St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina won his eighth consecutive Gold Glove this week. Is Molina still the best fielding catcher in the National League? It depends on what you use to measure catcher defense.
The Gold Glove used to be decided solely by managers and coaches who were forbidden from voting for their own players. The results were mixed. As 538 explored this week, players like Derek Jeter won Gold Glove awards despite the fact that they were not even close to the best defensive players at their respective positions. Then the method by which Gold Gloves are awarded changed. SI's Jay Jaffe explained the new process well in a post this week:
. . . [I]n 2013 Rawlings began partnering with the Society for American Baseball Research to incorporate sabermetrics into the process via the SABR Defensive Index, which accounts for 25% of the vote. The votes of managers and coaches make up the rest, as before. The SDI aggregates two types of defensive metrics, those derived by batted ball type data (Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved, Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating and Chris Dial's Runs Effectively Defended, a forerunner to later metrics) and those derived via play-by-play data (Michael Humphreys' Defensive Regression Analysis and Sean Smith's Total Zone Rating).
(Aside: Why hasn't anyone developed a WAR formula that uses the SABR Defensive Index?)
Modern fielding metrics are an important part of the Gold Glove vote nowadays, but they are not dispositive. Managers and coaches still make up the vast majority of the vote: 75%. But the use of metrics provides an important counterbalance that helps cut against the much-maligned reputation factor. As its name suggests, this comes into play when a player earns manager and coach votes based on his reputation as an elite defender as opposed to what he does on the field in a given year compared to other players fielding his position.
Did Molina win his eighth consecutive Gold Glove award based on his reputation? Jaffe's post suggests this might be the case:
UZR doesn't exist for catchers, but looking over the other individual metrics, the Nationals' Wilson Ramos stands out as a player with a legitimate gripe, as he had across-the-board advantages over Molina. Ramos led the league in DRA (+16.5 runs, compared to Molina's -3.4), Total Zone (+11 to Molina's +9) and Runs Effectively Defended (+6.9 to Molina's +5.6), and he tied with Buster Posey (who led the overall stat, the SDI) for the NL lead in DRS (+9, to Molina's +7).
Comparing Ramos and Molina via the traditional stats, Ramos had lower rates of stolen bases and missed pitches (wild pitches and passed balls) per nine innings, he caught a higher percentage of would-be base thieves and he even had a higher fielding percentage (a stat that’s best consigned to the dustbin of history because it makes no recognition of range).
Of course, there's a reason catcher defense is sometimes referred to as the final frontier of sabermetrics. There is still no metric that measures every aspect of catcher defense. It is currently impossible to do so and might always be.
As Jaffee notes in his post, this is because the catcher's impact on his pitching staff is not accurately measured in this day and age. It likely will never be. That's because of the interplay between a catcher's game-calling and a pitcher's execution. A catcher can call for the perfect pitch in a given situation, but if the pitcher does not execute the pitch, the catcher's call can be rendered irrelevant.
Despite what Fox Sports Midwest might lead viewers to believe, catcher ERA is a horrible measure of a catcher's skill at calling a game. First, there's the interplay between catcher pitch-calling and pitcher pitch execution noted above. Catcher ERA does not specifically account for pitchers missing their spots. Then there's the rest of the defense, which plays a part in preventing earned runs. Because it relies on so-called "earned runs," the official scorer is a factor as well. The first pitch of the bottom of the first inning of World Series Game 1 offered us an anecdotal example of how flawed the official scorer's judgment can be. There's so much noise in catcher ERA that the signal of catcher pitch-calling skill is largely lost.
What happens when we're metric-less? We're left largely with reputation. And Molina's is undeniably great.
Former Cardinals manager and current Hall-of-Famer Tony La Russa, a man who is not prone to gushing, often gushes about Molina's defense behind the plate. When La Russa managed St. Louis, he stuck with Molina at catcher in spite of his lackluster hitting, stating that his fielding was so good that any offense he might provide was icing on the cake. Dan McLaughlin and Al Hrabosky got a lot of mileage out of that talking point on Fox Sports Midwest broadcasts until Molina started hitting. And even then they were fond of singing that refrain to illustrate just how valuable Molina was now that he was hitting well.
After retiring, La Russa caught a Cardinals game in 2013, where the New York Times interviewed him as part of an article on Molina's catching artistry:
Molina had no hits. He tagged out no runners at the plate and threw out no runners on the bases. But the performance was breathtaking to his former manager.
"He just doesn’t allow his team to lose," La Russa said. "It’s entertainment at the highest level. He is so good, it’s amazing. You watch him the whole game, and he’s worth the price of admission."
La Russa continued: "It’s not just instinct. It’s sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art."
Toward the end of the season, St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Rick Hummel spoke with former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who had this to say about Molina:
Looking at the Cardinals, who are headed for their fifth straight playoff spot and third straight division title, Jocketty said, "They’ve been pretty amazing.
"They’ve had injuries. But they’ve got a good nucleus there. I still think Yadi (catcher Yadier Molina) is the difference maker, with the way he helps that pitching staff.
"He’s got to be their most valuable player."
More recently, the Cardinals offered an indication of how highly they regard Molina's prowess behind the dish. Molina tore a ligament in his left thumb with about two weeks to go in the regular season. The Cardinals gave him time off, but brough the Gold Glover back for the NLDS against the Cubs.
Molina could barely swing a bat, which had a special ax-handle-styled cut due to his injury. He also struggled to receive pitches on occasion. Ultimately, a swing caused Molina such pain that the Cards removed him from NLDS Game 3. The aggravation of his torn ligament also forced manager Mike Matheny to bench Molina in Game 4. Molina required corrective surgery on the ligament after the conclusion of the NLDS.
The episode shows that Cardinals management, from the front office to the field management, thought so highly of Molina's game-calling and staff-handling that they were willing to risk worsening the injury to his thumb (which wound up happening) in order to play him despite the other obvious limitations to his game.
The question thus is twofold: (1) Is Molina's reputation for game-calling and staff-handling merited? (2) If it is merited, are managers and coaches valuing it properly with their Gold Glove votes? I don't know the answer to either question. But it's clear that Molina won a Gold Glove for 2015 thanks in large part to reputation.