Here are some sentences that probably won’t raise much debate: Yadier Molina has had a great career. He’s been the heart and soul of the Cardinals for a long time, including as part of two championship clubs. His reputation as one of the all-time best defensive catchers is well-deserved. His high MVP finishes during his offensive peak in 2012 and 2013 (4th and 3rd, respectively) were also well-deserved. And he deserves some amount of credit for the fact that the staffs he’s caught have been, in total, the second-best in the National League during his career — behind only the Dodgers, with a certain probably-already-HOFer making up the entire margin.
Here is another sentence that will surely raise an enormous debate: Yadier Molina deserves so much credit for the successes of said pitching staffs that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Much electronic ink has been spilled on the merits of Yadi’s Hall candidacy. The crux of the “con” case is pretty simple. It’s that Molina’s numbers just aren’t there. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which evaluates players by a combination of career achievements and strength of their peak years, has Molina at 33.5 points so far — 27th on the all-time catcher leaderboard, and well south of the 44.0 average of the 15 enshrined catchers. Molina is also 27th all time in bWAR, and 34th by fWAR. WARP fully incorporates catcher framing (which Molina has been very good at), and it has him 12th among catchers going back to 1949 (which is as far as WARP goes); but since quality framing data only goes back a short period of time, the real value of that ranking is dubious.
The “pro” case is also deceptively simple. It’s that Molina’s reputation as a defender and leader is simply so stellar that most of the big baseball writers seem to assume that he’s going to get in. And they’re the ones with the votes, not the stat-heads. Yes, that’s changing — a few of the stat-heads actually are BBWAA members and have votes now, and they certainly have louder voices and a bigger following among the Hall voters than they used to — but not that quickly. The guys (it’s nearly all guys, though that’s also slowly changing) who make the decisions still tend to see it as a hall of, well, fame. I sometimes derisively refer to it as the “Hall of Famous” when deserving but weren’t-ever-seen-as-the-type guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen get overlooked, but that’s just how it is. And Yadi’s viewed, for whatever reasons the voters want to give, as an example of the Hall of Fame type by a lot of people with votes.
To simply shrug their reasoning off would do a disservice to those voters, though. What you’ll most often see in “pro” cases for Molina are phrases like “handling a staff” and “calling games.” Framing, too; framing is something members of the pro camp can take directly to the nerds in the con camp and say look, see, this isn’t in your WAR numbers — this genuinely deserves extra credit. And they’ll get buy-in, because by now we all recognize that framing pitches is an important skill. But because of that buy-in, framing just isn’t that interesting to the debate. Everybody agrees it’s real, everybody agrees he was good at it, but even if you give Molina a bonus WAR per year for framing, he’s still shy of the ~60 WAR threshold that the con side generally considers the bar for Hall entry. Framing alone doesn’t do it. Molina needs the soft stuff to get there — the stuff we really can’t measure, but that might exist.
I want to be clear here that I’m almost completely agnostic on the extent to which one catcher can be, I don’t know, 10-15 wins better than average over a long career at calling games and doing whatever else “handling a staff” means. Only almost completely agnostic, because I do feel quite sure that (for example) the order pitches are called in matters. I just have noooooooooo idea how to quantify that. And nobody else seems to, and it seems possible that nobody ever figures it out. Right now we have values for two-pitch pairings, but that’s obviously of limited value. I do hate myself for writing this phrase here, but we’ve got a bit of an epistemological conundrum with Molina’s Hall case: we know what we don’t know (i.e. the extent to which game-calling and other soft factors should boost his case), but that kind of knowledge isn’t actually helpful.
So what all this really means, in the end, is that voters will go with their guts on Molina. And that’s, funnily enough, something we can dig into and make guesses about.
Human beings are subject to all sorts of cognitive biases. We don’t and can’t know a lot of things, but confronting this inability is painful. So we paper over it with all kinds of little rules of thumb that help us feel like we have knowledge where we really only have hunches. There’s anchoring: basing decisions heavily on the first or last piece of information acquired. The bandwagon effect: trusting your peers too much. Selective perception: allowing pre-conceived expectations to affect perception of events. And on and on. We humans have a great facility for fooling ourselves.
All of this means that what Molina does this year — and in the next couple, but it’s likely that this year is a strong marker of where the next couple are headed — is going to carry a ton of weight with his ultimate Hall of Fame case. He can make some progress with the raw numbers, certainly. If his current 152 wRC+ is a harbinger of a surprise late-career second offensive peak, that will do him worlds of good with voters. But even if not, some stuff that is maybe-or-maybe-not within Yadi’s control is happening right now that could have outsize impacts in the minds (and guts) of BBWAA members.
The most obvious thing is the shape of the Cardinals’ pitching staff right now. There’s are only a couple of known quantities, and lots of youth (plus whatever you want to call the uncertainty attached to a starting pitcher coming back stateside after an exile in Japan). If these guys are good, they will make Yadi look good — whether deservedly, or by their reflected light, Yadi will look like the veteran legend who helped groom a new generation of great Cardinal pitchers. But if they are bad, that will undercut the perception of Molina as a pitcher whisperer. I don’t know whether these reputational gains or losses will be merited or not, but they’ll happen either way. The narrative around Yadier Molina is too strong for them not to.
That’s the biggest thing, but of course there’s more. Molina’s the face of the team right now, and if the team surprises the forecasters and leapfrogs the Cubs, and he’s playing well as part of that, he’ll get a ton of gut-level credit for it. Even if he’s only okay all year, they could make the playoffs and he could get a couple key hits and reinforce his somewhat dormant reputation as a clutch performer. The pitching staff, though, is the big thing. Maybe Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, and Alex Reyes were always going to be really good — or not. Or, maybe Molina’s a huge causal piece in what they become. But whatever the right answer is, I’ve got a pretty good hunch what Hall of Fame voters will conclude.