St. Louis Cardinals fans love Yadier Molina. Most fans of most teams love most of their players, so let me re-emphasize this: St. Louis Cardinals fans really love Yadier Molina. This love was different from, say, the love Cardinals fans felt towards Matt Holliday, a very good and very likable baseball player in his own right. If opposing fans mocked Holliday, Cardinals fans got annoyed. If opposing fans mocked Molina, Cardinals fans get furious.
For nearly a decade and a half, St. Louis has extolled the virtues of Yadier Molina. In his early career, when he was a poor-hitting, defense-only catcher, the Cardinals organization would claim (and Cardinals fans would echo) that Molina was such an important defensive player that his lack of offensive contribution was more than nullified. As Yadier Molina, in an Ozzie Smith-like career arc, became a decent hitter, he became perceived as a bona-fide star. As his offense became solidly above-average, if not in the upper reaches of MLB hitters, he became an MVP candidate.
Yadier Molina became something of a Rorschach test. Old-school baseball fans, particularly old-school baseball fans in St. Louis, saw Yadier Molina as a superstar not because he had the most eye-popping numbers but because he solidly passed the eye test. He received rave reviews for his ability to handle Cardinals pitching; while his quantifiable defensive contributions (notably his ability to control the base running of opponents) were universally acclaimed, there was a persistent school of thought that the now-omnipresent sabermetrics movement was missing the boat on Molina.
In the meantime, more analytically-inclined media was less charitable towards Molina. There are many examples of this, but the loudest one that comes to mind immediately for me is ESPN’s Keith Law. Law, who, in addition to writing, is a former employee of the Toronto Blue Jays, and has long stood strong on the belief that Yadier Molina is not only not a Hall of Fame-worthy player, but that he isn’t particularly close to being one. Law’s Molina Hall of Fame assessments range from moderate (“Yadier Molina has had a great career so far. He has not had a Hall of Fame career so far.”) to snippy (he has claimed the campaign is to “satisfy the BFIBs“) to completely gratuitous (the time he for some reason threw a comment about Molina’s Hall of Fame candidacy into a write-up of Carson Kelly’s prospect status).
But above all, Keith Law’s criticism of Molina’s candidacy was confident. Last July, Law noted that Molina was “about 25-30 WAR short” of any established Hall of Fame standard. The minimum total of Wins Above Replacement, the preferred sabermetric shorthand statistic, to get any significant Hall of Fame buzz is 60. As of March 19, 2019, Molina’s career Wins Above Replacement as measured by FanGraphs.com stood at 34.8. Like Keith Law said, Molina was a good player, but he wasn’t a Hall of Famer.
As of March 20, 2019, Molina’s career Wins Above Replacement as measured by FanGraphs.com stands at 53.2. On a day in which Yadier Molina did not play baseball, he gained over Colby Rasmus’s career fWAR total. Previously, Molina’s closest catching peer in career value was Smoky Burgess, who peaked at 0.5% of Hall of Fame votes received. Now, he has passed contemporaries Buster Posey and Joe Mauer on the all-time catching leaderboard, and only Ted Simmons has more career fWAR among full-time catchers who are eligible for the Hall of Fame but have not yet been inducted.
Molina wasn’t the only player whose career fWAR skyrocketed overnight–he wasn’t even the player whose career fWAR skyrocketed the most (Russell Martin and Brian McCann are now both top-ten catchers of all-time, as crazy as that may sound). But because of an adjustment to how FanGraphs calculated its Wins Above Replacement measurement, incorporating Catcher Framing (in layman’s terms, the ability of a catcher to make pitches which are balls look like strikes and thus improve the team’s run prevention), Yadier Molina has gone from a player with a passionate yet somewhat vague Hall of Fame case to one with a tangible one according to one of the leading metrics in evaluating players.
On a seasonal level, Molina is helped even more. Some lambasted those who voted for Yadier Molina for MVP in 2012 and 2013, but the revised statistics show his NL WAR ranking jumped up to second place in each year, and he was just 0.3 fWAR behind Andrew McCutchen in the latter season (I hadn’t really thought of this until Heather Simon pointed it out at Viva El Birdos).
One of the main criticisms of Wins Above Replacement is that the major calculations of it can’t even agree upon a number, and that it is an esoteric collection of data upon which supporters blindly rely. And those who like using WAR usually defend the number, ironically, on the grounds of the eye test. If you look at a WAR leaderboard, it looks basically like a list of the best players. The ten best position players by fWAR in history are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, and Stan Musial, and that…seems about right. If the calculation said the best player ever was Dwight Evans, I’d be a lot more skeptical of it, simply because it seems wrong.
The truthiness associated with WAR is what makes the stat effective as an organizational device, but its lack of consistency is a major weakness in viewing its results as permanent and infallable. A list of, say, the pitchers in baseball history with the most wins is just that. It is inarguable that Cy Young has the most wins in history. It is inarguable that Hank Aaron has the most RBI in history. These are highly flawed statistics in terms of evaluating the greatness of players, but most people aren’t advocating that either is, at least by itself, precisely correlated with overall greatness.
I believe that Keith Law is a generally smart baseball analyst who is right more times than he is wrong, and while I believe his desire to be a provocateur has informed the loudness of his Yadier Molina Isn’t A Hall Of Famer Takes, I don’t believe his overall opinion is insincere or even necessarily incorrect. I do, however, believe that the biggest flaw with WAR measurements is that it gives a false sense of confidence.
I also believe that their occasional volatility should be viewed as a strength because it shows an acceptance that advanced baseball statistics should not rest on their accomplishments, but rather should be about persistent critical review. Fielding-independent pitching (FIP) began with a good principle–that many batting results are beyond a pitcher’s control and pitchers shouldn’t be judged based on luck–but we were wise to expand upon it with more nuanced measures such as DRA or SIERA, as not every ball in play is created equal. On-base percentage plus slugging percentage is a superior snapshot of offensive prowess than batting average and RBI, but it has weaknesses–it does not properly weigh the expected runs of each batting event and it provides an unfair advantage to batters who play in offensively-friendly ballparks.
Yesterday’s fWAR adjustment proved something about Yadier Molina, but it wasn’t whether or not he’s a Hall of Famer. It proved that the story of Yadier Molina is not yet written. Twelve years before Bert Blyleven, the 7th best pitcher in MLB history according to FanGraphs, was inducted to the Hall of Fame, he received 14.1% of BBWAA votes in his second year of eligibility. 2019 inductee Edgar Martinez received 85.4% of votes this year; five years ago, he received just 25.2%. Some of this was voter attrition, but a lot of it was reprioritization. We don’t know how Yadier Molina will be perceived a decade from now, and there is no shame in acknowledging this. And the idea that the consensus opinion can be reevaluated and that we as baseball observers still have a lot to learn should be exciting to anticipate.