This decade, no catcher in Major League Baseball has caught more innings than Yadier Molina. In the regular season, not even to mention his extensive postseason résumé, Molina has a roughly 750 inning lead on the #2 catcher in innings caught in the 2010s (wait for it...), Kurt Suzuki. In the last six and a half or so seasons, Molina has caught 83 full games worth of innings more than anybody else.
Heading into 2016, it seemed like Brayan Pena would provide a sizable enough upgrade over Tony Cruz that Yadier Molina's playing time could be safely reduced. While Brayan Pena is nobody's idea of a superstar, his experience as a catcher in the big leagues made him a worthwhile backup, one capable of actually allowing Molina occasional reprieves.
But due to injury, Brayan Pena has yet to don a uniform for the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals. As a result, Eric Fryer, he of 158 plate appearances over the previous five seasons, became the backup catcher. And his numbers, particularly compared to those of his Cardinals catching backup predecessor Tony Cruz, have been fantastic.
|Eric Fryer, 2016
|Tony Cruz, 2015
It's a microscopic sample, sure, but the two are not even in the same stratosphere. Even if it turns out that Eric Fryer, over the course of a reasonable number of plate appearances, is not actually a better hitter than Josh Donaldson was last season, the bar for him to clear was fairly low.
Even if you were to assume that Eric Fryer's true offensive talent is 2013 Ty Wigginton, and he played like that for his next 120 plate appearances, he would still be roughly as productive of a hitter as Tony Cruz in 2015. In either case, however, the Cardinals seem intent on giving their backup catcher as little playing time as they possibly can.
And it makes sense in several regards.
- By all accounts, being the workhorse starting catcher is precisely what Yadier Molina wants. And relatively speaking, he's pretty good at it. In 2012, his best offensive season, one in which he was used extensively throughout, his best offensive month by wRC+ was August. In September and October, he posted a higher wRC+ than he had in June or July, and he was still solidly above average in each of those months.
- Unlike Giants catcher Buster Posey or former Twins catcher/current Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, solid fielders who won MVPs primarily because of their offensive abilities, Yadier Molina is now being paid to be a serviceable hitter and an extraordinary fielder. Molina has been exactly league average so far in 2016, he was below league average in 2015, and he was slightly above it in 2014. As such, while Molina can take pseudo off-days at first base (or designated hitter, during Interleague Play), it no longer behooves the team to do it. So when given the option to play their most popular player or not, without a viable compromise option, they go with the former.
- Yadier Molina is probably better than Eric Fryer, Brayan Pena, Tony Cruz, former emergency catchers Jason Motte or Pete Kozma, you, me, or anyone else on the roster at catcher. So he plays a lot at catcher.
But there is a critical difference between starting Yadier Molina in most games and, say, starting Stephen Piscotty in most games (Yadier Molina has started more games than Stephen Piscotty, or anybody else, this season). While Piscotty plays relatively passive defensive positions, ones which do not cause an extraordinary amount of wear and tear on players, Molina plays, aside from pitcher, the most exhausting position in the sport.
In the 21st century, only Brad Ausmus, with the Tigers in 2000, played 150 games in a season at catcher. In the same time frame, there have been 73 individual seasons of 162 games played or more. Catcher is a completely different animal than any other position. And in spite of Molina being as durable in the long term as anybody at the position, playing at the rates at which he does has taken its toll.
2014 is the most notable example of this, with Molina causing great anguish among the Cardinal faithful by missing a month and a half due to injury. While it was initially expected to be a longer absence, he unfortunately made up for some of his borrowed time in the postseason, when he missed the final three games of the NLCS with injury. And in 2015, Molina was removed from Game 3 of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs in the sixth inning and was not able to play in Game 4.
In a vacuum, the Cardinals are best off playing their best players as much as possible. But in reality, Yadier Molina is being exposed to potential injury risk any time he plays, and the more he plays, the more susceptible he is.
- Just ride it out, man. It would be one thing if the Cardinals were up by 15 games in the NL Central. As it stands, they look to be in for a tough, wide-open race for a Wild Card berth, and every win matters. So if you need the wins, why hurt your chances of winning for something that may never come into play? Withholding Molina could turn out like NBA teams who pull their superstars after they commit two early fouls: sure, he could foul out, but by benching him, you are risking digging a deeper hole and therefore rendering his later availability useless.
- Pray for Brayan Pena. While Pena has never been great, based on Eric Fryer's usage, the Cardinals almost certainly trust Pena more. The amount that fans have seen of Fryer is minimal, so I'm not one to judge whether the Cardinals should trust Pena more, but if this is the case, the Cardinals could just be biding their time until Pena arrives to alleviate Molina of his innings load.
- Pull Molina earlier from games. This would be my preferred solution, as it allows the Cardinals to keep Molina available during higher-leverage situations. For one example, on May 31, the Cardinals entered the bottom of the eighth inning with a 10-2 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. According to Baseball Reference, the Cardinals had a 100% chance of winning. And yet Molina stayed in the game. Typically, teams have been risk averse with using backup catchers because of fear that an atypical catcher could not hold down the position. But the odds of an injury are quite low, and it becomes additionally unlikely that such a large lead would evaporate. And while using Eric Fryer with a large deficit may seem like defeatism, even teams who have managed incredible comebacks have often done so while making player-saving personnel decisions.
In a perfect world, Yadier Molina will just not get hurt. But it has happened the last two seasons, and Molina turns 34 next month. Health cannot be assumed, and if the Cardinals continue to play Yadier Molina this often, they are running a very serious risk.