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valuing molina

fyi - if you didn't see this article, it's worth checking out. nominally, it's about cardinals "quirkiness" which seems to be a synonym for "crappiness (except for ray lankford) within the last 20 years."

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some time ago, bj rains idly speculated about yadier molina's next contract. shortly thereafter, several cooler heads prevailed and noted that rains was predicting a historic contract for molina, relative to other catchers. see below for a collection of catchers who have managed to score an eight-figure average annual value in free agency.

historically best compensated catchers (AAV)

jorge posada - $13.1m (2008-11) [career wOBA .366]

ivan rodriguez - $10m (2003, 2004-07) [.343]

joe mauer - $23m (2011-18) [.377]

jason kendall - $10m (2002-07) [.333]

jason varitek - $10m (2005-08) [.336]

mike piazza - $13m (1999-2005) [.389]

arguably, molina is difficult to fit into this matrix - or really, difficult to calculate his value at all using the tools available to us. molina is a defense-first catcher by conventional wisdom. and the biggest weakness in conventional WAR is an inability to capture catcher defense.

on the offensive side, molina's career wOBA is .310 according to fangraphs. while his offensive production has improved substantially, he still has a projected .320 wOBA according to Bill James - which is a rough way of addressing some up-and-down recent seasons.

so, our dilemma is that molina is nowhere near an offensive comp to the most well-paid catchers out there, but we have no way to really assess how his defensive value compares to that of the other best-paid catchers. since molina is working on a $7m option, it seems very likely that molina will make more than the $7m in the option.

whatever one thinks of molina's defense, it seems fair to say that any defensive superiority on molina's part does not make up for the offensive gap between him and joe mauer. so, given the salary precedents above, it seems like we're likely talking about something in the vicinity of $10-$13m in AAV for yadier's next contract.

the other question to think about is the aging curve for molina. he'll be in his age-30 season next year, so we're likely talking about putting him under contract for his age 31, 32, 33, and 34 seasons. you might have noticed that some of the contracts above turned out . . . well, kinda terrible.

there's a limit to how much looking at these aging curves will tell us, especially because yadier molina's value lies primarily in his defense. just as there's no good way to measure catcher defense last season, there's no good way to measure it over a career arc. and there's no particularly good reason to think that catcher defense varies at the same rate as offense.

still, even if we're measuring aging curves imperfectly, it might be interesting to see what comes out of a review of WAR from age 26-29 and 31-34 for these players.

jorge posada - 11.4 (fWAR age 26-29)/17.9 (fWAR age 31-34)

ivan rodriguez - 23.4/16.3

jason kendall - 13.5/7.0

jason varitek - 5.8/12.3

mike piazza - 25.9/17.9

sorry - at this point i lost the rest of the draft post due to a computer snafu. to sum up the basic findings, all of the highly-paid guys listed above caught 1000-inning seasons through their early 30's, generally seeing decline in durability only in age 35, 36, or 37 season. in fact, of the highly-paid catchers, the only big standout in terms of subpar innings was joe mauer, who has only put together 2 1000 inning seasons thus far. while such a small cohort is not scientific, i don't see an obvious problem in anticipating that yadier will be more or less capable of keeping up 1000 innings through age 34, though the increased risk associated with a fifth year is probably substantial.

even though the above stats show a mixed result in terms of total WAR, we still should probably expect his offensive production to decline more or less linearly like other hitters. that is, yadier will probably be worth about 2 wins less with the bat in his age 34 season. in other words, by 2016 we will be paying yadier almost exclusively for his defense.

and therein lies the rub. we can only guess what his defense is worth now, much less what it will be worth in 2016. as a shot in the dark, i'd bet he'll be worth at least a win, probably 1.5 wins. 2 wins? 2.5?

depending on how optimistic you are about his defense, the contract obviously becomes more defensible, or even a bargain. generically speaking, a 4y/$40m contract or maybe even a 4y/$48m contract would seem reasonable, and outstanding in terms of AAV for catcher contracts. i'd avoid any substantial entanglements beyond 4 years without a significant discount for the risk.