The MLB All-Star Game, like all professional sports’ All Star events, is basically meaningless.
That’s not to say the whole exercise isn’t a lot of fun, especially if you’re a baseball junkie. The festivities around the game – the Futures’ Game, celebrity softball, the Home Run Derby – are all varying degrees of fascinating, but no matter which way you slice it, the game means practically nothing to anyone not participating.
Still, it seems one of baseball fans’ favorite July past-times involves arguing over who should be starring in the glorified exhibition. The designation of All Star may carry mostly cosmetic significance, but the element of fan voting does bring a higher level of investment. We the people are the ones determining who we want to see, offering another avenue for our second-hand, laundry-based competition to reach irrational heights.
This year – like years past – the All-Star game brings another opportunity for baseball fandom as a whole to comment on the legacy of one Yadier Molina. His impact on the Cardinals franchise and MLB has made waves since his introduction in the mid-aughts: St. Louis fans rightly adore him; rival NL Central fans hate him, with Cincinnati and Chicago taking on the brunt of the load; and baseball media seems split on him, no doubt because his status as a potential Hall of Famer falls squarely in the crosshairs of traditional and advanced analysis.
For these reasons and more, Molina is a volatile figure amongst the modern baseball fan. He’s also, as of Monday, a 2018 National League All-Star, filling in for the injured Buster Posey. And while his candidacy is probably is helped by his sterling reputation, it’s not the godawful choice some would want to believe.
Below is a chart of the top seven catchers in the National League by fWAR this season, listed alphabetically.
(I should note, before going too far, that the Pirates’ Elias Diaz also has 1.3 fWAR in only 159 plate appearances, meaning he is actually having a better season than most on this list. I left him out for two reasons (1) Technically speaking, he’s Francisco Cervelli’s backup and, fair or not, a backup is not making the All Star Game. (2) Diaz is entering his prime, but has never had a season of positive fWAR output, so I’m going to (probably naively) assume he’s not as good as he’s showing right now.)
Willson Contreras, J.T. Realmuto and Buster Posey made up the original group of catchers on the roster. Since Posey went down with a “hip injury,” Yadier Molina was called on to take his place. The choice was met by a swell of #takes from the internet, with the vast majority falling into the ongoing “GOAT vs. OVERRATED!” debate that continually swirls around Molina’s career twilight. And as fun as those arguments can be, they don’t sufficiently address the question at hand: Should Yadier Molina be an All Star this year?
Given the predetermined meaninglessness and subjective enjoyment of the MLB All Star Game, we have to formulate an answer from a multi-faceted angle. There’s no perfect formula, but based on the way ASG rosters have always been chosen, I think there’s a quick three-prong trial we can apply to get a fair answer.
- The Numbers Test
- The Narrative Test
- The Name Test
1. The Numbers Test
This one is easy. Do the numbers justify an All Star Selection?
If we’re looking at the three catchers on the NL roster – Contreras, Molina and Realmuto – we’re looking a group that is two-thirds justified. Realmuto is putting up an MVP level campaign for the Marlins and Contreras, while not as accomplished, is the best defensive catcher in the league and swings a very capable bat. So they’re all good – though Realmuto should be starting over Contreras
But Molina? He should pretty clearly not be the choice. Not only is Francisco Cervelli – who is perpetually causing me to think, “Wait, he’s good now?” – left in the lurch despite his career-best numbers, Yasmani Grandal and Kurt Suzuki also have fair claims to the last spot before Molina. So Molina doesn’t pass the Numbers Test.
2. The Narrative Test
We’re entering trickier territory here. Because the All Star Game is just an exhibition game, Major League Baseball and its employees need to generate as much hype as they can based on the current season’s trends and storylines.
I think, once again, Realmuto and Contreras pass this test. Realmuto is in the midst of a breakout season after his years as a rising star – on a heinously awful team that is clearly tanking, no less. Contreras is part of a young Cubs core that gets a lot of (sigh, maybe deserved) national media attention, on top of the fact that he’s having his best season as well.
As for the third spot? By this measure, I’d posit Molina has as much a claim as anyone. Posey is good, as always, but he’s actually having a worse year than Molina on a mediocre team. Suzuki splits time with another catcher and Grandal… look, maybe I’m just out of the loop and Grandal is a great story, but I didn’t even know he was having a good year until I started writing this article.
Molina was one of the Cardinals’ most consistent two-way performers before he was hit with a grueling injury that made national headlines. He’s since come back from said injury and continued his best season since 2013. Cervelli also has a strong argument by this test, but is hurt by the fact he plays for a pretty bad team. We’ll say Molina qualifies.
3. The Name Test
Similar to the Narrative Test, Name calculates a player’s bonafides by how engrained he is in the collective fan consciousness. Perhaps its not the case, but this seems to be the main driver in what fills All Star Rosters. From team-wide sweeps, to injured and bad players making the team, fan opinion has been the ultimate driver no matter what quality of baseball is being put on display.
I don’t think there needs to be a lot of analysis here, mostly because Molina might be more qualified by this measure than anyone else on the list. Casual fans would be rightly forgiven for not recognizing Cervelli, Grandal or Realmuto. Suzuki is probably recognized as a journeyman, not a potential All Star. And while Contreras is a legitimate difference-maker on the field, he probably hasn’t reached the level of name recognition that Posey and Molina have.
Molina, as previously mentioned, is likely the most polarizing player on this list. His Hall of Fame qualifications are constantly in question by both fans and high profile baseball folk. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle-ground between “definitely in” and “not a chance.” Molina’s presence on the All Star roster brings that debate to a national stage for the time being, at least driving a little more internet traffic if not TV ratings.
So, if we’re going to use this triad of qualifications as an easy “All Star Worthiness” litmus, Molina passes. He’s not perfectly qualified by the numbers – though he’s certainly in the conversation – but his in-season story arc and name recognition make him a good pick. It may not be fair to players who are playing objectively better baseball, but since when has the All Star Game been about that anyway?