Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The greatness of Yadier Molina
By David Schoenfield
If you get the feeling that an accountant must have invented baseball you're probably right. With the wealth of data, we have endless information about players -- all their statistics and everything that goes into those statistics. The statistics tell the story: How we evaluate the player, what he should get paid, how many wins he's earned for his team and so on.
Then there's Yadier Molina, one player where everyone -- sabermetricians and old-school scouts alike -- agrees the statistics don't tell the whole story. We can grade his offense and we can track his ability to throw out runners, but in other areas of his game his value remains incomplete: Pitch framing (although a lot of work is being done there), pitch calling and that immeasurable confidence he seems to give his pitchers.
The Cardinals' World Series roster will include six rookies and a seventh pitcher, Joe Kelly, in his first full season in the majors. Only Lance Lynn remains from the pitching staff of the 2011 World Series champions, yet in 11 playoff games the Cardinals have allowed just 28 runs. It's a remarkable achievement, this homegrown staff, a credit to the Cardinals' scouting and player development staff.
And to Molina.
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I'm not sure if any player is more beloved in his home ballpark than Molina. Cardinals fans have watched him develop from a rookie backup catcher on the 2004 World Series team, to a starter who couldn't hit, to the best defensive catcher in the game who at least hit some singles, to a reasonable MVP candidate the past couple of seasons (he finished fourth in the voting in 2012 and could again finish in the top five). Most players hit their peak at 26 or 27; Molina turned 28 and got better. When the Series returns to St. Louis this weekend, Molina will assuredly receive the loudest ovation of any Cardinals player.
The past three seasons Molina has hit .313/.361/.481 while averaging 16 home runs and 74 RBIs. Those are good numbers for any hitter, even better for a catcher. With five Gold Glove Awards and a sixth on the way, with two World Series rings and a possible third one on the way, with his new level of offense, talk has intensified about Molina being a possible Hall of Famer.
I don't have a strong opinion on this right now. Clearly, at this point, Molina wouldn't seem close to being a Hall of Famer, not with 89 home runs, 546 RBIs and 1,183 hits. Three great years of all-around play doesn't make a Hall of Famer, but he's only 31, durable, and it's not like offense is what sells his Hall of Fame case anyway.
The question to ask: Has a player like Molina made the Hall of Fame? Interestingly, Baseball-Reference lists the player most similar to Molina as Tim McCarver, another Cardinals catcher who also won two World Series rings. McCarver was very good while young but his last good year as a starter came when he was 29, so that comparison won't hold into the future.
The catchers who played primarily after World War II to make the Hall of Fame are Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter. That's it. Five guys. All were outstanding hitters and four of the five (Berra being the exception) had strong throwing arms. Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez are next on the list and obvious Hall of Famers if not for PED rumors. Still, that's seven Hall of Fame catchers in 60 years. It's a tough position.
The bigger point there: Molina isn't really in their class. Just look at career Wins Above Replacement and how far Molina has to go to catch those guys (other than Campanella, who had a short career):
But, Cardinals fans are undoubtedly saying right now, WAR doesn't account for all those other positive things that Molina does that we mentioned above. True, it doesn't, and it's hard to figure out how much that's worth. Plus ... it doesn't account for that for the other guys either. I'm pretty sure Johnny Bench and Gary Carter knew how to call a good game and handle a pitching staff. Piazza couldn't throw but caught a lot of great pitching staffs. Yogi? Yogi was the greatest winner of all time.
So comparing Molina to other Hall of Fame catchers is a difficult proposition, even given his intangibles and whatever he may do at the plate the rest of his career.
That doesn't mean he's not a Hall of Famer. For one thing, he could finish with that label: Best defensive catcher ever. That will help. In fact, Cardinals fans may point to Ozzie Smith, regarded as the best defensive shortstop ever and not exactly Barry Bonds at the plate. He made the Hall of Fame his first year on the ballot. But Ozzie wasn't a complete zero at the plate. He drew walks and his career on-base percentage of .337 nearly matches Molina's .339. Plus, Ozzie could run and steal bases, which added value. Molina can't run at all (although he does have more career steals than Joe DiMaggio).
We can measure shortstop defense with more confidence than catcher defense and Ozzie had nine seasons of 5+ WAR; Molina has had just two. So the Ozzie comparison is a tough one as well.
The best comparison may be Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates second baseman of the late 1950s and '60s, regarded as perhaps the best ever at second base but not much of a hitter. In fact, he was less valuable at the plate than even Ozzie, never recording an OPS+ better than league average. He eventually got elected via the Veterans Committee.
Anyway, that's all well into the future. Right now, I'm going to watch this World Series and enjoy an absolute master at his craft.
And don't forget that he drove in nine runs in the 2011 World Series and hit .412 in 2006. He seems to love this stage.