Twelve years into his big league career, St. Louis Cardinals eight-time Gold Glover Yadier Molina has proven to be quite durable, as far as catchers go, at least. While Molina has reached the 140 games in a season plateau only once, he has averaged roughly 116 games per season (when considering his years as the starter) and has logged 11,682.2 innings behind the plate in the regular season, the most in MLB by ~340 innings. Yet, at 33 years of age, and recovering from his second thumb surgery in as many seasons, this durability (and performance, for that matter) is predictably on the decline.
With significant (and potentially recurring) injuries becoming more common with an aging Molina, the Cardinals knew they needed to seriously address the backup catcher situation this offseason. This is not a new development, either, as it has been reported that they have tried (and failed) to lure free agent catchers into the backup role in the past. And until yesterday, I thought the Cardinals were going to have yet another season with Tony Cruz as the backup after missing opportunities to sign viable backups in Chris Iannetta (1 year, $4.25 million to the Mariners), Geovany Soto (1 year, $2.8 million to the Angels), and Alex Avila (1 year, $2.5 million to the White Sox).
Frankly, while I appreciate what Cruz did for the Cardinals over the last five seasons, it is an undeniable fact that he is not a very good major leaguer. Since Cruz started his career in 2011, he is tied for the lowest fWAR among MLB catchers (with at least 600 plate appearances) at -1.1. Mind you, not very far up the list is Brayan Pena, at -0.6, but, for $5 million over two years (Pena's reported contract), this modest improvement over a player likely to make just over $1 million in 2016 (Cruz) is not insignificant, given the current state of the market.
2015 versus right-handed pitchers
|Lg. Avg. Catcher||15,315||7.5%||21.2%||.237||.300||.376||.295||84|
Honestly, I could probably stop right here and already justify Pena's signing. Pena, a switch-hitter who received extended playing time due to Devin Mesoraco's persisting injuries, performed better against right-handed pitchers than not only the league average catcher, but also Molina in 2015. Now, pulling one season of data and characterizing it as a player's baseline ability going forward is rarely fair, but given Molina's age and health status (thumb), I would not be the least bit surprised if we see similar numbers to those seen in the chart next season (and beyond). Thus, instead of giving Molina his typical Sunday of rest (regardless of opposing pitcher), manager Mike Matheny can now play the matchups and deploy Pena in games against right-handed pitchers.
But what about his pitch framing ability?
According to StatCorner's Catcher Report, Pena struggled with pitch framing in 2015 (-10.1 runs above average). But, he was above average in 2013 (3.3 RAA) and 2014 (2.9 RAA), barely below average in 2012 (-0.7 RAA), and considerably above average in 2011 (5.1 RAA). So, please, don't be like FiveThirtyEight and jump to the "Pena forgot hot to frame" thought process just yet. Yes, pitch framing is a skill that will decline with age, but given where Pena was in 2013 and 2014 to where he fell in 2015, I'd be more inclined to consider 2015 a mere blip in the system than a true indicator of Pena's ability. If he declines to becoming an average pitch framer, I will be perfectly content with that from a backup catcher.
Also, unrelated to framing, after watching past highlights, I have grown to appreciate the target he sets for his pitchers. As you may recall from one of my articles way back in April, I wrote about how Cruz needed to set better targets for his pitchers. Well, it does not appear like this will be a problem with Pena (see below, right):
By all reports, Pena is a great teammate (and he values this "above all else"), and he has been around the game long enough (11 years) to embrace leadership to the younger players on the Cardinals. As a player unlikely to get very much playing time (barring injury), this is an underrated component to consider.
And ever forget
You need to read this piece by Jeff Seidel titled "Tigers' Brayan Pena defected from Cuba for baseball, more."
P.S. Brayan Pena and Johnny Cueto are really close friends...