How do you explain an entity that you experienced first-hand, that you think is great, but where any quantifiable data suggests that it was not as great as your mind’s eye remembers it? The thing may very well be as great as you think it is, but if your only way of expressing its greatness is just saying over and over how great it is, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
The Wire is regarded as perhaps the greatest television series ever, but it received fairly moderate ratings and its status as a critical darling didn’t truly emerge until late in the show’s run. There’s that famous quote about the Velvet Underground, that their first album sold only 30,000 copies but that everybody who bought the album was influenced to start a band. Reception sometimes lags a bit.
It’s a bit hard, admittedly, to claim that Yadier Molina is some kind of cult figure in baseball, as though the longtime St. Louis Cardinals catcher is not constantly lauded, often to the point of irritating non-Cardinals fans (and sometimes even Cardinals fans). But opinions on Molina, particularly when the discussion turns to his place in baseball history, are so wildly divergent that in some circles, Molina is almost certainly underrated, and as such, his case for induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is likely not given enough credit.
Which is not, to be clear, to say that Yadier Molina is a sure-fire, no-doubt, no-brainer, if-you-disagree-you’re-just-a-hater Hall of Famer. Just that his case is a bit more complicated and nuanced than back of the baseball card stats might suggest.
Of course, Yadier Molina is still playing, and at a relatively high level—he is slightly past his prime but still a productive MLB regular and it is likely that his Hall of Fame case will improve over the next several years. But the meat of his case has likely unfolded already.
Three catchers cracked this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, with varying degrees of worthiness—Ivan Rodriguez, from the beginning, was easily the one who stood the best chance of making it to Cooperstown, and indeed will be a part of the Hall’s class of 2017 along with Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines. Fellow ballot first-timers Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek, while good and prominent players who certainly figure into the history of their era (if you were not paying attention to baseball in the early 2000s, I do not think I could possibly convey just how huge of a deal the rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox was), were more in the “well, the real honor is being nominated” camp and fell off the ballot immediately.
Here is how Yadier Molina currently compares to the catchers on the 2017 ballot by career Wins Above Replacement (of both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs variety, for those of you with a strong preference for one of the two), WAR7 for each measure (the sum of the player’s seven best seasons by WAR, an approximation of a player’s peak performance), and each form of WAR’s JAWS score (an average of WAR and WAR7).
So here’s a bit of good news for Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame advocates: he is already a more viable Hall of Fame candidate than Jason Varitek by tangible and objective (if imperfect) measures which are generally considered, if anything, to undersell his impact (I’ve certainly never heard the case made that Wins Above Replacement overstates Molina), and Varitek made this year’s pretty loaded ballot.
Molina already ranks ahead of thirteen players on the ballot by career bWAR, including this year’s 74% vote receiver Trevor Hoffman, and ahead of fourteen players by bWAR7. At age 34, with several seasons likely to go, Yadier Molina is already somewhere in the neighborhood of an average Hall of Fame finalist. But average Hall of Fame finalists don’t generally make the Hall of Fame, and if the case for Molina is “he’s roughly the midpoint between Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek”, he’s not going to stay on the ballot long, much less actually reach Cooperstown.
Typically, sabermetrically-leaning baseball fans rely on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs measures of player value, and ordinarily this is fine, but with catchers in particular, these two WAR models underrate important parts of catching. One of these factors, which is captured by Baseball Prospectus’s WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), is framing—the ability to deceive umpires into calling pitches which are just outside the strike zone as strikes based on his positioning while receiving the ball. Perhaps someday, perhaps even soon, the strike zone will be computerized and this skill will no longer be a thing (I’m personally all for this), but regardless, some catchers were quantifiably better at this than others.
Jorge Posada had a career Fielding Runs Above Average of -122.2 (how this impacts his overall value in a second), which is pretty terrible. He was such a dreadful framer in 2010 that despite a season OPS of .811 in 451 plate appearances, good for a 119 wRC+, his season WARP was -1.9, 3.4 wins fewer than FanGraphs and 3.2 wins fewer than Baseball Reference give him.
Ivan Rodriguez, widely regarded as an elite defensive catcher (he ranks 84.9 FanGraphs Defensive Runs Saved ahead of the second-highest ranked catcher in history by the measure, Bob Boone), and Jason Varitek, regarded as a decent if not Pudge-level catcher, grade similarly by FRAA: Rodriguez was worth 72.7 FRAA while Varitek was worth 72.0 FRAA.
Yadier Molina is, per Baseball Prospectus, easily the most valuable of the quartet defensively (he ranks 5th overall, and second among these four catchers, in FanGraphs Defensive Runs Saved). Through 2016, his career FRAA is an astonishing 222.5. This defensive adjustment is so profound that his career WARP jumps to 46.1; Rodriguez is at 57.3 WARP, Varitek is at 30 WARP, and while Posada still benefits from being a well above-average offensive catcher throughout most of his career, he plunges all the way to 32.7 WARP.
Skepticism of these new fielding metrics is fair—while I do trust the overall conclusion that Ryan Doumit was a terrible defensive catcher, it is a bit hard to just go with him being worth -66.8 defensive runs in 2008 (this would mean he cost his team an additional two runs defensively every three games over the average catcher). But they do represent a new way of thinking about the value of catchers as a whole.
And these improved player valuation rankings, combined with increased overall appreciation for catchers, as well as specific appreciation for Yadier Molina in more intangible ways (intimidation of potential base thieves, handling young pitchers), should bode well down the road. As it stands, the climate of Hall of Fame voting would probably keep Molina out of Cooperstown, but his additional years of production combined with additional years of evolution of player perceptions could tilt the dynamics in his favor.