I glance around to make sure nobody is around, or at least within arm’s reach of me. I turn off the lights so that nobody can see my lips move as I prepare to speak. I turn on a nearby stereo and turn up the volume as loud as it will go. And, to add a final layer of secrecy and personal protection, I whisper...
“I don’t love Yadier Molina.” Nobody heard that, right?
To be clear, this is not to say that I hate Yadier Molina, nor that I do not respect his many, many accomplishments in his dozen-plus years as the primary man behind the plate for the St. Louis Cardinals. But my allegiance to Molina has always been merely as a part of my favorite team and not as a stand-alone entity.
The idea of Yadier Molina on a team other than the Cardinals, a distinct possibility before news broke last night that a three-year, $55 million-plus extension was being finalized, did not especially perturb me. I would have wished him reasonably well elsewhere but ultimately not paid a great deal of attention to Yadier Molina’s ex-Cardinal era.
However, my semi-apathy towards Molina is extremely rare among Cardinals fans—he consistently receives the loudest ovations at Busch Stadium, his jerseys are omnipresent attire in the Greater St. Louis area, and even if his #4 is not formally retired by the Cardinals, any new player who asks for the number will be asking for trouble.
A difficult part of evaluating Yadier Molina is that so much of his on-field reputation comes from the intangible—his ability to work with young pitchers, the additional fear he puts in the hearts of opposing base runners (a career-worst caught stealing rate in 2016 may put some damper on that, but his reputation remains strong for now), and, specifically in the case of the Cardinals, the rapport he has developed with the Cardinals’ pitching staff.
But counting strictly what we can measure, and what we can say for sure about Yadier Molina, the Cardinals are getting Molina at a reasonable price.
In 2016, easily Molina’s worst season defensively, he was worth 2.4 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. This meant that Molina was an above-average player, but not the great player that he was, say, in 2012 or 2013. He ranked 9th among catchers by fWAR, and this was largely a byproduct of his ability to stay healthy throughout the season. But while Molina was no longer a transcendent baseball talent, he was still, by FanGraphs’s measure, worth $19.5 million in value last season. At 2016 prices, not the 2018 through 2020 prices by which Molina’s extension will eventually be judged.
And FanGraphs has a relatively conservative estimate of Molina’s worth. Baseball Reference pegged him for 2.9 WAR—worth $23.6 million on the open market by the FanGraphs player valuation scale. By Baseball Prospectus, which uses a higher threshold for players which they consider to be replacement level (thus most players have lower WARP totals, since they are competing against a better theoretical player), Molina was even more valuable—4.1 WARP in 2016.
If you were to trust Prospectus, not exactly known for overly rosy evaluations of the Cardinals, Yadier Molina repeating his seemingly down 2016 over the next few seasons would be not only acceptable in order to justify this extension—it would make the extension a bargain. And since Baseball Prospectus includes pitch framing in its WARP equation, unlike the other two major WAR measurements, it might be reasonable to default to Prospectus in order to properly evaluate catchers.
This means giving all catchers, not just Molina, a bump. San Francisco Giants Buster Posey, for instance, was worth 7.7 WARP last year, incredibly making 2016 his worst season since 2013. And while the average annual value in Molina’s contract is higher than that of Posey, the latter’s current contract was: 1. Signed four years ago; and 2. Signed while Posey still had years of salary arbitration eligibility left. Yadier Molina is not being paid to be better than Buster Posey. But what is he being paid to be?
In December 2015, the Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a contract worth an average of $16 million per season for five years. Leake, for better or worse, is a boring pitcher—he has been reliably more-or-less league average throughout his career. His signing elicited some groans from Cardinals fans hoping for David Price (or Jason Heyward, for that matter), but in 2016, FanGraphs estimated Leake was worth $20.4 million. Leake is the most expensive pitching free agent acquisition in franchise history, so it seems weird to think that the Cardinals are paying him to be average, but by the going rate for pitching, they are.
A league average-ish catcher, by the same token, has tremendous value. While one could argue that Molina’s relative value is lower to the Cardinals than to many other teams due to the presence of Carson Kelly, to forego Molina for a relative lottery ticket would have been a dangerous risk. Kelly has yet to prove himself as a Major League hitter, and even if he were to, say, follow the Yadier Molina MLB assimilation plan—come up during the final year of the incumbent’s contract and get a decent chunk of the starts before taking over the next year—he would be in just his age-25 season in 2020, making him just a year older than Hall of Fame catchers Carlton Fisk or Mike Piazza were in their rookie seasons. Extending Yadier Molina does not mean giving up on Carson Kelly, but rather allows the Cardinals to hedge their bets in case Carson Kelly turns into Jesus Montero.
Yadier Molina, as good and as beloved as he is, does not warrant a blank check. Every player has an upper limit on what a fiscally responsible team should be willing to spend on him. Had Molina demanded the Albert Pujols contract—not only the average of $25.4 million per year but also over the course of a decade—the Cardinals would have walked away from the negotiating table. This does not appear to have been the case.
It’s hard to evaluate Molina because few players are as acclaimed for non-statistical reasons. And those reasons do play a factor, albeit a hard to quantify one. But even if you were to assume that the non-statistical reasons are some kind of myth (which, mind you, while I can buy that they are exaggerated for effect, these reasons almost certainly did not pop up out of thin air), and that Yadier Molina is no more than what his WAR says he is, he is an above-average catcher who, independent of anything else, warrants being paid like one.