Only seven percent (18) of the 255 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame are catchers, a number that exceeds only that of third baseman (17). It’s not entirely clear why so few third baseman have made the Hall but that’s not the case when it comes to catchers. For non-pitchers, the most efficient path to Cooperstown is to excel on the offensive side of the ball and there’s little incentive for teams to put their best hitters in a position which incurs so much wear and tear. (Ouch.)
Second, and this is mostly speculation on my part, but while it’s not as specialized a skill as pitching, catching is probably the next closest thing on the diamond. Learning the ins-and-outs of that position in order to excel at the highest level likely leaves less time to focus on hitting. That’s valid, right?
I suspect there’s more to it than that though. Better baseball minds than I insist that we still aren’t capturing the totality of a good catcher’s value, and I would argue that puts catchers at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to evaluating their Hall of Fame credentials.
The above-tweet above was a blanket statement for all who wear shin guards but it’s hard to read and not immediately think of Yadier Molina. That’s always been central to the “Yadi belongs” side of the Hall of Fame debate, an argument which has raged a bit more in recent years now that his retirement likely isn’t too far down the road. And not being able to fully grasp Molina’s value rings true in an anecdotal sense, too. Even though he became the full-time catcher for the Cardinals in 2005, I don’t have a single visual memory of Yadier Molina until the top of the 9th of Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS (I swear, at the time I thought that was a lazy fly to left and I threw my hat down in disgust).
That’s partly on me – I was at a place in my life when watching nearly every single Cardinals game wasn’t an option. But it’s also because Molina was exclusively lauded for his skills behind the plate, a skill most of us knew less about 10 to 15 years ago. To wit, if pitch framing was a known thing in 2006, it certainly wasn’t as widely discussed as it is today and I wasn’t noticing it in real time. His defensive reputation was not the easiest thing for the untrained eye to appreciate but for when he blocked a would-be wild pitch or threw out a would-be thief (and to be fair, he frequently did both.)
It is no secret that Molina has always been good at these things but his reputation has been widely bolstered by the unseen.
“He does so many things that the stats don’t capture.”
“No one calls a game better than Molina.”
“Pitching whisperer, Yadier Molina.”
These are all memes that have probably been exaggerated over the years; these are also things I sort of believe to a certain degree. More on that later. First, let’s look at some of the stats that aren’t hidden.
Molina assumed the role of the Cardinals’ primary catcher in 2005, and since that time he has logged 6,707 plate appearances at that position, easily the most in all of baseball, and almost 700 more than the next name (Brian McCann) on the list. To put it in context, Kurt Suzuki is fifth and he has fewer than 5,000. This accounts for about 76 percent of all plate appearances taken by Cardinals catchers since 2005. Add in the All-Star Games (9), Gold Glove Awards (8), that he’s been with the same wildly successful franchise for his entire career and it’s easy to see why no other player encapsulates “modern day catcher” for an entire generation of baseball fans quite like Molina.
Gold Glove awards can be dubious (See: Ozuna, Marcell), All-Star Games are often popularity contests, and logging the most time at a position is a symptom of showing up to work – a commendable trait to be sure, but not necessarily the best measure of value. So let’s start with some of the more rudimentary stats like the stolen bases, passed balls and wild pitches per the examples above, as well as hitting, before moving on.
Throwing out runners
Since 2005, the Cardinals have allowed 734 stolen bases, the fewest in Major League Baseball by exactly 300 (as of July 12). That is a remarkable number. Go down the list 1-30 and you’ll find that the next widest margin between two teams is 126, which separates the Cubs at 29th and the Padres at 30th, a team who has allowed a whopping 1,639 stolen bases during this span. The Cardinals have thrown out 405, also the fewest in baseball but only because teams don’t run on the Cardinals. The 1,139 total stolen base attempts against the Cardinals is the fewest by far in the league and fewer than the total stolen bases allowed by 26 teams.
And that’s Molina’s influence. From 2005 to the present, Molina has thrown out 41 percent of those who have tried to steal. The other Cardinals catchers? Twenty-four percent. Buster Posey, Molina’s most often-cited contemporary? Thirty-four percent. Russell Martin? Thirty-one percent. Brian McCann? Twenty-five percent. The MLB average from 2005 to 2018 has mostly fluctuated between 26 percent and 29 percent. Molina’s legend can be best described as controlling the running game to the point that most are too fearful to even try him and those who do have been thrown out at a clip over 40 percent for almost 15 years.
Wild pitches and passed balls
I’m combining wild pitches and passed balls only because it’s not always easy to differentiate between the two, and while this is purely speculation, it would not surprise me if the scoring can be influenced by the reputation of the catcher. Since 2005, Cardinals catchers have allowed 112 passed balls, the second fewest in MLB behind the Brewers (91). And their pitching staff has thrown 596 wild pitches, also the second fewest in the league behind the Phillies (591). Combine the two and the Cardinals easily reign supreme throughout the league. Molina is responsible for 77 of the recorded passed balls (or 69 percent) for the Cardinals since 2005, and was behind the plate for 416 of the wild pitches (70 percent).
Personally, I find these stats very persuasive but they’re not everything. Pitchers can play a role in limiting stolen bases. And Cardinals pitchers have the second lowest ERA in the league and the third lowest FIP since 2005, and solid reasoning says that good pitchers are going to have better command, resulting in fewer passed balls and wild pitches. Certainly fair, although solid reasoning also says that the Molina pitching whisperer meme is maybe in play here, too. I dunno, but if it helps to contextualize these numbers, know that since 1995, the entire Wild Card era, Adrian Beltre and Molina are far and away the leaders in FanGraphs’ main defensive metric. Or to put it another way, there’s an argument to be made that Molina has been the most valuable defensive player in baseball during this current era.
Buster Posey will most likely glide into Cooperstown because even though he’s clocked less time at the position than Molina, he’s a much better hitter. And he will deserve it, too. Molina is no slouch though. He has possibly benefited from the current offensive era of a likely juiced ball and fewer balls put into play. (Psst, he’s not very fast.) He conformed to the fly ball revolution (Are we still saying that?) and last season he had the second highest home run total for his career (18). This season he’s on pace to surpass his career high and post his highest wRC+ since 2013.
It’s no secret that things weren’t always this way. Molina was a dreadful hitter out of the gate, something a team can accept from a catcher (there was that old La Russa quote that Molina would be the starting catcher even if he batted .000) and something Cardinals fans had been accepting for years with Tony Peña, Tom Pagnozzi, Mike Matheny, et al. But around 2009, Molina started to come into his own as a hitter which has elevated his wRC+ since 2005 to 101, or right around league average. That’s not great per se, but it’s dishonest to say he’s below-average on that side of the ball, and especially so for catchers who have averaged around a 96 wRC+ since 2005 (and approximately 94 in the NL).
The stats above are all contributing factors to Molina’s value, or his wins above replacement if we want to put a definitive number on it. WAR is a great tool for context but not always great for absolutes. I’ve often compared it to Wikipedia in that it’s a fine place to begin when researching a subject but probably a lousy place to end. Look no further than Molina who allows for WAR venue shopping if you need help with a particular narrative. I’ll show you what I mean.
Here are the three most widely used WAR metrics for Matt Carpenter, and Molina:
Pretty interesting, right? Pitchers can also have noticeable variance as some models give deference to performance independent of defense versus results, but it’s rare for position players to show this sort of fluctuation unless we’re talking about catchers. And that’s because WARP, Baseball Prospectus’ model, tries to capture a catcher’s true value through pitch framing, blocked pitches, etc., differently than the other models. In other words, when zooming in on catchers – the things alluded to in the very beginning that are not as easy to see – Molina shines.
I don’t know which of the three numbers above best describes Molina’s value. I lean toward the WARP number because I’m a homer Cardinals person, and because the depth to which Baseball Prospectus has attempted to capture the contribution of catchers seems more sophisticated than the others. But if these numbers show us anything, it’s that in 2018 we still don’t quite know how to judge a player like Molina as the above embedded tweet suggests.
To be faithful to the title, is this a Hall of Fame career? I think it is. I understand and appreciate why some disagree. Molina falls a bit short in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS model, and too often support for Molina rings of Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” reasoning.
But the Hall standard for catchers has probably always been overly harsh, and what I see is the most dependable, possibly greatest defensive catcher of this era. One who has aged well and hit for above-average at the position. And I’ve read enough about the pitchers who have a low ERA when throwing to the ball to Molina only to have a higher ERA when not; or the countless pitchers who have considered him invaluable; or the multiple strikes he’s stolen over the years, and while I recognize there are reasons to be wary of these narratives (certainly the first two), I’ve chosen to throw my hands in the air and accept them. And this says nothing of the multiple All-Star Game appearances, Gold Gloves, and postseason accolades that still matter to a segment of voters and look good on a Hall of Fame plaque.
So when the time comes, let him in. The stats support it, I think. And if they don’t, we can just fall back on this anyway: