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Yadier Molina is aging but extend him anyway

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Catchers in their mid-30s typically don’t age well but Yadier Molina might still have a lot of value

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Ken Rosenthal reported that a Yadier Molina extension, if it were to happen, would likely be in the three year/$45-$55 million range. All things considered, that is a pretty reasonable sum and I assumed a deal would have been hammered out by now, or at least publicly confirmed to be in the works. But as of this morning, Molina has not signed an extension with the Cardinals, which is moderately concerning since the window to work out a deal will shut around the time the team takes the field on Sunday.

Molina, like Albert Pujols before him, is not willing to negotiate a contract once the season starts, a position I’ve come to accept as reasonable since it’s parroted by so many players, even though I’ve never thought too long and hard about it. Someone else has though and sought Derrick Goold’s opinion in his latest chat:

Question: I don't quite understand the stance that a player won't negotiate a contract during the season. These are big boys right? A discussion of a future contract shouldn't be a real problem for a pro like Yadi right?

Goold: I don't understand it either, to be honest. But then I'm not really accustomed to be offered millions for a singular skill I can and must do in front of 40,000 or so daily. Maybe if I did, I would have a better appreciation of why someone coming to me with an offer of millions I would want to ignore and just focus on my job. Like I said, I don't understand it when I hear it either, but I'm not in the cleats. I have to trust that I've heard it enough from athletes there must be something to it.

I wouldn't want the uncertainty.

The uncertainty would be a bigger distraction to me, personally, than the negotiations.

Goold makes a good point, having the extension hanging in the balance for six months seems like a comparable distraction on its own. Nevertheless, the point I want to get to here is not whether there’s merit in limiting negotiation to the offseason, but what history has told us about catchers around Molina’s age. Molina is entering his age-34 season and, operating on the assumption that a deal gets done, a three-year extension would begin starting in 2018 and carry him through age-37. Using the Baseball Reference’s invaluable Play Index, I did a search going back to 1969 for all catchers starting at age-33 who spent at least 75 percent of their time at the position and were worth at least a solid 2.0 wins above replacement. I worked my way up to age-43 because, well, why not.

These are the results:

From age-33 to age-36, the number of two-win players drops from 22 to only three. There’s a slight bump up to four at age-37, what would presumably be the last year of Molina’s contract, before bottoming out at zero at age-38. I don’t think anyone imagines Molina making it this far, but there’s a revival between ages 39 and 42, exclusively the work of Carlton Fisk and Bob Boone, before the 2.0 WAR catcher becomes permanently extinct at age-43. Off subject, but most remarkable might be Fisk’s age-42 season in 1990 when he slashed .285/.378/.451 in 521 plate appearances (457 at catcher), good for a wRC+ of 133 and a 4.8 wins above replacement. It was probably his best season since 1978.

Anyway, these numbers aren’t exactly encouraging for a possible Molina extension. From 1969 to the present there have been 542 instances in which a catcher (min. 75 percent of time spent at the position) was worth, or exceeded, 2.0 WAR and only 6.6 percent of those seasons were turned in by catchers in their age-34 season or later.

The saving grace here is that Molina has shown that he isn’t most catchers. He plays by different “father time” rules. Molina already ranks 24th all-time for games at catcher and he’s done that in only 13 seasons. Barring an injury, by this time next season he will be in the top-20 and the only member of that club to have less than 15 seasons under his belt. In 2016, he had one of the better seasons in recent memory for catchers in their age-33 season, and caught at least 58 more innings than anyone.

It’s possible, maybe probable, that all of this mileage is bad news and that Molina’s body will break down sooner than anticipated. Anecdotally though, that seems unlikely - he certainly didn’t look like he was nearing the end of his career at the recent World Baseball Classic. And to echo a point that’s been made by Bernie Miklasz, if you buy into Molina’s reputation that there’s value here outside of his stats going forward, then he can usher in the younger arms currently crowding the farm system better than anyone. Lastly, heir apparent Carson Kelly is only 22-years-old with a limited 126 plate appearances in Memphis on his resume. So while Molina is at an age when value typically declines, extending him for a few more years is still a wise and reasonable thing to do.