Yadier Molina inspires considerable debate. Debate about his importance to the the St. Louis Cardinals. Debate about his value in terms of wins, more generally. Debate about his place among the best players both of past and present.
Buster Olney himself stirred up considerable debate last week when he asserted that Molina was “the best catcher of his generation” and asked fans to vote whether they believed the Cardinals’ catcher would make the Hall of Fame. While the precise magnitude of his impact will continue to be a matter of some dispute, there’s less disagreement that Molina is both (a) a good player right now and also (b) important to the current edition of the Cardinals, even at 35 years old. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they’re about to lose Molina for at least a month after the catcher suffered a painful injury over the weekend.
Before hitting the disabled list, Molina paced all MLB catchers with 256.1 innings behind the plate this season — or nearly 20 more innings than second-place Yasmani Grandal. The Cardinals’ Gold Glover had started 29 of the team’s first 31 games. Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Molina has started 435 games at catcher and recorded 3,750 innings in that capacity, roughly 50 games and 400 innings ahead of any other backstop. Now, Molina heads to the DL for first time since 2014 — and only for the fifth time in his 15 big-league seasons.
Most of Molina’s injuries over the years have been more of the freak variety rather a product of physical deterioration. He tore thumb ligaments in 2014 while diving into third base. He fractured his had in 2005 and his wrist in 2007. He did miss a couple weeks with a sprained right knee that had been bothering him during the 2013 season, but that’s the closest thing to a chronic problem.
This injury, what has been called a “pelvic injury with traumatic hematoma,” is most definitely a freak sort, although it’s among the risks to which catchers subject themselves daily.
Here’s how it happened:
Out of respect for readers, I haven’t reproduced Molina’s entire pained reaction. Basically what happened, though, is Jordan Hicks threw the ball at 101.5 mph according to the Statcast Gamefeed. Kris Bryant deflected the pitch just enough to divert it away from Molina’s glove. The ball ricocheted into an extremely sensitive area of the male anatomy. Molina immediately fell over, was tended to, and, shortly thereafter, underwent surgery.
While it is difficult to find exact comps for this type of injury, Caleb Joseph is among those who suffered something similar. He missed a month back in 2016. For Joseph, the injury recovery was both mental and physical. To help out with the mental side of it, Joseph began using a Kevlar-made protective cup. That the injury was virtually impossible to prevent appeared to have helped Joseph.
“I had a foul tip that, you cannot defend those, they are freak accidents. If there was one thing I did or didn’t do that caused the incident, we might be looking at a different situation in terms of getting over it mentally. But it’s part of the game and you know that going into it. When you go back there, there is always a chance (of injury). So you need to go back there and be as protected as you can be to do your job.”
The good news for the Cardinals and Molina is that one month isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. Also fortunate is that Molina’s replacement is one of the better prospects in baseball, and he’s spent some time in the majors already. While Francisco Pena made the Cardinals this spring as the team’s backup catcher, he will remain in that position with Carson Kelly having been promoted to take the bulk of the reps at catcher. Kelly is a consensus top-100 prospect, ranked as high as No. 44 by Baseball Prospectus down to No. 85 here at Fangraphs. Chris Mitchell’s KATOH metric rated Kelly the second-best prospect in baseball behind only Ronald Acuna. Eric Longenhagen discussed Kelly’s bat in his review of the Cardinals prospects:
Kelly tracks pitches well and can move his barrel around the hitting zone. His swing has a bit of length but is otherwise simple and compact, allowing Kelly to make high rates of contact. That contact is usually not very strong, often on the ground and to Kelly’s pull side, which, especially when coupled with 20-grade speed, will likely dilute the way his bat plays on paper. I have it projected to a 50.
Kelly hasn’t yet hit in the majors, but he’s received only 89 plate appearances and one-third of those have come in a pinch-hitting or substitute role. He’s spent more than 100 days on an MLB roster but never had more than a week’s worth of steady playing time, so trying to assess Kelly’s offensive performance based on his MLB stats is close to worthless. In roughly a season’s worth of playing time for a catcher (495 PA) in Triple-A, Kelly has hit .276/.362/.422 with 12 homers and a not park-adjusted 108 wRC+ hitting in one of the more pitcher-friendly Pacific Coast League parks.
As for his catching, Longenhagen spoke very highly of Kelly.
Where Kelly begins to separate himself from most catching prospects is with his glove. He was drafted as a third baseman in 2012, then moved behind the plate in 2014 and picked up the finer points of catching rather quickly. He’s a good receiver, stealing strikes on the edges of the zone and just beneath it. He’s also more agile than his square, cinder-block frame suggests, and he effectively smothers errant, dirt-bound pitches. Kelly’s arm is average.
It’s certainly possible — perhaps even probable — that projections don’t pick up all of the value that Molina provides the Cardinals, but the projections don’t see the Cardinals taking a huge hit in production by replacing Molina with Kelly for just one month. Molina has been an average hitter this season and is projected about 10% below average at the plate. Before the injury, the Cardinals’ catchers were projected for 2.1 WAR the rest of the season. Giving a little over 100 of Molina’s plate appearances to Kelly — who projects to be about 20% below average with the bat — gives the Cardinals catchers a projection of 1.9 WAR.
Losing Molina for any length of time is a blow to the Cardinals, but given Kelly’s ability to back up Molina and the short time the latter is expected to miss, the consequences aren’t dire for St. Louis. This should not materially affect the Cardinals’ goal of returning to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.