Yadier Molina has always been an amazing defensive catcher, but like most amazing defensive catchers, he hasn’t always been a very good hitter. In fact, for the first three years of his career, he was a pretty terrible hitter, and then he spent four years as an average-ish hitter before his breakout season last year. Well, we thought last year was his breakout season anyway. This year is Breakout 2.0, as Molina has put himself among not just the elite hitting catchers in the game, but has produced at a level that is outstanding for any position. And in the process, he’s having one of the best all-around catcher seasons in baseball history.
There have always been catchers who can hit but can’t throw, and throw but can’t hit, but there haven’t been many who have hit and thrown like Molina has this year. Below is a table of every season in Major League history where a catcher posted both a 140 wRC+ or better and threw out 45% or more of attempted base stealers.
This is only the 12th time that combination has ever been achieved, and because Bench did it four times, Molina’s only the ninth different catcher to ever pull this off. While invoking Bench’s name might seem like heresy, the reality is that Molina’s 2012 season fits perfectly into Bench’s peak.
Using the custom leaderboards here on the site, we can put all of Molina and Bench’s individual seasons together on one page, then sort as we see fit. Between them, they’ve played in 26 different seasons – Molina’s 2012 ranks 1st in BA, 2nd in OBP, 6th in SLG, 5th in wOBA, and 3rd in wRC+. While Molina can’t quite keep up with what Bench did in 1972 — it might be the best catcher season of all time — his overall performance is essentially a perfect match for any other season of Bench’s career. This year, Yadier Molina is basically performing at Johnny Bench’s normal levels during the prime of his career.
Buster Posey is probably going to win the NL MVP award, and he’s a terrific candidate. Unlike in the AL, there is no real clear cut best player, and you can make strong, valid cases for Posey, Ryan Braun, or Andrew McCutchen. However, given that we know that catcher defense is still something of a black box, and all of the evidence available points to Molina being the best defensive catcher in the game, we shouldn’t overlook Molina as a legitimate contender for the award. He’s hit a little less than the others — though, he still ranks 5th in the NL in wRC+ — and played a little less than Posey, but it’s not that much of a stretch to believe that Molina could have made up the offensive gap with his defensive performance this year.
If you just look at Batting Runs, the totals for the four NL MVP contenders are:
Molina’s 25 runs behind Braun, 18 runs behind McCutchen, and 12 runs behind Posey as a hitter. We know that it’s much tougher to find a good hitting catcher than it is to find a good hitting outfielder, so Molina and Posey get a boost from the positional adjustment, while Braun takes a bit of a hit because of where he plays. Including Batting and Position together, the list changes.
Now the gap from top to bottom is only 10 runs, with the top three in a virtual tie and Molina lagging just a bit behind. UZR likes Braun’s defense more than McCutchen’s (relative to their peers, which we’ve already adjusted for), which is why he’s the NL leader in WAR, but of course there is some variance in single season defensive data, and Braun hasn’t historically been known as much of a glove guy. But, for us, the question is more along the lines of whether we think Molina could be as many as +10 runs better defensively than the three guys ahead of him.
I see no reason why we wouldn’t consider that a possibility. The range of defensive performance at other positions over significant periods of time has proven to be about +15 to -15, and there isn’t much reason to think that catcher defense matters less than, say, third base defense. If anything, we’d probably want to default to it mattering more, since they are also interacting with the pitcher on balls not in play. And, while we’re limited to currently measuring things like blocking pitches in the dirt and controlling the running game, we know Molina is amazing at those things.
The NL has averaged one stolen base attempt per 10 innings this year, and they’ve been successful 73.5% of the time. Against Molina, the league has averaged one stolen base attempt per 16 innings and been successful just 53 percent of the time. In other words, the only guys trying to steal against Molina are those who are really good at taking second base, and he’s still gunning them down at a league best rate. Meanwhile, runners have taken off against Posey once every eight innings and have been successful 70% of the time.
Pitchers have an affect on SB/CS as well, so maybe we don’t want to lay all of the blame for team’s aggression against SF on Posey, but he’s certainly not deterring the running game in any significant way, nor is he taking advantage of all those extra opportunities to create more outs for his team. Opponents have stolen 51 more bases off Posey than off Molina, and yet he only has two additional caught stealings.
Even if you only give each catcher half credit for the bases advanced and the outs they’ve created, you’re still looking at a net of 25 fewer stolen bases for Molina. The average run value of a steal is about +0.25 runs, so again, you’re looking at a minimum of a six runs difference. If you think the credit for SB/CS should be 100%, then you’re looking at a 12 run difference. In this one area, Molina makes up almost all of the offensive gap between he and Posey.
And it’s not much of a stretch to think that he’s probably better at other parts of catcher defense that we can’t easily measure as well. While Dave Duncan got most of the credit for being the guru who turned mediocre pitchers into aces, he’s been away from the team this year and Kyle Lohse has still put together the a ridiculously great season seemingly out of nowhere. Even without Chris Carpenter, and with Jaime Garcia missing a good chunk of the summer, the Cardinals pitching staff has still been one of the better groups in baseball. Molina is part of that, even if we don’t know exactly how much of that he’s caused.
I don’t have any problem with anyone deciding that they prefer Braun, McCutchen, or Posey for the MVP. They’re all great candidates. Let’s just not ignore the fact that we essentially have a modern day Johnny Bench this year, and Yadier Molina is a pretty great candidate himself.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.