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Is Yadier Molina really the NL’s #2 catcher?

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NL players ranked Yadier Molina behind only Buster Posey in All-Star voting. Many numbers disagree with this assessment. Who’s right?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, when the National League roster for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game was announced, the starting catcher for the NL was no surprise. San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey will start for the National League behind the plate for the third consecutive season, and with good reason: he leads Major League catchers by every major variant of Wins Above Replacement, and he has a sterling track record—he led the NL in both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference WAR in 2015 and 2016, he is the only active NL catcher to have won a Most Valuable Player award, and he helped lead the Giants to three World Series titles. And somehow, he’s still only 30.

There was no choice for the second catcher on the NL team as obvious as the choice for the first catcher, but the player who made the roster by virtue of being the second choice among the players who voted still came as a bit of a surprise—St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

That Yadier Molina signed a three-year, $60 million contract extension before the season which will keep him in St. Louis through 2020 has added a new layer of pressure to the veteran, and Carson Kelly’s strong season in AAA Memphis has created some new levels of resentment, even as he remains the most loudly beloved player on the Cardinals roster.

But despite this, Yadier Molina has still been a solid everyday catcher. He remains a workhorse defensively, leading baseball in innings caught, and his defense has improved from his lackluster 2016—he is once again throwing out a representative percentage of prospective runners (33%, instead of last year’s 21%) and he is on pace for his best season by Defensive Runs since 2014. Offensively, Molina already has the most home runs he has hit since 2013 and is on pace to surpass his home run totals from all but one season in his career. He’s even having the best base-running season of his career—the jokes here write themselves, but even so.

All of these silver linings notwithstanding, while Yadier Molina has been fine, he has not been exceptional by most measures. His wRC+ stands at 83, while his strikeout rate stands at a career high and his walk rate stands at a career low. He ranks 9th among National League catchers by fWAR and bWAR—Yadier Molina is at the exact midpoint of NL starting catchers (the Dodgers have two catchers ahead of him). On the surface, Yadier Molina should not be an All-Star, particularly on a team which includes only two catchers.

But it is worth mentioning once again that Yadier Molina was not willed into the All-Star Game by a flurry of Cardinals fans voting for their favorite player. It was not some onslaught of snarky bloggers trying to get under the skin of their pet peeve Twitter accounts. He was the second choice among his peers.

There has been a notion for some time that Cardinals fans overrate Yadier Molina. There is a grain of truth to this, in the sense that fans of just about every team overrate their own players. But it is not a unique opinion to hold Molina in high regard. Impartial national baseball writers have written extensively about the veteran catcher. ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote about his Hall of Fame worthiness in April. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale agreed. And it appears that players also regard Molina more highly than his 2017 value metrics do.

Every year, when All-Star rosters are released, arguments arise, and many of them arise from a lack of consensus about what constitutes an optimal roster. Should all-stars be determined by the best first half of that season? Should they be determined by the last few years? By career accomplishments? By expectations of current value not necessarily dictated by current statistics?

Going by first-half statistics, Yadier Molina isn’t all that close to deserving a spot. The #2 spot behind Posey could go to Cubs catcher Willson Contreras or Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, though under this criteria, I would probably opt for Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal, who is hitting well and continues to be one of baseball’s finest defensive catchers, particularly with regards to pitch framing. There are a few worthy candidates, but Molina would not be one of them.

Expanding the sample size improves Molina’s case. Since 2016, Molina ranks 5th in fWAR among current NL catchers (trailing Posey, Realmuto, Grandal, and Contreras) and 4th in bWAR (Posey, Grandal, Realmuto). Since 2015, Molina jumps Contreras but falls behind Francisco Cervelli by both measures. Since 2014, he ranks third by fWAR (Posey, Grandal) and trails only Posey by bWAR.

Once his MVP-caliber 2012 and 2013 seasons are considered, Yadier Molina is firmly a top-two NL catcher, but this logic only really works if one is to weigh 2013 results the same as 2016 or 2017 results. I could propose some formula using different weights for recency, but they would be arbitrary in nature, and it’s difficult to rationalize a way in which one’s current state is given any substantial level of priority.

One good way to balance out expectations, recency, and years of results would be to look at rest-of-season projections. By ZiPS, Molina ranks fourth in the NL. By Steamer, Molina ranks second. Using this logic, the Molina inclusion makes more sense, though again, a huge part of the equation is personal preference.

And while I won’t dismiss the possibility that there’s some kind of internal perception about Molina that is even stronger than the intangible pull towards Molina which exists among fans. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The All-Star Game is meant to be fun—after fourteen seasons in which the game, bizarrely, had a tangible effect on the World Series by granting home-field advantage to the victorious league, there is now no particular winning incentive.

While it is unlikely that Yadier Molina is actually the second-best catcher in the National League on July 7, 2017 (although it might be closer than you think), this does not stop him from being one of the two catchers you’d most want to watch play baseball, even if from a strategic perspective, Cardinals fans should probably prefer that every single NL player be on the Chicago Cubs and that the game go about fifty innings.

It may not predict future success—that Aledmys Diaz cracked the NL team last July is a pretty solid example of this—but at the moment, the players seem to want to honor Molina. Fans will have the opportunity to see the two current NL catchers most likely to reach Cooperstown. And more than anything else, the point of the All-Star Game is to watch the most interesting players possible.