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Revisiting the possibility of Yadier Molina at first base

Could the offensively resurgent, defensively declining Cardinals catching legend be a candidate to slide down the defensive spectrum?

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Two years ago, Craig Edwards wrote a post for Viva El Birdos titled “Yadier Molina should not play first base”, in which he outlined the various good reasons why Yadier Molina, coming off of a down offensive season (his wRC+ of 102, while still slightly above league average, paled in comparison to his previous three seasons of 126, 138, and 133) but still an elite defensive catcher, should remain at catcher.

I agreed with Craig at the time and I agree with him now—Yadier Molina was as taxed as any catcher in baseball, and the benefits of allowing him real days off over the course of an exhausting grind of a season outweighed the benefits of playing somebody who would have ranked tied for 17th among 24 qualified first base seasons (had Molina had a qualified first base season) by wRC+, especially when Matt Adams, with a 116 wRC+, was arguably the superior hitter in the first place.

But 2014 Yadier Molina was a different player than 2016 Yadier Molina. While the former accumulated his 2.3 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement and 2.9 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement primarily via his defensive prowess, 2016 Molina was easily, statistically, the worst fielding version of Molina that we have ever seen.

With catching in particular, there are intangible qualities that are impossible to quantify, but by what we can measure, Yadier Molina declined. Of the fifteen catchers in MLB last season with a qualified number of innings caught, only Russell Martin of the Toronto Blue Jays had fewer Defensive Runs Saved than Molina. Even by ability to catch base stealers, a long-celebrated part of Yadier Molina’s game, his 2016 was below average: his 21.2% of steal attempts thwarted was the third worst rate among qualified catchers, behind only Russell Martin and Derek Norris of the San Diego Padres.

The St. Louis Cardinals are entering Spring Training 2017 with three non-Molina catchers: Carson Kelly, by some sources the top catching prospect in baseball, and two non-roster invitees—2016 Cardinals temp Eric Fryer and former Phillies minor leaguer Gabriel Lino.

Lino, barring a huge Spring, probably isn’t much of a factor. Now entering his age-24 season, Lino’s peak minor league level was AAA, and in 206 plate appearances in his age-22 2015 with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, he managed a wRC+ of 44.

Eric Fryer, on the other hand, does pose a viable threat to capture the role of backup catcher. Although he is a journeyman who will turn 32 in August, that he probably does not have a long nor illustrious career with the Cardinals ahead of him is precisely what makes him a candidate for a job—unlike Carson Kelly, the Cardinals are not concerned about Eric Fryer’s development.

For the 87th consecutive season (citation needed), Yadier Molina led baseball in innings logged last year, following an off-season in which the Cardinals acquired a new backup catcher in Brayan Pena, hardly a superstar but somebody expected to allow Molina more days of rest than he had received while backed up by Tony Cruz, Gerald Laird, or Jason LaRue. This off-season, following Pena’s release, the Cardinals have made little-to-no attempt to hide their intentions to continue to push Yadier Molina hard in 2017.

All indications are that this is what Yadier Molina wants—to play often and to be the depended-upon quarterback of the Cardinals defense. With Molina only under contract through the end of 2017, the Cardinals seem perfectly content to continue getting their money’s worth.

But even if the Cardinals are preoccupied with Yadier Molina only in the context of 2017 production, since they will not necessarily be on the hook for him beyond this season, it is still in their best interest to preserve him for the sake of 2017. This is Molina’s age-34 season, and if he repeats his 2016 plate appearance mark, he would have the 2nd most innings by a catcher of that age in MLB history, behind only 2008 Jason Kendall.

But Kendall’s performance was more evocative of Molina’s pre-peak years than his current level of play—he was a poor hitter (74 wRC+, .246/.327/.324 in 587 plate appearances) and a strong fielder. It makes sense that he would log such significant innings behind the plate—he was playing for a Milwaukee Brewers team chasing (and eventually earning) its first postseason appearance in 26 years, and it would be counterproductive to put him at another position, as he would not have sufficient offense to justify playing there.

Yadier Molina, on the other hand, had enough offense in 2016 that he could have been a serviceable first baseman, particularly on a sporadic basis. His 113 wRC+ for the season would rank tied for 13th (with Mike Napoli) among 24 qualified first basemen. If you believe in Yadier Molina’s second half as a meaningful sign that his offense has resurrected (I mostly don’t, but I’ll at least accept the possibility that his true offensive talent is somewhere above 113 wRC+), his 150 wRC+ outpaced the 2016 mark of every qualified first baseman not named Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, or Freddie Freeman.

On the surface, Molina at first base doesn’t make a lot of sense, even if his offense is deemed sufficient for the position, since he can play catcher. Even if one is to believe that his defense has materially declined, he is still almost certainly still a competent catcher. And since Matt Carpenter, expected to be the everyday first baseman in 2017 in St. Louis, is a better hitter than Molina, what purpose would making that position’s offense worse while then playing a worse hitter at catcher serve?

The answer is that giving Yadier Molina occasional starts at first base would open the door for Carson Kelly to play in the Majors.

The Cardinals, understandably, do not want their highly regarded catching prospect to stagnate on the bench, and under the “run Yadier Molina into the ground” approach, he would (and if Molina got hurt, the Cardinals could and probably would just call up Carson Kelly from Memphis anyway). But the Cardinals could do with Carson Kelly essentially what they did in 2004 with Yadier Molina—give him semi-regular starts while Mike Matheny started most games. Of course, in the case of 2004, Mike Matheny did not have the offensive production to hang at first base, especially considering the everyday first baseman was the durable, top-five-player-in-baseball Albert Pujols.

Putting Molina at first base once every week or two, particularly against left-handed starting pitching (Matt Carpenter’s platoon splits are manageable; those of full-time backup first baseman Matt Adams are not), allows the Cardinals to give additional rest to a player who has dealt with “extreme fatigue” while giving a promising but young catcher a chance to gradually assimilate to playing in the Majors, all while he can act as understudy to one of the most sophisticated backstops in history.

All of this said, this may still overextend Yadier Molina. It’s not a fool-proof theory, but it is a strategy which could allow the Cardinals to plan for their future while maximizing the production they receive from Yadier Molina in 2017.