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The curious case of a Yadier Molina contract extension

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Molina wants an extension, but it’s complicated.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Yadier Molina will probably make the Hall of Fame and will definitely make the Cardinals Hall of Fame. So it’s probably a reasonable expectation that he’s going to play here for as long as he wants. And he reportedly expressed his desire to play beyond 2020, when his current 3 year, $60 million deal ends. This is not a surprise. If you told past me that Yadi would play until he was 40-years-old, I’d say “yeah that sounds about right.”

Re-signing Yadi beyond 2020 brings about complications, namely playing time and salary. He’s going to need to play less at some point. And he’s presumably going to make nowhere near $20 million a year. The Adam Wainwright saga has played out perfectly, but teams carry 12-13 pitchers at a time and need as many as 20 over a full season. You can never have too many pitchers, meaning it’s low risk. It’s also a position that is hard to disguise - when Wainwright didn’t have it, everyone knew it including him.

Catcher... has catcher defense obfuscating player value. You can be extraordinarily bad at hitting, and say, bat 244 times with a 2 wRC+ (A catcher really did do this in 2019 and I’m going to make you find this.) Yadi makes things even more difficult because his batting profile is almost designed to look better than it is. He had a .270 average, but an 87 wRC+ in 2019. Put it this way. His career low in average is .252, which he did in 2005. He had a 71 wRC+. And if I squint, I could totally see him repeating that line in 2020, except that his strikeout rate would be nearly double what it was then (which is not an exaggeration, but the K rate would still be way below average since it was 7.1%).

Also making matters more confusing is that his defense has, to me at least, clearly declined quite a bit. He now rates as an average defending catcher, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I can’t imagine he’ll get better with age. All of which is to say you have a 37-year-old Yadi coming off his worst season since 2006 who wants an extension, who appears to be a better hitter than he is, who probably still thinks he’s elite at defense, and whose most recent compensation is $20 million. Like I said, it’s complicated.

But it’s also pretty simple. Yadi wants to stay. Bill Dewitt wants him to stay. Nobody wants him to play for another team, so a contract will get done. But what will that contract look like? Off the top of my head, I think he’s looking at a $10 million salary in 2021, but that’s gut feeling here.

The first step is what to expect in 2020, which will be harder to do with only Steamer having released their projections. But I am looking at their projection and not really buying it. Main reason why is their projected ISO and K%. I looked at ZiPS 2019 projections and they had Molina with a .134 ISO, coming off a .174 and .166 ISO seasons. Steamer has Molina with a .147 ISO next year, coming off a .129 ISO. Steamer also has Yadi with a 15.1 K%, with his career high being 13.6%. The K% is presumably for his age, but why is the ISO seeing such a bounceback? Just seems random to me.

As for ZiPS, they projected Molina for a 13.5 K% before this season, which he bested by a little in 2019 (12.8%). I imagine he’ll get projected for somewhere between 13-13.5% by ZiPS, and that sounds more right to me than 15.1%. They also projected a 5.6 BB%, with his real walk rate being 5.1%. Seeing as they projected a 5.5% before 2018, and he finished with 5.8%, I’ll say they have him down for a 5.4% BB rate next year.

As far as power, ZiPS saw Molina’s 2017 power as a fluke and projected him for .120 ISO going into 2018, which he beat by a lot (.174), so he saw an appropriate increase in ISO to .134 for 2019. Seeing as he finished 2019 with a .129 ISO and ZiPS seems generally more skeptical of his power, I’ll say they have him with .125 ISO this time. They may or may not punish him more since his power decline came while the rest of the majors power went up thanks to the juiced ball.

Lastly, his BABIP has been a troubling trend for a few years. After a decline in his BABIP from .335 to .285 from 2016 to 2017, ZiPS projected a .295 BABIP for 2018. Then his actual BABIP was .264. In 2019, his projected BABIP was .288. His actual BABIP? .289. I do think his BABIP projection will still drop, but only to something like .286. Matching your projections at age 37 simply means they’ll keep you on track for age-related decline unfortunately.

So the increased strikeouts and lower power will primarily affect his slugging percentage, while his OBP will probably be minimally affected, due to a slightly higher walk rate. So I have him with .265/.310/.390 for next year, with my best guess at ZiPS projections. This is remarkably close to his 2019 ZiPS projection, which makes sense I guess since he was projected for a .310 OBP and a .399 slugging and ended up with a .312 OBP and .399 slugging. Yes ZiPS was that close. The run environment changed so the 90 OPS+ that line was supposed to be ended up being an 87 wRC+. Anyway, given the 2019 run environment, I believe that is an 85 wRC+.

Lastly, I’m basically going to take his 2019 values aside from his offense and just insert my rough offensive production into it and I get 0.9 WAR in 452 PAs. Looks like the cost of a win according to fangraphs is $7.8 million per win. Which would make Yadi worth a projected $7.02 million in 2020. There’s certainly intangibles to consider, but given his projected 2021 value is currently lower if he signs an extension before the season, I don’t think it would add up to my gut feeling of $10 million.

As far as playing time, I’m also curious how that will be handled. Yadi’s projection is probably pretty similar to Andrew Knizner at this point. The X factor is Knizner’s defense, which ranges somewhere from slightly above average to easily below average. Knizner’s Steamer is 92 wRC+ (I guarantee ZiPS is lower than that), so the gap has mostly closed between the two players on offense at least. Knizner will probably start 2020 in AAA, though you could easily justify him as the full-time backup. But he’d have to play. And he certainly would need to play in 2021.

Yadi is a special case which is why this will be interesting. He, for now, seems to be able to start whenever he wants, which is all the time. Will that be the case for a contract extension? Would Yadi go into the extension knowing this and would he even accept it? At the bare minimum, Knizner at some point should get normal backup catching duties, which is 1-2 starts a week, when backup to Yadi is more like one start every two weeks.

Yadi will get an extension for 2021, but when is a very important question. How much is another. How many years? And will there be some agreement on playing time? It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.