The St. Louis Cardinals won at least 86 games each season from 2008 through last year. They haven't made the playoffs every season, but they've been competitive every season. The one constant in those years, of course, has been All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. He's now out 8-12 weeks with a thumb injury that will require surgery.
How much will this hurt the Cardinals?
Well, the easy answer is: We don't know. Maybe the Cardinals were due to play better anyway. Maybe backup catcher Tony Cruz will play well. Maybe they'll sign A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by the Red Sox, and he'll hit for two months.
There's another way to examine this: How have the Cardinals fared in games Molina has started versus games he hasn't started? Here are the team's yearly records since 2008:
Molina starts: 62-54
Molina doesn't start: 24-22
Molina starts: 79-57
Molina doesn't start: 12-14
Molina starts: 72-58
Molina doesn't start: 14-18
Molina starts: 72-60
Molina doesn't start: 18-12
Molina starts: 76-57
Molina doesn't start: 12-17
Molina starts: 83-48
Molina doesn't start: 14-17
Molina starts: 44-38
Molina doesn't start: 6-4
Molina starts: 488-372 (.567 winning percentage)
Molina doesn't start: 100-104 (.490 winning percentage)
Still, that's a big discrepancy, and you can understand why Molina is so revered in St. Louis. He has started 130-136 games each year since the start of the 2009 season. The difference between a .567 winning percentage and a .490 winning percentage is about 10 wins over 135 games. Of course, Molina isn't missing 135 games. If he misses 10 weeks, we're talking through about a Sept. 18 return, or 60 games on St. Louis' schedule.
The difference between a .567 winning percentage and .490 over 60 games is about 4.5 wins.
Of course, the Cardinals haven't been a .567 team this year, even with Molina. They've played .537 ball when he starts. The difference between that level and .490 is three wins over 60 games.
That sounds about right to me -- anywhere from three to five wins if he misses those 10 weeks. The Cardinals may not be punished quite that much in some of the projection systems, but clearly Molina provides value that doesn't show up in all the numbers those systems can measure, things like calling pitches or pitch framing or just the confidence he gives to pitchers. We know Cruz or call-up Audry Perez won't hit like Molina (Cruz is pretty much the definition of replacement level, with a minus-0.8 WAR in his career). What's more difficult to measure is Molina's impact behind the plate.
It's a huge loss for the Cardinals, and it likely will have a big impact on what should be a tight four-team race in the NL Central. The Brewers lead the division, but many still considered the Cardinals the favorite to win it. I'm not sure that's the case now.