If all else fails, anybody can play second base. (Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE)
That's it: I've been blogging for going on nine years, now, but as of yesterday I am finally, permanently obsolete. Yesterday an organization seemed set to offer a baseball player a long-term contract, and the most I could offer as justification was the possibility that that very organization was doing more and better sabermetric work than the internet. From, "Man, baseball organizations are stupid," we've reached, "Well, I guess they're smart; after all, they're a baseball organization." I'm calling it: The Baseball Prospectus era is officially dead. Ken Phelps and Jeremy Brown, I've failed you.
And Yadier Molina is, reportedly, very rich. At last check the Cardinals were nearing a five-year deal with their erstwhile holdout worth, depending on who you retweeted, $60-75 million. Let's assume we can know nothing about the Cardinals' particular brand of catcher valuation and see how much special sauce we'll have to ladle over this contract to like it, assuming it exists.
Disclaimer 1: The Cardinals have either written over their last cheap Molina year or pushed their obligation to their 29-year-old catcher out to his age-34 season; at press time, such as it is, we don't know if, let alone which. Better the first than the second, in which case the right to negotiate exclusively with Molina cost them $5-8 million and allowed them to announce a five year deal without counting out six years from this April.
Disclaimer 2: What's likely led us to think the most about the possibility of a special sauce is Mike Fast's terrifying Prospectus article about pitch-framing, which will convince you once and for all that robots should call games with the suggestion that, across the last five seasons, Jose Molina was worth 60 runs per 120 games more than Ryan Doumit based on his ability to fool umpires. Yadier Molina's better than average at it, but it should be noted that the Cardinals also recently signed—on purpose—Koyie Hill, who is among the worst finishers in the study. (Along with Gerald Laird.)
This has always been my least favorite thing about the contract flap: The Cardinals have been locked in a room with Yadier Molina coming off what is by far the best offensive season of his career. Forget about defense entirely, let alone Secret Defense, and he was still worth 3.2 (baseball-reference) wins above a replacement catcher—Ryan Howard, by comparison, has been worth 3.2 wins more than a replacement hitter at first base exactly twice in his career. This year Molina and Brian McCann tied on offense, basically.
Given Yadier Molina's profile as a hitter—slappy groundball hitter who never strikes out and runs like the fittest Molina—it's hard to expect a .465 slugging percentage from him on a regular basis. If, for some reason, you do, we can stop right here; even given negative credit for his defense, Molina's WAR value topped $18.7 million last year on FanGraphs.
Last year he was a great hitter for a catcher, but even without that sudden doubles power Molina's a fine hitter for a catcher; between 2008 and 2010 he averaged 1.2 offensive wins. On offense the difference between 2010 Molina and 2011 Molina is the difference between a vintage Ozzie Smith season and a vintage Brendan Ryan season—both are useful, but Molina's offensive skills are mostly what allow him to show off his defense.
Luckily, there's defense. Total Zone Rating, which for catchers measures effectiveness against baserunners and the ability to avoid errors, passed balls, and wild pitches, have Molina consistently excellent; his offensive adequacy and his skill at the things we're certain we can measure have left him an above-average catcher even at his offensive worst.
I have a hard time seeing that first defensive number fluctuating a lot, provided Molina stays in shape; his new manager was consistently above average until he was forced to retire at 35. Ivan Rodriguez has hung around above-average at 39, and his injuries and his famously varied body types over the years seem like a reasonable explanation for his fall from defensive grace as he hit 30.
Those are the two components we've been able to measure for some time, and when you put them together Molina is able to hit that $75 million if he's playing at his best in one area or the other. 2009, in which he managed a .366 on-base percentage and threw out 41% of his would-be base-stealers, seems like the gold standard for a Yadier Molina season at $15 million a year. If he does that—bWAR rates it at 2.7, FanGraphs 3.5—I'll allow myself to be special-sauce agnostic. The Cardinals wouldn't exactly be getting a deal, assuming it doesn't exist, but they'd be locking up a position that's difficult to lock up, and I won't have to think about Robert Stock for a while.
If you add in the two secret ingredients easily available on the internet—this is a terrible place to keep your secret ingredients, incidentally—last year's Yadier Molina model goes from 4.1 fWAR to 5.4, second best in baseball. In addition to six runs for befuddling umpires he earns six more, in this model, for blocking the plate.
Jose Molina helps me deal with these numbers in two ways. For one thing, Yadi's aren't as enormous and perspective-shattering as Jose's; for another, Jose is, at 36, still good at the one that suggests a wily veteran, and pretty bad at the one that suggests a player who isn't 36 or shaped like Jose Molina.
In any case, the possibility exists—and by the middle of his deal could be solidified by more research and more time to digest Ryan Doumit's existential awfulness—that Molina is not a stretch who could be a fair deal so much as a fair deal who could be a steal as teams place assume more variance in catcher defense.
That is the purpose of the special sauce: If Yadier Molina doesn't hit, we can convince ourselves it was a good deal anyway; if he does hit, John Mozeliak is not just a guy who convinced Molina he was serious about opening DeWallet, he's a wily genius.
Then there's this. With catchers we're left with the same elbow-half-empty discourse we get with starting pitchers. Yadier Molina's durability—he's made 130 starts each of the last three years—is a good thing, except it also means he's made 130 starts each of the last three years. Is the guy who pitches 250 innings proving he can pitch 250 innings or hinting that he will never successfully pitch 250 innings again?
This FanGraphs article from last week—"The most common number thrown around is $10MM per season over three or four years, which certainly seems reasonable..."—suggests that catchers who've proven they can catch every day don't lose playing time much differently than the population at large, which is heartening. Meanwhile, Molina's five-year not-quite-PECOTA projections at Clay Davenport's website are remarkably stable—EQAs between .267 and .274—except that he also loses 35 to 40 plate appearances a season.
Subjectively—and what else do I get, for the trouble of watching too many Cardinals games?—Molina feels durable. He looks athletic (this was not always true) but not strenuously athletic (this was always true.) He doesn't limp everywhere or take terrifying chances like Albert Pujols; he just jogs around and tries to get the ball over Brandon Phillips's head.
Objectively, at 29 he's a little younger than the average player hitting free agency, and he hasn't broken down yet. Which is good news, and most of the news we have.
There aren't a lot of players like Yadier Molina out there, which might be its own reason to believe he's good for such a unique contract. Of the six catchers Ken Rosenthal lists who've gotten $10 million deals—Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Mike Piazza, Jason Kendal, Jorge Posada, and Jason Varitek—only Rodriguez was valued primarily for his defense, and he carried 10 all-star games and a few seasons with an OPS+ well over 120 into that first eight-figure year.
There've been catchers before who were valued for what we couldn't measure—Mike Matheny was one of them—but what's made Molina the test-case for a big money deal isn't just timing. What's important, what makes him different, is that he has the ideal base of skills on which to speculate about those not-quite-tangibles—he's young, he's competent with the bat, he's healthy, and he's great at the things we're already trained to watch him do.
If you were going to sign somebody for the things you think he might be doing, you couldn't ask for a better set of things you know he's doing than Yadier Molina's.