So you've been reminded a lot lately that Yadier Molina is still pretty awesome. By the way, have you voted for Yadi to make his 9th All-Star Game yet? Even though I think the process is pretty silly, I know I've been filling out a ballot for him every day.
Molina also made headlines recently for setting the catcher record for games played at the position with one team, demonstrating impressive durability and reliability. So the question resurfaces once again: Is Molina a Hall of Famer?
The "no way" crowd usually says something like this:
Molina's defensive credentials aren't in question, but his bat just ain't good enough. While he had a pretty good peak through 2011-2013, he has a career wRC+ of 100. And sure, he has 8 Gold Gloves and 8 All-Star appearances, he's also had 8 seasons below 100 wRC+.
Critics will also point to his weak WAR numbers when compared to the average Hall of Famer at his position:
Yadi ranks 27th in JAWS, well behind a lot of players that very few would consider Hall-worthy, like Jorge Posada and Jason Kendall. (Both fell of the ballot their first year of eligibility.)
Buster Posey has already outshined him in WAR with five less seasons and has won an MVP, something Molina hasn't done. Russell Martin ranks right behind him.
Let's look at his best seasons compared to the Gold-standard (Pudge) as well as his contemporaries. Plus I'll throw in Jim Sundberg as well for reasons I'll explain in just a second.
Doesn't make a real compelling case for Yadi, does it?
Looking for a comparable player for Molina, I came across Sundberg. He's a 6-time Gold Glove winner. He was an iron man with a stellar reputation for handling pitchers. He had some good years at the plate, and some not so good years. (Career wRC+ of 91.) While Yadi is the better hitter, they both have basically the same WAR, 7-year peak and JAWS.
Sundberg fell off the Hall of Fame ballot on his first year of eligibility in 1995, getting just one vote. Yikes.
So what does one need to believe in order to say that Molina is a Hall of Famer?
Welp, you're going to have to say that Molina's defense far outweighs his offensive shortcomings and that WAR highly underrates him. The logic would be something like this: Ozzie Smith had wRC+ of 90 but was such a ridiculously valuable fielder. And while we now have stats to back up how amazing we was, we didn't have those metrics when Smith got voted in. The writers just saw how obviously great he was. And while we have a lot of metrics about catcher defense now, there's still a lot we don't know.
And that's actually a pretty fair point.
While WAR accounts for some catcher defense, there's a lot it doesn't account for. There's a lot of components when it comes to catching and that's what makes it such a difficult position to play. This would include: controlling the running game, blocking, game-calling skills and pitch framing. Let's start with pitch framing.
First, we can't hop back in time using Pitch f/x data and look at other catchers to see how Molina compares. Furthermore, what framing data we do have is one of those stats you should take with a grain of salt. Excellent framers might add an extra win maybe two per season. From '07-'17, Yadier has been worth +150 runs above average according to StatCorner. He's usually (but not always) near the top in that category. We know that's good, but again we can't compare him to other catchers who played before we had all of our fancy toys.
We have a similar problem with blocking passed balls. We know that Yadi is great when it comes to blocking, but measuring it isn't an exact science. There's been some nifty research done using Pitch F/x in the past. And I'm sure more will be done with Statcast. Yet what we have still comes with a "take it with a grain of salt" warning. FanGraphs used to have a metric based on Pitch F/x (RPP, or Runs on Passed Pitches) from 2008-2014. Yadi was the best with +29.5 runs prevented. But again, we don't know how he'd compare to other catchers from other eras.
We know a lot about his ability to catch base stealers and pick runners off. I don't have to list off his lofty numbers when it comes to catching would-be base stealers. It's common knowledge. Molina's so respected that most teams hardly bother trying to test him. That reputation itself leads to so few attempts and that itself has some run value.
And then there's game-calling.
So yeah, we have no idea how much value he's added for sure. Game-calling is categorized as a black box of baseball metrics. Ben Lindbergh did an amazing job looking at with-Yadi and without-Yadi back about 4 years ago, but it's still all kinda mysterious since there's no comparison with other starting catchers. And it's a look at one season. And who's usually calling the pitches? How often do pitchers overrule the catcher? (Probably less with Molina) And how often does a catcher calls the right pitch and the pitcher simply executes poorly? We don't really know so it's hard to measure.
We all can easily say we're more comfortable with Molina back there than not, but it's not something we can really quanitfy.
You're also going to have to argue that Molina's own durability itself is undervalued by WAR. I can buy that to some extent. Buster Posey plays a good bit of first base. Russell Martin has played all sorts of positions. Joe Mauer moved to first a long time ago. Even the Johnny Bench himself played about 20% of his innings at other positions.
The quantity and the quality of what Molina has done probably aren't weighed heavily enough. Shoot, I can barely sit in a squat for more than a minute. That Yadi still has a pair of working knees is crazy to me.
Summing it all up, if you're pro Yadi for the Hall...
- You're going to have to say that over his career, his catcher defense plus intangibles (like leadership) makes him way underrated by WAR.
- You're also going to have to believe that the part of catcher defense that we can't measure/ is measured incorrectly adds roughly to about an extra win or two per season, maybe more.
- You're going to have to imply that most other Hall of Fame catchers can't quite say the same thing, with the exception of granting a few well-known defensive greats like Pudge or Carter.
That feels like quite a few leaps of faith for me. My rational side is skeptical, while the fan in me who wears the Molina shirsey almost every weekend is pulling for him to one day make it in. I'll just have a hard time justifying it to my friends who are not Cardinals fans.