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Yadier Molina's immeasurable yet irreplaceable value

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The case for one of the greatest catchers in history

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

If you squint you can probably start to see the end of Yadier Molina's career.  He's banged up, no longer hitting as well, and columns on his heir apparent are popping up more frequently.  Last week, Rick Hummel wrote that Molina, who is currently under contract through 2017 with a $15 million team option for 2018, would prefer to finish his career as a Cardinal.  Whether that happens or not, he's destined to go down as one of the most beloved Cardinals in history.

But by way of some strange detour, we have arrived at a point where Molina is one of the more polarizing players in baseball.  Partly because, along with Adam Wainwright, Molina gets the "heart and soul" label for an organization that is currently itself quite polarizing.  Partly because he's been around long enough to have dust-ups with plenty of teams.  (Yadi's reaction to getting booed at the All-Star Game in Cincinnati was one of my favorite moments from last year.)

But it also has to do with the difficulty in measuring Molina's value as was explained well by this Sporting News column from last October.  And plenty of Cardinals fans tend to exaggerate Molina's stature and they are met by push back in equal force.  You can see this captured in this exchange from last July.  (Click on the quoted tweet in Calcaterra's reply to see the entire exchange and to experience Twitter in its natural habitat.  Threats of unusual physical violence, RT's from BestFansSTL, etc. - it truly has it all.)

It's worth nothing that Calcaterra is more on point here.  Molina is not the greatest catcher of all-time, and he likely won't be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but there is a loud chorus that tends to be perhaps a bit too dismissive of his body of work.  He's already the longest tenured player in the National League and if his career ends in St. Louis as a still serviceable catcher it would be one of the most remarkable careers at that position the National League has seen.

Molina's historic dependability behind the plate

Catcher is likely the most grueling position in baseball.  There's a reason why catchers advancing in age often move to a position like first base and not the other way around.  When Matt Adams is 35 he's not going to start crouching behind home plate for nine innings.  And that's why finding a catcher like Molina who can play the position for a decade plus is a rare luxury for any team.

Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, a search for National Leaguers who played at least 75% of their games at catcher between 1901-2015, accumulated at least 3,000 plate appearances, and were worth 0.0 bWAR or greater, returned a list of 76 players.  Only four players had more plate appearances with one team than Molina's 5,576 with the Cardinals.  They are as follows:

  1. Johnny Bench - 8,674 plate appearances with the Reds (1967-1983)
  2. Gabby Hartnett - Old Tomato Face, who's nearly just as famous for once posing for a picture with Al Capone as he is for being in the Hall of Fame, had 7,132 plate appearances with the Cubs (1922-1940)
  3. Ted Simmons - 6,450 plate appearances with the Cardinals (1968-1980)
  4. Gary Carter - 6,019 plate appearances with the Expos (1974-1984, 1992)

If Molina were to retire today, Bench would be the only player on the list of 76 who had more plate appearances while spending his entire career with one team.

If you use the same search parameters from above only increase time spent at catcher to 90%, the list shrinks to 47 players.  Only Roy Campanella and Jason Kendall - who has over 3,000 more career plate appearances - remain in front of Molina (30.4) when measuring by bWAR (I typically use fWAR for reasons no more interesting than consistency, but when doing a search back to 1901 I find Baseball-Reference to be a more complete guide).  And of those 47, only Campanella, Bruce Benedict, and Otto Miller spent their entire career with one team.  Increase it to 98% and there are just seven players remaining.  Molina's now at the top of the list by bWAR with Al Lopez at a distance second with a 16.6 bWAR (Mike Matheny brings up the rear at 0.5).

Now, this skews the results a bit in Molina's favor because he's still active and although he's in the twilight of his career, he hasn't reach the point of being relegated to another position to ease the burden on his body.  His lack of agility and quickness means that day may never come but nonetheless, his dependability behind the plate since emerging as a rookie in 2004 has been invaluable for the Cardinals.

Of the original list of 76 players, Molina's 30.4 bWAR is currently 10th.  Of the nine in front of him, six have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Bench, Carter, Mike Piazza, Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi, and Campanella), one should be in the Hall of Fame (Simmons), and the other two (Kendall and Smoky Burgess) rank just ahead of Molina with a 33.3 and 33.2 bWAR, respectively.

The ASBY Period (After Simmons / Before Yadi)

Let it be known that Ted Simmons is probably the best catcher the Cardinals have ever had and, as noted, should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame.  For NL catchers, only Bench, Carter, and Piazza have higher WAR totals no matter which system you use.  I believe it was Derrick Goold who noted on a Best Podcast in Baseball a few months back that one of the primary reasons Simmons has been overlooked is due to timing.  His career ran nearly parallel with Johnny Bench and he had the unfortunate distinction of being a constant "second best."

When the Cardinals traded Simmons to Milwaukee in December of 1980, they had numerous players fill the void to varying degrees of success until finally finding Molina.  Again, using the Play Index , a search for Cardinals who played at least 75% of their games at catcher between 1981-2004, accumulated at least 300 plate appearances and were worth 0.0 bWAR or greater, returned a list of seven players.  They are as follows: Darrell Porter, Mike LaValliere, Steve Lake, Tony Pena, Tom Pagnozzi, Erik Pappas, and Matheny.

These seven were not all slouches.  They include a World Series MVP and have numerous Gold Gloves between them (mostly Matheny and Pagnozzi).  A lot of teams would have traded the catchers they trotted out behind the plate from 1981-2004 for several of these guys in a heartbeat.  But the seven had a combined 4,150 more plate appearances with the Cardinals than Molina and were worth a total of 26.6 bWAR - almost four wins less than Molina.  Finding a worthy replacement once Molina is gone will be a chore.

Molina has been a better than average hitter for catchers

Tony La Russa once stated that Molina would have been his catcher even if he hit .000.  That, of course, is ludicrous and La Russa was exaggerating but Molina was a below average hitter for a catcher his first few years and the assumption was that he would still be the starter for defense alone because his defense was that good.  And Cardinals fans were unanimously fine with this decision.

But around 2008, Molina started hitting well, crescendoing in 2012 when he batted .315/.373/.501 with a wRC+ of 138.  The National League average for catchers in 2012 was .252/.324/.401 and a 96 wRC+.  Between 2008 and 2013, Molina had an average wRC+ of roughly 114.  The league average for catchers during that time was around 91.

In 2014, Molina's hitting began to regress which Joe Schwarz covered well here.  Following a thumb surgery, his hitting didn't rebound in 2015 and following a few more surgeries on his other thumb that trend likely won't reverse this year.  Even so, returning to the "if Molina were to retire today" theme, he'd finish with a career slash line of .283/.336/.397 and a wRC+ of 99.  If you cherrypicked the highest number from all three slash line categories for NL catchers from the 2005-2015 range, you'd have a line of .268/.328/.416.  Furthermore, the National League wRC+ average from 2005-2015 for catchers is around 89*, with the highest average being 97 in 2014.

(*I used FanGraphs Leaderboards for the above stats and while there's no easy way to get an exact wRC+ average for the years above for all National League catchers, the plate appearances didn't vary wildly from season to season so it should be a rough but fairly accurate average.)

Molina's defense

It's not easy to measure defense in baseball, especially for a catcher, which makes Molina's worth even that much tougher to quantify.  But since entering the league, Molina has double-digit Defensive Run Saved (DRS) totals six different times (2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013).  Between 2002-2015, which is the extent to which the FanGraphs Leaderboards search would allow, Molina has a DRS of 113 which leads all of NL catchers.  The next closest is Russell Martin with 57.  This search is a bit skewed in Molina's favor because it encompasses his entire career but it's a large enough time period to include many of his contemporaries.  Buster Posey, who was a rookie in 2010 and is considered by many to be the premiere catcher in the NL, has a DRS of 20.

Since his rookie year, Molina has thrown out at least 40% of would-be base stealers every year except for 2008 (35%) and 2011 (29%), and led the league in that stat in 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2014.  In 2005 he threw out a whopping 64%.  Matheny, who preceded Molina with the Cardinals and owns four Gold Gloves of his own, only eclipsed 40% twice.  Martin has never eclipsed 44%; Posey has never thrown out more than 37%, and Jonathan Lucroy never more than 31%.  Molina also leads all catchers in Stolen Base Runs Saved since 2008.

Molina has long been known as a good pitch framer (the ability to make a pitch look more like a strike), but a much talked about column last May at Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight suggested that was one of Molina's eroding skills.  However, a closer look from Joe the following month showed that was not necessarily the case.  And though often buoyed by reputation, by season's end Molina had won another Gold Glove award.

In total, Molina has won six Fielding Bible awards and eight Gold Gloves, far and away more than any of his contemporaries in the NL.

Molina the pitching whisperer

Molina's game calling, or simply his calming influence on pitchers, is likely the one area that makes Molina agnostics roll their eyes but I believe it to be true simply because I've read about it enough times from pitchers and scribes alike that I find it impossible to ignore.  In July 2014, Ben Lindbergh wrote an extensive piece for Grantland on what makes Molina tick and noted that from 2008 up to around the publishing of that article, 80 pitchers had thrown 115,000 pitches to Molina and over 175,000 pitches to other catchers.  The result: 3.55 ERA with Molina; 4.30 ERA without.

That trend continued last year.  In 1,149.2 innings pitched, the Cardinals staff had a 2.79 ERA with Molina behind the plate.  For the 287 innings caught by Tony Cruz, the ERA ballooned to 3.48.  There are various things that can account for this discrepancy, some of which may have nothing to do with Molina.  But there comes a point that while I have no idea why this trend exists, it is there and I find it undeniable.

And that's why Molina is polarizing.  A lot of his value comes in tangibles that don't result in inflated WAR totals.  He's  tough to judge but his success will always be tougher to dismiss.