Earlier this week, Jon Heyman reported that the Cardinals and Yadier Molina were “getting close” on a contract extension. With Molina, 34, years seem to be as much as an issue as the dollars involved. Heyman reports that Molina was initially seeking a four-year extension, while the club countered with a two-year deal. Can they find common ground on a three-year contract?
Molina is entering the final year of his current deal, which features a mutual option for next season. He’s given the club a deadline of Opening Day to reach an agreement, though if the club offered him Russell Martin-money in mid-April, I suspect he would consider it.
Molina told MLB.com on Tuesday that the clock on extension talks is “running.” Said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak: “We understand there is a deadline. I think everyone is going to roll up their sleeves and continue to work at it.”
But is the clock running out on Molina?
On the surface, extending a player in a deal that begins with his age-35 season seems like a risky proposition, regardless of that player’s past value and emotional appeal. And conventional wisdom suggests that extending an aging catcher is particularly risky given the beating players take at the position: the foul tips, the squatting, the blocking, etc. But Dave Cameron found in 2013, after examining 30 years of aging data, that the conventional wisdom suggesting that catchers fall off a cliff (not literally) in their mid-30s is incorrect.
There simply isn’t this huge early-30s drop-off that is widely accepted as a fact of life for catchers. The existence of a huge cliff at which productive catchers simply turn into useless backups isn’t supported by the data. Like players at all other positions, catcher aging is a mostly linear downwards trend, and there just aren’t certain ages at which player performance gets exponentially worse. Skills decay over time; they don’t evaporate over night.
Here’s a portion of hard evidence that backed the claim:
|Age||Run Diff at C||Run Diff at all Positions|
|34 to 35||-28.9||-30.8|
|35 to 36||-32.5||-35.8|
|36 to 37||-35.9||-39.7|
|37 to 38||-45.0||-49.7|
At the time, Cameron was defending the Carlos Ruiz deal, which some criticized due to his age at signing. Ruiz signed a three-year, $26 million extension that began with his age-35 season, just as Molina’s likely would. And now that Ruiz has only the club option remaining, we can look back on it as a decent value for the club, as Ruiz produced 4.4 WAR during its first three years.
A year later, in 2014, I researched how catchers aged during what was believed to the be the PED era — which I defined as 1990-2004 — and compared it to prior and subsequent decades. At the time, the Pirates were considering whether to extend Martin, ultimately offering Martin, who was entering his age-32 season, a four-year deal. The Blue Jays topped it with a five-year, $82 million deal. I was intrigued by this quote from Pirates general manager Neal Huntington at the close of the season:
“We’re in an interesting era for age curves because of the skew of performance-enhancing drugs,” Huntington said. “We are trying to re-evaluate aging curves because they were taken way out of whack because of the influence of performance-enhancing drugs.”
From the piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Aging models are a tool that most, if not every, club considers when signing a player to a long-term contract, but the PED era complicates those models. Catchers of the PED era enjoyed superior production in their early 30s to those from the other time periods. As in Cameron’s study, though, age-34 to -36 catchers — from all three time periods — had similar, gentle declines.
While aging curves are one tool, each player is of course his own unique case to be studied and considered.
And Molina is different because he’s better than most of contemporaries. Since his offensive awakening in 2008, he ranks second to only Buster Posey in FanGraphs WAR (30.5) among catchers.
Molina has been a Cardinal for Life and arguably no player has been more important to their sustained run of relevance and often excellence. Since being selected in the fourth round of the 2000 draft and debuting in 2004, he’s been an elite defender and staple of the Cardinals’ lineup. His run of seven straight Gold Gloves awards was snapped last season by Buster Posey, and his run of seven straight All-Star appearances also came to an end. But Molina did receive an NL MVP vote for the fifth time in his career. Molina also enjoyed a bounce-back offensive season en route to a .307/.360/.427 slash line and 4.1 bWARP (a metric that includes catcher framing runs). He produced a 2.0 and 2.1 bWARP in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Also working in his favor is framing, which is thought to age well. Molina is an excellent receiver. While Molina threw out a career-low percentage of base-stealers last season — his caught-stealing rate of 21% is half that of his career average and a significant drop from his 41% mark from 2015 — his arm looked fine in the World Baseball Classic:
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) March 15, 2017
Of course, that doesn’t mean such an extension comes with no risk. These are the most similar players to Molina through age 33, according to Baseball Reference:
|Player||Similarity score||Age 35-38 WAR|
These are not perfect comps, of course: they’re based upon hitting statistics with a positional adjustment. They’re also not encouraging, however. Tony Pena was a backup entering his age-35 season, Jason Kendall didn’t play beyond age 36, and Terry Kennedy didn’t play beyond his age-35 season.
Let’s also consider the PECOTA comps and two-year forecasts from Baseball Prospectus, which forecasts 2.8 bWARP from Molina in 2017 and 1.7 in 2018. The top three PECOTA comparisons are Kenji Johjima, Mike Lieberthal and Paul Lo Duca. Johjima didn’t play beyond his age-33 season. Lieberthal’s last season as a starting catcher was his age-33 campaign, and Lo Duca declined from a two-win age-34 season, to a replacement-level age-35 season, to retirement after his age-36 season.
Those are not encouraging either.
But Molina does not have many comps.
Since 1960, there have been only 26 catchers to produce superior single-season WAR totals to that of Molina’s 2016. Moreover, great players have a better chance of being productive players late into their careers. Jorge Posada produced 9.4 WAR from ages 35 through 38. Carlton Fisk produced 9.2 WAR in that same window.
So an extension is not without risk for the Cardinals, but Molina might stand a better chance to age gracefully than conventional wisdom suggests. The clock is running, but sands are perhaps moving at a relaxed pace through the hour glass.