I am not making the point, in the interest of fairness and due diligence, that Yadi is a bad defensive catcher. Quite the contrary. He is still one of the best behind the plate – and maybe THE best – but, by his standards, he’s having his worst defensive season.

Now, the theory is that the position of catcher is a "defense-first" position – that a catcher’s offensive performance is secondary compared with what he does behind the plate. In fact, in previous seasons, many Cards’ fans deflected criticism of Yadi’s performance at the plate by saying that his offense didn’t matter, it was a catcher’s defense that mattered. If that argument still holds, Yadi’s season has been a profound disappointment – a big step backward in his development.

Finally, let’s compare the wins that Yadi has added to the Cards over his 4 seasons:

Year Total WS WSAB WARP1
2005 14 6 4.0
2006 9 0 3.1
2007 11 4 5.1
2008 16 7 5.3

In terms of wins, this has been Yadi’s BEST season, despite the fact that he’s had his worst season defensively. He’s been a 5 win player this year, 2 full wins better than in ’06 when he was (indisputably) at his worst offensively and (arguably) at his best defensively. The short answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this exercise, therefore, is – definitively, NO – this is not Yadi’s worst season so far. In fact, it has been Yadi’s best season – 2 full wins better than when he was at his best defensively and worst offensively.

Most of you, upon reading the post’s title, probably thought: "Here goes HC again, with something truly nutty to say!" You probably all knew, intuitively, through watching 120 or more Cardinal games this year that this was Yadi’s best season. The numbers confirm it. However, they also confirm that he hasn’t played up to Yadi-standards defensively.

The larger point, therefore, is that even the position of catcher cannot be considered a "defense-first" position. Yadi was at his best offensively and worst defensively this year, and he’s added 2 more wins to the team than he did when he was at his worst offensively and best defensively. The bottom line is that good offense adds more wins to the team than good defense does and bad offense hurts a team more than bad defense does. Obviously, it’s great to have both – the Brewers, despite their strong offense last season didn’t make the playoffs b/c their defense was so poor. However, they’d have been even further away w/ good defense and bad offense.

For some time I’ve been saying that Yadi’s offense was going to have to get better in order to justify not playing Bryan Anderson when he became ready for the big leagues simply b/c Anderson would be considerably cheaper and that Anderson’s likely solid offense would provide as much or more to the team than Yadi’s defense would. This year, Yadi raised the bar. It wouldn’t have been that difficult for Anderson to be a 3-win player. It’ll be much tougher to be a 5-win player and the improvement Yadi has made at the plate gives the team the luxury of keeping Anderson at AAA for another year in order to help him develop to the extent that he needs to.

As the team tries to fill its SS position this offseason, there will be some discussion of re-signing Izturis simply b/c his defense is just that good. The problem is that it’s not THAT good – no one’s is – even at shortstop. He’s not that good defensively to justify his offensive shortcomings. Like the position of catcher, shortstop has been, since time immemorial, perceived to be a "defense-first" position. Hopefully Yadi’s performance this year helps Mo recognize that it will be ok -- in fact, it should be preferable -- to take a step backward defensively in order to get a SS who can help the team offensively.

 

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