Entering the 2016 season, Yadier Molina stood at 30.4 career Wins Above Replacement by Baseball Reference's measure. And while this places Molina ahead of nine current members of the Hall of Fame (including two catchers, Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell), he seemingly falls well short of modern standards for Cooperstown immortality.
Just last year, a player with more career WAR than Molina, Troy Glaus, did not receive so much as a sympathy vote. Jim Edmonds, worth nearly double Molina's WAR, received 2.5% of the vote and fell off the ballot in his first year of eligibility. The deck appears stacked against Yadier Molina.
But Molina may be a player who transcends WAR-based evaluation. Buster Olney is among the prominent national baseball writers who have expressed the opinion that Yadier Molina is already a Hall of Famer. And although the WAR model does a decent job of sorting players and producing a lingua franca of sorts for statistically-inclined baseball fans, it would be appallingly lazy to just stop at this, with absolutely no consideration for context.
Yadier Molina currently ranks 29th all-time among catchers in WAR. His Hall of Fame candidacy is built around being an average hitter and a superb fielder: he has a 98 OPS+, putting him at slightly below league average, and has been worth 20.3 WAR defensively. Here are the catchers who have matched these measures.
Gary Carter is a Hall of Famer and is probably one of the five best catchers in Major League Baseball history. Ivan Rodriguez has not yet become eligible for the Hall, but is in every bit as historic of company as Carter. Molina's total WAR stands out as quite a bit lower, which makes sense: Carter and Rodriguez were both better hitters and both had considerably more plate appearances (of course, Yadier Molina is still probably several years from retirement). But looking beyond WAR, Molina is, even if you consider that he's on the lower end of it, in some pretty good company.
By measuring strictly defensive WAR, not giving consideration to offense at all, Molina ranks fifth, behind Carter, Rodriguez, Bob Boone, and Jim Sundberg. Two are Hall of Famers (or eventual Hall of Famers) and two were materially worse hitters than Yadier Molina (Sundberg had a career OPS+ of 90; Boone had a career OPS+ of 82).
With some positions, being the fifth best fielder ever would be semi-irrelevant to one's Hall of Fame case. The #5 first baseman defensively, for instance, is Perry Werden, a career 17.7 WAR player whose career ended six years before the first World Series. Among left and right fielders, the #5 fielders, respectively, are Bernard Gilkey and Richard Hidalgo; neither got a sniff of the Hall of Fame.
Among players at the other top defensive positions (second base, shortstop, center field), here are those ranked in the top five all-time by position in Defensive WAR with an OPS+ of 98 or more.
|Joe Gordon, 2B||120||22.4|
|Frankie Frisch, 2B||110||21.6|
|Cal Ripken Jr., SS||112||34.6|
|Willie Mays, CF||156||18.1|
|Andruw Jones, CF||111||24.1|
|Devon White, CF||98||16.2|
Of these six players, four are in the Hall of Fame. Another, Andruw Jones, is not yet eligible but only one currently eligible center fielder with more career WAR has not been elected (the unceremoniously bumped with 3.2% of the vote in his lone year of eligibility Kenny Lofton, whose case I would loudly trumpet on VEB had the Cardinals been one of the 11 teams on which he played). And also Devon White.
In baseball history, 23 players have an OPS+ of 98 or higher with 20.3 or more Defensive Wins. They can be categorized as such:
- In the Hall of Fame (12): Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr., George Davis, Brooks Robinson, Frankie Frisch, Bobby Wallace, Gary Carter, Pee Wee Reese, Lou Boudreau, Joe Gordon, Dave Bancroft, Travis Jackson
- Not yet Hall of Fame eligible (5): Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen, Ivan Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Yadier Molina
- Not in the Hall of Fame after being eligible (6): Bill Dahlen, Alan Trammell, Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Jack Glasscock, Art Fletcher
Of note with these statistics: Yadier Molina is on the low end of them, since his statistics are being used as the baseline. However, there are two additional important factors to consider with his Hall of Fame candidacy.
First is that his career isn't over yet, and so even if a voter does not believe that, at 33, Yadier Molina is already a Hall of Famer, this does not mean he cannot reach that level. Carlton Fisk, after all, was worth 28.8 WAR in his age 33 season and beyond, and if Molina reached 59.2 WAR as a catcher, he would rank 7th among catchers and would likely coast into Cooperstown.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that Molina is benefiting, and will likely benefit even more in the coming years, from an increased premium placed on catcher defense. Catchers have already made the Hall of Fame at disproportionately high levels compared to their WAR totals, but the entire focus of the position has changed.
This is, after all, an era in which Jose Molina, Yadi's formerly mocked older brother, could turn into something of a folk hero thanks to his abilities with pitch framing, even as his career 64 OPS+ would have been previously considered a fatal flaw. Instead, he inspired such acclaim as when some Yankees analytics minds declared "Jorge Posada could hit like Albert Pujols and Jose Molina could hit like Jose Molina, and Molina would still be better."
And while Yadier Molina is not quite the pitch framing wizard that Jose was, he does score favorably by the metric. Additionally, one of his best tangible defensive skills, his ability to throw out runners, has the beneficial but more difficult to quantify side effect of reducing stolen base attempts by opponents.
There is also the mostly anecdotally determined impact of a catcher's ability to work with pitchers to call an effective game. This is the sort of thing that scares stat guys (it scares me a little, too) because it starts to dip into areas of bias (how can we, after all, determine that Yadier Molina is any better at dealing with pitchers than Buster Posey or Russell Martin?). But soft factors such as handling pitchers, particularly young ones, absolutely do matter. That something cannot be quantified does not mean that it is irrelevant; it just means we cannot measure it. And based on the scores of comments praising Molina throughout the years, there should be not shortage of stories to go around when the Hall of Fame comes up.
Personally, I'm not that concerned about if Yadier Molina makes the Hall of Fame. I've made my opinions on the Hall of Fame abundantly clear. But nevertheless, Molina will represent an interesting case for Hall of Fame discussions. His is a case in which we can, and should, use statistics to argue for or against him, but in which we should also acknowledge our potential blind spots and biases. And when Yadier Molina comes on the ballot, there should be plenty of strongly divided ideologies to go around.