Yadier Molina, Advanced Metrics, and the Hall of Fame

Yadier Molina, Advanced Metrics, and the Hall of Fame

Is Yadier Molina worthy of the Hall of Fame? Apparently, that’s a controversial question.

Yesterday, Brian Kenny asked whether St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is a future Hall of Famer. Keith Law replied with this gem of a tweet:

This is a stupid tweet, but not inherently because of its content. Rather, it’s his smug, know-it-all tone that gets to me. So I’m going to ignore Mr. Law for the rest of this article. I will, however, continue to address Brian Kennedy, because he makes some valid points.

To be honest, I’ve had this thought myself. As a die-hard Cardinals fan (who has adored Yadier Molina since childhood), it seems like an easy answer. Obviously, he’s deserving of his spot in Cooperstown. As a baseball fan who tries to look at things analytically and objectively, it’s a little bit harder to see.

Wait! Don’t close this tab yet. I promise I’m on Yadi’s side. I will get around to explaining why I think he is more than deserving despite some of my misgivings, but I do want to give the skeptics their due. They aren’t a bunch of outright morons, they just haven’t dug deep enough to understand Molina’s value.

In a lot of ways, standard metrics don’t rate him appropriately, and I think that becomes fairly obvious as you dig deeper, but a cursory glance shows a good, but not a great player. If you were, say, an average Oakland Athletics fan, you might find it hard to believe that Yadier Molina is an all-time great.

The Case Against Yadier Molina

If you look at Yadier Molina’s career stats as they stand right now, you might be underwhelmed. Offensively, he’s been alright, but far from great. His .284 batting average is pretty good, but a low walk rate leaves him with a pretty uninspiring .335 OBP. Finish that off with a slugging percentage just north of .400, and you have a player who makes decent contact, but lacks the patience or the pop to be a real offensive threat.

His wRC+ indicates exactly that, putting him at exactly league average over the course of his career. Molina has popped 139 home runs over his career, which is fine, but far from stellar — even for a catcher. The same goes for his 58 stolen bases, especially when you consider that he’s been caught 35 times. He’s slow on the base paths, grounds into too many double plays, and simply isn’t making up for those deficits in any meaningful way.

But Yadier Molina isn’t a Hall of Famer because of his bat. Everyone knows that. It’s his defense, right? Surely eight Gold Gloves and four Platinum Gloves is meaningful. They are, but we also know how biased awards can be — the most deserving don’t always win.

Molina’s 41% career caught stealing rate is phenomenal, but he actually falls outside of the top 200 all time. It’s clear that Molina has been an elite defensive catcher, but good enough to warrant entry into the Hall of Fame with a mediocre offensive resume? It’s kind of hard to see.

The final piece of the puzzle is WAR. Wins above replacement; the catch-all stat designed to sum up every aspect of a player’s performance and give us an easy way to see how good, generally, that player was. Molina’s 36.9 fWAR ranks 28th all-time among catchers. His 37.8 bWAR doesn’t fare much better.

Even if we give him some extra credit for intangible elements, it looks like Yadi’s a borderline Hall of Famer, and certainly not the surefire thing that Cardinals fans want to make him out to be. And this is where you encounter the real problem: what of the other great catchers who haven’t made the Hall of Fame?

If Jorge Posada, Bill Freehan, Jim Sundberg, and Ted Simmons have been deemed undeserving of the honor, why should Yadier Molina get in?

Defining Catcher Value

I like advanced statistics. I think WAR is a great stat. It does a surprisingly good job capturing overall value and giving us a single, overarching statistic that gives us some general notion of how good a player is.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, though. Offensively, it’s pretty solid. We can determine the value of a double or a single or a stolen base, and we can understand the cost of grounding out or getting caught stealing. These things are pretty easily quantifiable, and we can crunch the numbers for nearly every example since we started playing the game. Our sample size is huge and the results are easily measured.

Defensively, however, things get a little fuzzy. We used to use the wonderfully subjective measure of errors and fielding percentage to understand defense. That basically amounted to asking some guy whether some player should have made a play or not, and basing your analysis on what he said. Not a great system.

We’re getting better, though. Now we try to track where balls are hit and how often they get fielded in various zones. Add in StatCast data and you’ve got something pretty interesting. In fact, you have a system that does a pretty good job of judging outfielders. The bulk of their job involves running fast in the right direction, and we can figure out how fast they run and how close to the right direction they go. Infielders are a little more complicated, but we can still get reasonably close.

Catchers, however, almost never field the ball in a traditional sense. They do a bunch of other things instead, like call pitches and “control the running game” (whatever that means). Catching defense is an amorphous blob of skills that all evade easy definition.

It’s difficult to determine how much of an impact a good catcher has on base stealing attempts. How often does a shorter lead mean a player doesn’t go first-to-third or first-to-home? How many would-be stolen base attempts never happen because of a catcher’s elite arm? Hard to know.

In the same way, it’s difficult to quantify how much pitch calling effects a game. How much better are pitchers with a good catcher? Is there a tangible impact on a pitcher’s mentality — and thereby his performance — when he has a catcher he trusts? Almost impossible to tell.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress, though. For instance, we’ve learned that a great pitch framer can add over 4 wins worth of value in a season. Most WAR formulas don’t include that information yet because the exact methods for calculating pitch framing are still in their infancy.

At the end of the day, analytics have made a lot of progress in understanding what happens on a baseball field and what does or doesn’t have value, but there are still gaps, and one of the biggest ones sits right behind home plate. That’s not inherently an argument for Yadier Molina to go to the Hall (“he might be great” doesn’t cut it for me), but it does suggest that catchers in general are deserving of a deeper dive than most pitchers or position players. And that’s the case here.

The Analytical Case for Yadier Molina’s Place in the Hall of Fame

Yep. We’re finally here. As promised, here are a few of the reasons why I think Keith Law is full of it and why I think Brian Kenny should rethink his position. Yadier Molina is a deserving Hall of Famer, and it shouldn’t really be a question.

Let’s start with his offense. It’s true that Molina grades out as a league average hitter over his career, and that’s hard to argue with. But that simplifies his career in a way that isn’t reasonable. From 2004-2010, Molina wasn’t a league average hitter.

He was a substantially below average hitter, posting an 84 wRC+ along with a .268/.327/.361 slash line. Nothing about that is good. He was below average every season except one. If it weren’t for his defense, Yadier Molina wouldn’t have had a career at all.

But he did have a career, and he managed to something impressive with that career: he improved. From 2011 through today, Molina has posted a 113 wRC+ with a .295/.341/.440 slash.

He went from a season-low of a 54 wRC+ to a season high of 138 wRC+.That’s a heck of a turnaround. And the thing is that he’s still adding to it. At 35 years old, he’s hitting home runs with more authority and is still a decidedly above average bat.

It’s easy to look at Yadi’s numbers and say that he’s been a mediocre hitter, but that’s not quite true. He was an atrocious hitter who turned into a good hitter. Sure, that averages out to a middle ground, but that fails to give him any credit for the 180 he managed to swing. And he deserves some credit for it.

Defensively, there are a number of things worth noting. We’ll start with the most easily quantified. Yadier Molina has added over 15 wins through framing alone since 2008 (as far back as the stat goes). If we add that to his current WAR total, he’d wind up around 52 fWAR, just above Hall of Famers George Sisler and Enos Slaughter.

Frankly, however, framing has never been Yadi’s strongest trait. His ability to deal with the running game is much more impressive. That 41% caught stealing rate demonstrates that. But that’s only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Over 14 years, there have only been 808 stolen base attempts with Yadier Molina behind the plate. That’s first by over 100 attempts among catchers with at least 10,000 innings caught over that time span. It’s second all-time among catchers with at least 10,000 innings caught. He’s also allowed the second-fewest stolen bases by a catcher all time. The only other catcher to have the same sort of impact on the running game was Johnny Roseboro.

What does that tell us? Well, it tells us that baserunners mostly decided not to run against Yadier Molina. We can infer that the ones who did run were likely the fastest and the best. Molina still chucked them out at a 41% clip.

Sure, that’s not the best caught stealing percentage of all time, but there’s an argument to be made that Molina had a tougher job than most catchers. He didn’t get to throw out a lot of bad runners, or even mediocre runners. He had to throw out the best of the best. And he did.

Finally, it’s worth addressing Molina’s longevity. Currently, at 35 years old, Yadier Molina has caught 14,861 innings. That’s good for 13th all time. He’ll crack the top-10 before he’s done. It’s easy to see Yadi’s holes, but there have been very few catchers who have played at the level he’s playing at for as long as he has.

Not just because catcher defense is hard to understand, or because of a bunch of intangibles, but because he has been one of the greatest catchers of all time. And that’s what Cooperstown is for.

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