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    Thursday, July 25, 2013

    An Early Look at Yadier Molina, His Career, and the Hall of Fame

    After the All-Star game, the dead period after the event but before season restarted led to the normal set of columns to fill the time, including the midseason awards piece. One fairly common choice for NL MVP appears to be Yadier Molina, who’s leading the National League in batting average and having a career year to follow up last year’s career year, fourth-place MVP finish season (which was itself a follow up to his at-the-time career year in 2011). I won’t be debating whether he should be the NL MVP yet; there’ll be plenty of time to do that after the season.

    What I want to do is much bigger-picture; what do Yadi’s Hall of Fame chances look like? I realize there’s still a lot to go in his career, especially if the follow-up to this MVP-esque campaign is anything close to how this one is going. But I enjoy looking towards the future, and now is as good a time to start. Think of it as “what would Yadier need to do to become a Hall of Famer?” if that’s easier to digest.

    In any case, this looks like Molina’s second straight MVP-type year, which is a good start. Multiple dominant years are good, even if you never quite win an MVP. Ultimately, though, the Hall argument will probably come down to career value.

    Let’s start with the obvious; Yadier Molina will not hit any of the “major” milestones. No catcher in history has managed 3000 hits or 500 home runs, and Yadier will not change that. For as good as he’s hitting, he’s still not a world-class hitter. He’s currently 30 and has 84 home runs, which just barely squeeze him into the top 100 catchers. He fares a little better in hits; with 1134 already, he places 60th. Now, he obviously has time to move up, and he can make some significant leaps. For example, another 500 career hits puts him all the way in 20th for catchers. There are plenty of catchers with more hits that aren’t in Cooperstown though, from the snubs like Ted Simmons to the solid-but-no-chances like Jason Kendall.

    But most catchers aren’t valued just on their offense, and if there’s ever been a catcher where that fact would apply, it would be Yadier. With five Gold Gloves and counting, the youngest Molina in the majors obviously has something of a reputation as a defensive whiz. Does he earn this reputation? Well, a quick look at Total Zone estimates his fielding thus far at 103 runs above average, 47th among all position players and fifth among catchers. Fangraphs’ defense component of Wins Above Replacement has him at 77.4 runs, sixth among full-time catchers. In both cases, the catchers above him accumulated their value in more games (with the exception of 19th century catcher Charlie Bennett on the Fangraphs ranking). But more on his defense in a bit.

    What about just straight value? Well, both versions of Wins Above Replacement are pretty close. Fangraphs has him at 27.5 WAR, while Baseball-Reference’s estimate has him at 25.1. Normally, we would say a player needs about 60-70 Wins to get in a good range for the Hall, but catching is a little weird. For whatever reason, catchers don’t seem to accumulate value like other players, in part due to playing fewer games. B-R has only one catcher in history with more than 70 (Johnny Bench), while Fangraphs has another (Ivan Rodriguez) just clearing that mark to join him; both have Gary Carter just missing at 69 and change.

    It’s worth noting that Hall voters have also not voted in as many catchers as they have other positions, which I would say is a flaw on their part. In any case, they’ve inducted twelve catchers. That’s also counting some weird choices. For example, Ted Simmons and Joe Torre were both snubbed and Mike Piazza hasn’t made it in, but Rick Farrell and Ray Schalk are both in.

    Either way, let’s put the rough benchmark at “top twelve to fifteen catcher”. For Fangraphs, that would mean you need something in the 45-48 WAR range, while Baseball-Reference puts the value at 45-46 WAR. Let’s be safe and say you need something in the neighborhood of 50 WAR, just to be really safe.

    In that case, Yadier’s probably a little behind pace given that he’s halfway there and already 30. But he has peaked a little late compared to most players. Let’s assume that he gets 2 more Wins this year (fairly reasonable, since he has around 4 WAR already), then he plays up to the rest of his contract. He’s set to make around $15 million each year through 2017 with an option for that much in 2018. With the going price of one Win Above Replacement on the open market being $5 million, that would mean he’d be a 3-win player from 2014 to 2018, or an additional 15 wins. That, with the assumed 2 wins from this year, puts him at 17 more wins, for a career total somewhere in the 40 to 42.5 range. That’s good, but still a little on the borderline.

    You can play around with the numbers from there. Another two seasons at starter level (2 wins) after that? 44-47 WAR. Another All-Star season (~5 wins) in his current contract? Another 2 WAR. Maybe he has another 6 win season, the drops a win per year each season on his current contract instead. That’s still 20 wins, putting him at 45-47 and assuming he quits right then. Basically, the longer he can keep up his current run, the better, but back of the envelope conversations say it’s not crazy to expect him to land on the Hall borderline.

    BUT, there’s a big area we aren’t discussing. Remember when I said we’d come back to his defense? You see, the overall package of catcher defense is still a rather mysterious subject. Those catcher defense numbers that I cited earlier are based on runners caught stealing and passed balls. That still leaves things like pitch calling and pitch framing out.

    Now, to be fair, none of the other catchers have that added into their totals either. However, most anecdotal accounts seem to be that Molina is pretty special in both regards. There has been work done on pitch framing at least, and Yadier rates well in that too. Not many catchers can bring his all-around game in offense and defense (both the more understood things and the not).

    In any case, it looks like he has a pretty good chance to reach the Borderline Hall status, based on the rate he’s going. Add in the fuzzier aspects of catcher defense and it could be a good reason as any to put him over the top. Although, to be fair, the line for catchers getting into the Hall is already a little too high, at least compared to other positions. But on the other hand, if the BBWAA really latches on to the “Defense Wizard narrative...

    Let’s just summarize like this: he’s much further along the road to Hall enshrinement than I (and maybe you) at first thought. There may well wind up being enough in his career to make him a no-brainer inductee, even, something that I thought was unlikely. It’ll be interesting to see how the next few years of the youngest Molina Brother's career play out.


    1. Enlightening. I would not have considered Yadier a Hall of Fame contender.

      1. I still think he's a long shot in reality, but he has a better chance than I had ever given him before I looked into it.

    2. Yadier may be a long shot, but it is more to the writers discredit than to his. Take a look at what he has done this year with a very, very young pitching staff. Until he hit the DL, the Cards were the best team in baseball despite rolling out a new rookie to start seemingly every week.

      Not that I think he should be a lock, but he's meant a lot to his team and should only need another dominant season or three to get in.