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What to make of the defensive decline of Yadier Molina

At his peak, Yadier Molina was one of the best defensive catchers ever. He no longer appears to be at his peak.

In terms of his overall value as a Major League Baseball player, 2016 has been something of a bounce-back year for St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. He has already reached his 2015 Wins Above Replacement total on FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, and in far fewer plate appearances.

Much of Molina’s jump in value has come from his dramatically improved offense. Although he is not producing at the levels he did in 2012 and 2013 when he was a legitimate NL MVP candidate, Molina has been roughly league average at the plate in 2016, which is a noticeable improvement from his 80 wRC+ in 2015. And in the second half, he has surged: Molina had an 84 wRC+ in the first half and in the second half, entering this weekend’s series against the Chicago Cubs, his wRC+ stood at 163.

This is the good news on Yadier Molina.

Unfortunately, while Molina’s offense has improved, his defensive statistics have declined. By the FanGraphs measure Defensive Runs Saved, an admittedly rudimentary metric by which to measure any position, much less one as nuanced as catcher, but one which nevertheless offers an objective snapshot of fielding acumen, Yadier Molina is on track for his fifth consecutive season of defensive decline.

Here is how his DRS ranks among qualified catchers since his excellent 2012 campaign.

  • 2012: 1st of 10
  • 2013: 2nd of 10
  • 2014: 6th of 14 (Molina did not play enough to be considered qualified, so this is his rank among catchers with at least as many plate appearances as he had)
  • 2015: 4th of 9
  • 2016: 7th of 9

The underlying reasons for Molina’s Defensive Runs Saved decline are not too difficult to glean. Yadier Molina went from one of baseball’s best stolen base suppressors (in his first full season, he threw out an absurd 64% of runners, before settling into a rhythm of throwing out nearly half) to throwing out just under 21% of would-be thieves in 2016. Of the sixteen catchers on whom 40 or more steals have been attempted, only Russell Martin is throwing out runners on a less frequent basis than Molina.

And it goes beyond that. He has seven passed balls on the season and is just one from tying his personal record for most in a season. His 33 combined passed balls and wild pitches (since the line between the two is often razor-thin and dependent upon the judgment of official scorers, it is also sensible to look at a combination of the two) have already eclipsed his 2013 and 2014 totals, and in fewer innings.

None of this is to say that Yadier Molina is a bad defensive catcher. Although I am typically hesitant to assign scores of bonus points to Molina for being acclaimed within the Cardinals organization, as it would be very unlikely that organizations wouldn’t speak highly of a member’s intangible benefits to his team, I understand that these things matter. Just because something is unquantifiable does not mean that it does not exist nor matter.

But it seems unlikely that, at 34, Yadier Molina is improving dramatically at game calling or pitching staff handling; I see the logic of it, but he has been so widely acclaimed for it throughout his career that there seemingly is only so far to ascend. And in facets of catcher defense we can measure, it appears that Molina is declining.

While this may be cause for long-term planning in the Cardinals front office, none of this should be a huge surprise. Catchers are frequently moved to less strenuous positions in their thirties in order to preserve their careers. While there are occasional examples of utterly indestructible backstops (Carlton Fisk is perhaps the most notable example of this, having started a majority of Chicago White Sox games at catcher at age 43 while playing an additional two seasons behind the plate), many others succumbed to attrition.

Johnny Bench, probably the greatest all-around catcher ever, started only ten games at catcher once he hit the age of 33, playing primarily at first and third base. Yogi Berra found himself in left field for the New York Yankees once he hit his mid-30s. In modern baseball, Buster Posey (a superb fielding catcher who is still in his twenties) has received noticeable playing time at first base and Joe Mauer, nine months Molina’s junior and for a time the best catcher in baseball, has long since converted to first base and has not played a game at catcher since 2013.

The difference between the aforementioned players and Yadier Molina, however, is that the aforementioned players have far more offensive prowess. Molina’s offensive peak was a 138 wRC+ in 2012, and Buster Posey has a 139 wRC+ for his career. If Posey were suddenly determined to be incapable of playing catcher and were henceforth only able to play first base, he would still have a career: he would be less valuable, but his closest current offensive comparables among first basemen are Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Mike Napoli of the Indians, not elite first basemen but players certainly worth having.

If Molina were suddenly only able to play first base, his value would nearly collapse. Even assuming he could play a competent defensive first base (I believe he could, but this is based on a tiny sample size and blind faith), a first baseman is expected to hit at above league-average levels. Over the last few seasons, Molina has not shown that ability.

On the bright side of Molina, if this second-half resurgence ends up being at least partially for real, he may have some value even when he is eventually unable to catch on a regular basis. While his current season wRC+ puts him in fairly mediocre company among first basemen (Chris Carter, Mark Reynolds), his 2012-2013 production puts him in the territory of far more potent bats (Edwin Encarnacion, Wil Myers). The latter is unlikely, but there is some reason to hope that he is better than the former.

At the moment, it’s hard to complain too much about Yadier Molina. Even in his diminished form, he has been in the upper half of starting catchers in baseball, and while Carson Kelly has provided fans some reason to believe that a succession plan will go smoothly, Molina may not be inclined to acquiesce his starting position too readily. But the days of Yadier Molina, arguably the best defensive catcher in history, may be over.