Yadier Molina was added to the NL All-Star team on Monday, replacing the injured Buster Posey, who’s been slowed by a bout of inflammation in his right hip and recently received a cortisone shot. Molina’s addition is just the first of a wave that will dull some outrage over the most obvious snubs from Sunday’s roster announcement; on the AL side, Jed Lowrie was named as Gleyber Torres‘ replacement on Tuesday. As Molina is a Star Player of a Certain Age, his ninth selection to the Midsummer Classic in a 10-year span (he missed 2016) set off another round of everybody’s favorite parlor game, Is He a Hall of Famer?. You know I can’t resist buzzing in for that one.
But first, the selection. Molina, who turns 36 on July 13, is having a pretty good season, particularly for a guy who missed a month due to [crosses legs uncomfortably] emergency groin surgery necessitated by a foul tip. He’s currently hitting 274/.317/.484 with 13 homers in 240 plate appearances, and while his on-base percentage is nothing to write home about — how is it a guy who spends half the game minding the strike zone for his pitchers can walk just 5.4% of the time? — his slugging percentage is his highest since 2012, his best offensive season. His 115 wRC+ is his highest since 2013, and it’s lifted his career mark to an even 100. Of the 23 catchers with at least 200 PA this year, that 114 wRC+ is tied for sixth overall. Both MLB leader J.T. Realmuto (149) and fourth-ranked Willson Contreras (122) are already on the NL All-Star squad, with the latter elected the starter.
While Molina’s offense is in a good place in 2018, his defense appears to be off, and not only because he’s thrown out just four out of 19 stolen-base attempts (21%, nearly half of his 41% career mark). Via FanGraphs’ version of catcher defense (which isn’t UZR), he’s 2.4 runs below average, including two below average in the stolen-base component of Defensive Runs Saved. Via the non-pitch-framing version of DRS, he’s four runs below average, while via the framing-inclusive version, he’s two below average. Via Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average, which includes framing, he’s 2.3 runs above average overall and 3.7 above in the framing component. Via our version of WAR — which, again, does not include framing — Molina’s 1.3 WAR is tied for ninth among catchers overall. Some of that is the impact of his injury; prorate all of the catchers with at least 200 PA to 600 PA and he’s a rounding error out of fifth:
Thus it’s fair to say that his selection isn’t just about 2018 performance but about his reputation and bigger-picture productivity, and as I noted in Monday’s reaction piece to the NL starting outfield of Bryce Harper, Nick Markakis, and Matt Kemp, I’m not one to sweat that.
As for Molina and the Hall, he may well become the most polarizing candidate this side of Jack Morris or Omar Vizquel, because the popular perception doesn’t jibe with the numbers. As I noted last year while at SI.com, industry heavyweights such as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, ESPN’s Buster Olney, and USA Today’s Bob Nightengale refer to Molina as a surefire Hall of Famer thanks to his defensive excellence. An admittedly unscientific Twitter poll taken by MLB Network pot-stirrer Brian Kenny, which helped to set off the latest round of this conversation, received over 19,000 responses, 73% of which favor Molina as a Hall of Famer. His score via the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, a relatively old-school metric that gives credit for awards, league leads, milestones, and postseason performance — things that historically have tended to appeal to Hall voters, at least prior to the post-strike offensive explosion and the influx of PEDs — is 140, where 100 is a likely Hall of Famer and 130 is “a virtual cinch.” Yet advanced metrics such as WAR, WARP, and JAWS leave him wanting.
Before I delve into those, the Monitor score is worth a closer look because it’s a good way of laying Molina’s basics on the table. Each All-Star selection is actually worth three points by James’ system, so Molina’s score is about to rise to 143. In addition to his nine All-Star appearances, he’s won eight Gold Gloves, more than any catcher besides Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10). He’s been part of nine playoff teams, including seven division winners, four pennant winners, and two World Series winners, though in 2004, when the Cardinals lost to the Red Sox in the World Series, he wasn’t the regular. (The Monitor awards points only for the regulars on such teams, with more credit to the tougher defensive positions like catcher and shortstop.) He’s a career .284/.335/.406 hitter, which again only comes to a 100 wRC+ (or a 99 OPS+), but for the Monitor, a .275 batting average for a player with at least 1,500 games played at catcher, shortstop, or second base is worth a hefty 15 points. Molina, with 1,774 games caught (15th all-time), not only checks that box, he gets a whopping 45 points for that total via the system, and he will gain another 15 when he gets to 1,800, pushing his score to 158 within the next month or so.
Among catchers, only Yogi Berra (227), Rodriguez (226), Bench (214), Mike Piazza (207), and Bill Dickey (178) outpace him, and he’s recently surpassed Mickey Cochrane (137), Gary Carter (135), and Ernie Lombardi (133). The highest catcher outside the Hall is Ted Simmons (125), whom I spotlighted in The Cooperstown Casebook.
Not captured by the Monitor but also worth noting: Molina has won four Platinum Glove awards, given by Rawlings to the best defensive player in each league since 2011. He’s also won six of the 10 Fielding Bible awards at catcher, given to one player at each position per year (not per league). Suffice it to say that, when it comes to reputation, he’s got defense for days.
As for what JAWS and the Baseball-Reference version of WAR upon which it’s based have to say, Molina’s modest total of 37.8 career wins (1.1 more than in the FanGraphs version) ranks 26th all-time. By B-Ref’s combination of Total Zone and DRS for defense, his 123 runs above average ranks third all time, behind Rodriguez (147) and 19th-century catcher Charlie Bennett. Using B-Ref’s numbers, the problem for Molina relative to Rodriguez is a gap of 86 runs with the bat (+74 for Ivan, -12 for Yadi) and 31 runs on the bases (-2 to -33); they’re virtually even in double-play (non-)avoidance (-22 to -21). That’s 116 runs in those three areas, a gap about half that of the chasm between Vizquel and Ozzie Smith, but a substantial one nonetheless.
It’s just over half that of Bench’s 75.2 mark. (Somewhere I can hear Sparky Anderson’s immortal line about Thurman Munson after the Reds’ 1976 World Series sweep of the Yankees: “[D]on’t ever compare anybody to Johnny Bench, don’t never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Johnny Bench.”) That 37.8 WAR is well below the Hall standard, the average of the 15 enshrined catchers being 53.5. Molina’s WAR outranks just three of the 15 honorees, namely Ray Schalk (28.6), Rick Ferrell (29.8), and Roy Campanella (34.1), the last of whom had his career curtailed on the front end by the color line and on the back end by the car wreck that paralyzed him. (Don’t ever compare anybody to Roy Campanella, either.) Among active players, Joe Mauer (54.3) and Buster Posey (40.4) are well ahead of Molina; Russell Martin (36.6) isn’t far behind, and Brian McCann (27.9) is at the edge of the picture.
Molina’s not done yet; he’s signed through 2020 and may well want to play past that. I asked our newest addition to the FanGraphs staff, Dan Szymborski, to train his ZiPS gun onto Molina through his age-40 season (2023); his version of WAR is somewhere in between the B-Ref and FanGraphs versions, but on the same scale, so it’s useful here. Including this year’s rest-of-season projection (1.2 WAR) and his next five years (7.7 WAR), it would push Molina to 46.7, which would surpass Munson (who deserves more love from the Era Committee voters), though Posey will also surpass both. Even that revised ranking adds only Roger Bresnahan (40.9) and Lombardi (45.9) to the list of Hall of Famers below him.
Molina’s 28.6 peak WAR (his best seven seasons at large) is closer to the Hall standard (34.5) but still significantly below it, ranking 25th all-time and ahead of just Lombardi (27.8), Schalk (22.1), and Ferrell (19.9) among enshrined catchers. His ZiPS projection has no impact on that peak score. His 33.2 JAWS (the average of his career and peak WAR) ranks 27th, a hair behind Campy (33.5), outdoing only Schalk (25.3) and Ferrell (24.8), the pair whose plaques I put in “The Basement” in the Casebook. Including the ZiPS projection would push him to a JAWS of 37.8, 17th all time, but again, short of the standard (44.0) and ahead of only five of the 15 enshrined. Here’s a leaderboard that includes that projection as well as those for the other active players up through 2023, the age-40 season for Molina and Martin, and the age-36 season for Posey. The projections for McCann and Mauer are cut off after 2022, their age-39 seasons and their first below replacement level:
|Avg HOF C||53.5||34.5||44.0|
* = active (statistics through July 10)
+ = Hall of Famer
If Molina’s case were as open and shut as that, I wouldn’t be bothering with this column, but JAWS isn’t intended to be a binary yes/no system that ends the discussion. We all know that WAR doesn’t capture every facet of catcher defense, including pitch-framing, which is both an area in which Molina excels and an increasingly important one for catchers, in general. Both stolen bases and balls in play are less common than in past eras, so a greater proportion of a catcher’s job involves stealing strikes at the edges of the zone.
Baseball Prospectus’ data includes not only Framing Runs Above Average for the PITCHf/x and Statcast eras but also numbers dating to the dawn of the pitch count era, from 1988 onward, for what Max Marchi called RetroFraming in 2013. The pre-f/x numbers are based on the percentage of strikes on pitches not swung at while controlling for the presences of the pitcher, catcher, umpire, and batter via a cross-classified multi-level mixed model (“With or Without You,” in sabermetric circles), and it turns out that Mike Piazza, who was otherwise much-maligned for his defense during his playing career, was especially good at it (87 runs above average), but that Rodriguez, an otherwise elite defender, was not (-4 runs). Molina is 178 runs above average for his career in this critical area, though still looking up at his older brother, Jose Molina, whose skill in this area was highlighted by Mike Fast’s 2011 efforts to quantify it. Thanks to BP’s Jonathan Judge and Rob McQuown, here’s the current career leaderboard:
BP has incorporated Framing Runs into its WARP calculations, but those are only applicable to catchers from the post-1988 period, and WARP totals only go as far back as 1949. Thus, only seven of the 15 enshrined catchers have any WARP data, only five have it for their entire careers, and only the last two inducted (Piazza and Pudge) have framing data for the entirety of their run. Here’s a leaderboard with the lack of coverage highlighted:
|#||NAME||FRAA||Framing||Career WARP||Peak WARP||JAWS WARP|
Yellow highlight indicates incomplete data (framing available only since 1988, WARP only since 1949)
* = active (statistics through July 10)
+ = Hall of Famer as player (Torre elected as manager)
For what it’s worth, PECOTA projects an additional 0.6 WARP this year for Molina and 6.3 WARP through his age-40 season (2023), which together would push him to 60.4, past Rodriguez. If we’re projecting him in those rankings, however, we also need to project the next five years for Martin (an additional 7.0, to 64.7), McCann (an additional 3.4 to 60.3), Posey (26.6 to a chart-topping 82.2, and that’s just through his age-36 season), and Mauer (+0.1 through 2021, his age-38 season and his first season below replacement level).
Even with incomplete framing data, Molina would still trail four of the five enshrined catchers with full WARP coverage. That quintet, which also happens to be the top five in JAWS, averages 69.0 WARP for their careers and 42.8 WARP for their seven-year peaks (Piazza at 55.9 is the high, but as we don’t have framing data for Bench, that has to come with an asterisk) and 55.9 for a WARP-based JAWS, with Future Yadi at 60.4/38.7/49.6, ahead of only Rodriguez.
In other words, Molina is 6.3 points below this top-tier standard in a system that includes both projections and some (but not all) framing from among the elite catchers. Turning back to the ZiPS projections and that same top five in bWAR, the quintet averages 55.8 JAWS, and Future Yadi comes in at 37.8, a gap of 18 points. Even in an incomplete analysis, framing makes a huge difference in Molina’s historical standing.
Alas, we’ll never have framing numbers for pre-1988 catchers because of the lack of pitch-by-pitch data — and, in part, because Marchi was snapped up by a team shortly after he published his results, we still haven’t gotten an updated attempt at his 2012 pitcher handling study, which was designed to measure the overall effect a catcher has on his batterymates in terms of run prevention. For that one, Marchi measured the expected-versus-actual run value for each plate appearance based on pitcher, hitter, handedness, ballpark, and defense in another WOWY model that went back to 1948. Via his publicly released data, Piazza was fourth at 205 runs saved, Fisk fifth at 191, and brother Jose Molina ninth at 150, with Campanella (123), Carter (94), Berra (57, despite lacking data for his first two seasons), Rodriguez (40), and Bench (2) further down. Yadier Molina, by this method, came in at 10 runs saved, but that’s without 2012-18 numbers, so we’re missing part of his prime. I don’t think we can fairly do much with that.
Regardless of metric, measuring Molina against the top five catchers of all time rather than the Hall average is grading him on a steeper curve than I generally use. The framing data does make his a much more compelling case, but by the same token, it appears that Posey could raise the bar by the time it’s all said and done and that both Martin (a nine-time postseason participant with three All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove) and McCann (a six-time postseason participant with four All-Star appearances but no Gold Gloves) deserve framing-inclusive consideration, as well, even if their more traditional merits don’t shine in the same light as Molina’s.
If he can stick around and be productive — no small task, particularly on a team that’s no longer a perennial postseason lock — I do think that Molina will have a stronger showing on the ballot than he does in “traditional” JAWS, with a path towards eventual enshrinement. And as with 2018 inductees Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero, neither of whom meet the JAWS standards but both of whom fared much better in front of the voters, I think we’ll all survive if that happens.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.