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Is Yadier Molina the greatest Cardinals catcher ever?

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Has the veteran catcher passed Ted Simmons for the title of top Cardinals backstop in history?

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals
Above: A man who might have something to say about it. And about a lot of other things, too.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball arguments were more fun, or at least more open-ended, in the days before advanced statistics. An integral bar (or barbershop, or any public setting where people get into squabbles over big-picture irrelevant subjects) argument in baseball lore, at least according to Ken Burns’s Baseball, was discussion among New York baseball fans in the 1950s about which of the city’s three starting center fielders was the best: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Duke Snider.

I never watched any of these three men play, but statistics tell me that picking Snider was ludicrous. He was a fine player, sure, but he paled in comparison to Mantle and Mays, who along with Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker belong on an objectively-measured Mount Rushmore of MLB center fielders. But I’m sure the wide-eyed Brooklyn Dodgers homers vouching for Snider had fun doing so, and their belief, while not easily supported with statistics, has merit as long as having that belief provides them some kind of happiness.

The consensus answers among casual fans for the greatest players in St. Louis Cardinals history at given positions mostly coincides with the answers that Wins Above Replacement metrics provide. WAR says Bob Gibson is the greatest pitcher in franchise history, and most fans agree. The same is probably true for the entire Cardinals all-time infield: Albert Pujols, Rogers Hornsby (there may be some sentimental/name recognition votes for Red Schoendienst, though I suspect Hornsby would still win out), Ken Boyer, and Ozzie Smith.

By WAR, of both the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference variety, Ted Simmons is the greatest catcher in Cardinals history. Simmons has the somewhat dubious distinction of arriving in St. Louis in 1968, the year after a Cardinals World Series win, and leaving following the 1980 season, which coincided with a sudden rejuvenation of the Cardinals franchise, including a World Series title in 1982 (defeating a Milwaukee Brewers team which included Simba).

But he was indisputably the top Cardinal of the 1970s—only Bob Gibson is within half of the bWAR accumulated by Simmons in the decade. It was a relatively lean decade for the franchise as a whole, which won 90 games just once and did not make the postseason. There are no recent Cardinals analogues, as the Cardinals have not sustained a postseason drought of this length since (perhaps Steven Jackson would be a comparable St. Louis athlete, for those who are content with cross-sport comparisons), but as somebody with a soft spot for one-man teams, my appreciation for Simmons, despite his being frequently overlooked during his playing career due to the presence of Johnny Bench in the National League, remains strong.

Yadier Molina’s Cardinals resume is fundamentally different. Since 2004, when Molina made his MLB debut, he trails both Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright by fWAR. The era in which Molina could be reasonably called the best player on the Cardinals lasted just two seasons, beginning in 2012 following the departure of Pujols and being over by 2014, when his brief run of MVP-caliber offense ended.

While this is partially (largely) the result of Molina being on better teams than Simmons, evaluating the two independent of their teammates still places Simmons ahead—he ranks 8th on the Cardinals career bWAR leaderboard, while Yadier Molina ranks 21st—good enough for second place among catchers, but still 11 wins behind Simmons. It would be virtually impossible for Molina to close that entire gap in 2017, his final season (currently) under contract with the Cardinals, and even if he signs an extension to stay in St. Louis, it is hardly a guarantee for a catcher now in his mid-30s to produce to that level.

But this is just one way to compare Simmons and Molina, and while it is a strong, objective argument in the former’s favor, it is not, despite increased adherence to the statistic, the only argument that can be made. Though if you do insist on replacement level-based measures, Yadier Molina does have an ally in Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Level (though you probably shouldn’t mention their related Pecota projections if you hope to win friends and influence people). By WARP, which calculates catcher defense quite a bit differently from bWAR or fWAR, with a notable emphasis on pitch framing, Molina has been worth a career 47.2 wins above replacement player. Simmons, statistically and anecdotally a competent defensive catcher who nevertheless paled in comparison to Molina, stands at 46.2 WARP. It’s close, too close to make a conclusive call, but Molina does have the edge.

But by more tried and true offensive measures, Simmons still holds a decent edge. Molina has slightly fewer Cardinals plate appearances (though he will pass Simmons with even a moderately healthy 2017), though with 95.5% of Simba’s franchise plate appearances, Molina has just 93.5% of his hits, 85.2% of his total bases, 62.8% of his home runs, 73.5% of his runs scored, 75.7% of his runs batted in, 68.4% of his walks, and more strikeouts. Some of these measures are more saber-friendly than others, but it would nevertheless be nearly impossible to argue that Ted Simmons wasn't the superior hitter.

Because he has the edge in more known commodities, and because the edge for Molina presented by WARP is a fairly slim one, I would still side with Ted Simmons. But an argument for Yadier Molina exists. And if Yadier Molina never passes Ted Simmons in the key offensive statistics in franchise history, it will still be a fun argument for fans to have, without one irrefutably correct and objective answer.