The headline last week was that Fangraphs has updated the catcher defensive component of their WAR calculations to incorporate framing. Among the largest beneficiaries was our own Yadier Molina, who now sits in the Top 10 catchers of the modern era by the metric.
It’s nice to have some empirical validation beyond our own homerism that Yadi is, in fact, one of the very best at his position of all-time, and a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. But if you look more closely at the numbers and the trends of catcher usage, I think it goes even beyond that.
There may never be a more valuable catcher than Yadier Molina again.
First, let’s take a closer look at that Top 10 group, where Yadi currently ranks #10. He plans to play at least two more seasons, and given his value even in the twilight of his career, we can expect him to move up a few slots, though probably not crack the Top 5.
But here’s the thing: That Top 10 list is a ranking of the total WAR by the players Fangraphs categorizes primarily as Catchers. Every other player on the list played more games away from the catcher position than Yadi, and some even played significant portions of their career at a less-demanding position.
For a real-time example of this phenomenon, look no farther than Buster Posey, the other best NL catcher of the last decade. Posey is only 31, but he has already played nearly 20% of his games at 1B rather than catcher. Joe Mauer was done as a catcher by the age of 30.
Last season, there were only five players in all of baseball who qualified for a batting title while playing at least 90% of their games at catcher. Four were 29 or younger. The other was 35-year-old Yadier Molina.
The year before, only two players qualified for a batting title with 90% of their games at catcher, and again Molina was one. Bump the standard up to 95% of games at catcher, and Molina was one of only two in 2018 and the only one in 2017.
Compare this to the first decade of the 2000s, when an average of 8 players per season qualified for a batting title at the catcher position. It may be too early to call this a “trend” strictly by the data, but when you consider the numbers along with the way teams are talking about and building their rosters, it seems clear that many teams are moving away from the idea of a full-time (or nearly full-time) catcher, and instead looking at it as a primarily defensive position to be shared by two or more players.
Last season, the average catcher’s offensive production was nearly 20% below league average for all position players. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series while splitting playing time evenly between a pair of backstops who could not hit at all. And this was not some “hole” that even great teams occasionally have and then fix. There were catchers available this offseason, via free agency and trade, but the Red Sox stood pat.
While most teams still carry only two catchers on their active roster, several organizations are moving more towards this idea of a “catching staff” rather than a bonafide starter and his backup.
This transformation of the catcher position has happened and is happening during Yadier Molina’s career. We know he’s put up a historic number of innings behind the plate, but I don’t think we’ve appreciated what a unicorn he is.
Will trends eventually shift back to more full-time catchers? Or will another spate of Iron Man catchers appear? It’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible - maybe even likely - that Yadier Molina is the last of his kind, and when we consider him in the full context of his era... he may be even more valuable than we thought he was.