Earlier in the week, Ken Rosenthal of FOX sports broke the news that the St. Louis Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina had agreed in principle on a contract extension that would be 5 years in length and worth $75 million. All that remained was to iron out the details and an official announcement would likely be made by Friday. It's Thursday and the deal was officially announced at a press conference in Jupiter. The extension keeps Molina in The Birds On The Bat for an additional five seasons, through 2017, with a total six-year value of $82 million.
The trickling in of details on Twitter regarding extensions can be somewhat confusing and the Molina contract is no exception. Rosenthal took to Twitter this morning and announced the deal to be 5 years and $75 million with no money deferred. A bit before Rosenthal's tweet, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the following:
Various reports have pegged the deal at five years and $70 million or more. By adding five years to the end of this season, the Cardinals would fold his $7-million salary for 2012 into the total value of the deal and arrive at an annual average salary of around $12.5 million during the five-year extension.
When this was brought to Rosenthal's attention, the bow-tied FOX Sports correspondent replied:
@RobillardMatt I see your point, but the extension is 5/75. They can portray it however they like.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) March 1, 2012
As my dad is fond of saying, "the devil is in the details," so let's have a look at them.
Molina's 2012 salary will stay the same at $7 million. Like Ryan Howard's extension with the Phillies, the Molina extension will start after his current contract ends. Thus, Rosenthal's valuation of it is a more accurate portrayal than the one given to Goold by his source before the announcement. Rather than 6 years, $75 million, it's something more like 6 years, $82 million. The deal is guaranteed through the 2017 season and has a mutual option for 2018 that is worth $15 million. The contract includes a no-trade clause, a provision that covers Molina until his rights as a player with ten years of MLB time, five of which with the same team, kick in under the collective bargaining agreement. Goold's reporting that the deal "could reach $88 million" seems to indicate that incentives are included. Until we know what the incentives are for, it is difficult to assess the potential $88 million figure.
That the Cardinals chose to extend him this spring, when Molina is unquestionably at his peak value, demonstrates a desire to lock him in as a Cardinal. The decision carries with it risk for the club. A lot of things could happen during the 2012 season. Molina could suffer an injury. His production could fall from his career-best 2012 season to something on par with his career numbers from 2004-2010. Before the extension, hose were Molina's risks; now they are shouldered by the Cardinals. This is why extensions that appear to be at about the going market rate often strike us as misguided from the club's perspective. Shouldn't the player recognize the reality of the risks he runs by accepting a lower salary? This understandable mindset often downplays the club's risks. Molina may have another very good offensive season. Independent of that, if Molina were to hit the open market, it only takes one Arte Moreno type (perhaps even Moreno himself, in this instance) to swoop in and blow DeWallet out of DeWater. Taking all of this into account, the Cardinals agreed to an extension that effectively creates a six-year contract worth $82 million.
The AAV over the six years Molina is under contract equals $13.6 million, an amount that provides less sticker shock than the $15 million AAV of the extension standing alone. No matter how one portrays it, however, Molina's extension is one of the richest ever given to a catcher. Mauer sits atop the catcher AAV rankings at $23 million. Jorge Posada received $13.1 million in AAV from the Yankees on a four-year deal. Then there's Mike Piazza's seven-year, $91 million contract with the Mets, which works out to a $13 million AAV. Jason Kendall, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jason Varitek all signed for a $10 million AAV with the Pirates, Tigers, and Red Sox respectively.
Molina stands apart from the other catchers to have received huge paydays--Mauer, Piazza, Kendall, Posada, and Rodriguez--because he is not an elite offensive player (even though his 2011 was very good). Molina's defensive reputation is one of excellence. This is where the valuation of his play becomes tricky to properly assess. The area of catcher defense is, as DanUp wrote so well in his must-read Tuesday post, "special sauce." As if to support DanUp, Fangraphs released this week updated WAR calculations for catchers that take blocking pitches in the dirt into account. The leader over the 2008-2011 span the updated calculation covers is Molina. Thus, this new fWAR calculation sees Molina's 2011 fWAR shoot up to 4.7 and his fWAR for 2008-2011 increase to 14.8.*
*SecondHalfMatt raised a good point in the comments. Molina's old fWAR totals are not included. From 2008 to 2011, Molina's cumulative fWAR total rose from 12.7 to 14.8. For the 2011 season, Molina's fWAR rose from 4.1 to 4.7.
That we know catcher defense is the final frontier of sabermetrics and the inclusion of just one component of it can see such a jump in Molina's value makes it easy to believe that the Cardinals, who contract with TruMedia networks to give them pitch-by-pitch video analysis, have a firm handle on the secret sauce aspect of Molina's value. Whether this would be reflected in the bidding on Molina were he to hit free agency, we will never know. That Molina is widely renowned as the game's best defensive catcher makes it a possibility that cannot be dismissed out of hand.
In addition to the black and white numbers, Molina's status amongst Cardinals fans undoubtedly plays a role in our willingness to strain our logic into pretzel-like shapes to justify the deal. After all, this is the man who hit the go-ahead homer off Aaron Heilman in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, grinning as the ball cleared the Shea Stadium wall "like Charlie Brown after sex." His throwing arm has become legendary, as well, with no bigger fan reaction during Game 1 of the 2011 World Series than when he gunned down Ian Kinsler. Then there is the endearing combination of his pudgy physique and neck tattoos. It's no wonder that fans name their pets after him. Molina's appearance, defense, and clutchyness have carved out a unique place in the hearts of fans, one that he will occupy through 2017 at least. I'm okay with this, even if the numbers can't entirely show me why.