You’ll Never Guess Where Yadier Molina Signed by Jay Jaffe February 11, 2021 In a move that had become a foregone conclusion, on Monday Yadier Molina and the Cardinals finalized a one-year deal that returns the iconic catcher to the only team he’s ever known. The agreement caps an eventful 11-day stretch that included the return of longtime Cardinals righty Adam Wainwright, who was also a free agent, as well as the blockbuster trade that landed Nolan Arenado. While Molina’s new deal doesn’t ensure that he’ll end his career in St. Louis, it’s clear that the 38-year-old backstop is eying the finish line. Drafted out of a Puerto Rico high school by the Cardinals in the fourth round in 2000, Molina had never tested free agency before thanks to a trio of multiyear extensions, the latest of which was a three-year, $60 million deal signed in April 2017. His new contract thus represents a significant pay cut, as he’ll get $9 million for the 2021 season, with no additional incentives or options. Then again, with 1,989 games caught so far — a total that’s sixth on the all-time list — he’s not the player he once was. Molina hit a thin .262/.303/.359 with four homers in 156 PA in 2020, and walked a career low 3.8% of the time. His on-base percentage was his lowest mark since 2006, and both his slugging percentage and his 82 wRC+ were his lowest since 2015. His 84.7 mph average exit velocity was his lowest of the Statcast era; that figure placed him the fourth percentile overall, as did his 25.4% hard-hit rate. You’ll be shocked to learn — unless you’ve been following more than a decade’s worth of jokes on my Twitter account about the glacial movement of Molina and his older brothers José and Bengie — that his sprint speed finally reached the first percentile after years of… slow decline. It’s defense that’s Molina’s calling card, of course, but even that’s in decline, particularly his signature skill of pitch framing. While he’s third in FanGraphs’ version of framing runs with 147 since 2008 (the beginning of the PITCHf/x era) behind Russell Martin and Brian McCann, and fourth in Baseball Prospectus’ version (149 runs), with brother José just three runs ahead, he’s been more or less average in that department according to multiple methodologies in the past three seasons: Yadier Molina Framing Metrics, 2015-20 Year Innings FG BP SIS Statcast Avg 2015 1149.2 8.8 11.9 2 8 8 2016 1218.1 9.5 10.4 3 11 8 2017 1125.2 1.8 6.4 4 7 5 2018 1017.2 1.6 2.3 1 -4 0 2019 939.1 1.8 0.3 0 0 1 2020 337.1 1.1 2.2 0 2 1 2018-20 Per 1000 2.0 2.1 0 -1 1 FG = FanGraphs, BP = Baseball Prospectus, SIS = Sports Info Solutions (component of a version of Defensive Runs Saved that neither Baseball Reference nor FanGraphs uses) Via Statcast, which publishes breakdowns showing the percentage of called strikes in eight different segments of the shadow zone (the region bordering the strike zone), Molina remains well above average when it comes to working inner and outer edges of the plate. He’s less consistent from year to year when it comes to high and low strikes, though he had his best showing of the past six seasons when it came to snatching strikes below the zone. Though ever-increasing strikeout rates have made framing a larger part of a catcher’s job than ever before, catcher defense is more than that; there’s blocking and throwing as well as fielding the occasional bunt, pop-up, and play at the plate. Per DRS (the version used at Baseball-Reference that doesn’t include framing), he was one run above average last year, and right at average over the past three seasons, while via BP’s framing-inclusive stat, he was 2.3 runs above average last year, and 7.3 above average over the past three seasons (3.1 per 1,000 innings). Coupled with the diminishing returns from his bat — a drop from a 105 wRC+ in 2018 to 87 in ’19 and then the aforementioned 82 — that hasn’t yielded great value overall: 0.3 bWAR, 0.5 fWAR, and 0.7 WARP in 2020, with prorated three-year figures of 1.4 bWAR, 1.8 fWAR, and 2.4 WARP, respectively. Even so, when projections for Molina range from 1.0 in 414 PA (ZiPS) to 1.2 in 400 PA (BP’s PECOTA) to 1.5 WAR in 389 PA (Steamer), it’s not as though one year and $9 million constitutes a ridiculous overpay, not when James McCann brought home four years and $40 million and is projected for 0.8 to 1.3 WAR in the aforementioned systems. Sure, somebody like Jason Castro, who returned to the Astros on a two-year, $7 million deal and projects for 0.3 to 1.0 WAR in considerably less playing time, might outplay Molina, but then again he might not. There are no bad one-year deals, at least not for franchise legends who would have looked very strange in another uniform. Molina had his suitors; as I noted last week, the Angels, Mets, Padres, and Yankees were interested, but he couldn’t find a fit to his liking. Additionally, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold reported that the Phillies were prepared to court him if they couldn’t re-sign J.T. Realmuto. Molina, for his part, considered retiring if he couldn’t find the right deal. Which, inevitably, brings us to his legacy, and the possibility of reaching Cooperstown. Molina is often spoken of as a future Hall of Famer by fans and high-profile media alike, and it’s understandable given his nine Gold Gloves, nine All-Star selections, key role on two World Series winners and two other pennant winners (though he was a backup in 2004 and got just three PA as Boston swept) not to mention seven other playoff teams. His Hall of Fame Monitor score of 166 captures all of that and explains the presumption of a plaque; players in that vicinity who aren’t in are either not yet eligible (Adrián Beltré at 163), linked to PEDs (Rafael Palmeiro at 178, Mark McGwire at 170, Gary Sheffield at 158), or both (David Ortiz at 171). That said, I’ve generally regarded Molina’s case with a more skeptical eye, mainly due to his modest showing in JAWS, based on B-Ref’s version of WAR. His 40.4 career WAR and 34.6 JAWS both rank 23rd among catchers, while his 28.8 peak WAR is 24th; those rankings outdo either three or four Hall of Famers. He’s nearly 10 points below the standard (44.2) in JAWS. Again, those figures don’t account for framing, and since we know Molina is at the very least an elite framer for his era, we’re doing his case a disservice if we don’t try to account for that; as with relievers, this is a case where off-the-shelf JAWS won’t do. Two years ago, right after FanGraphs had introduced Jared Cross’ pitch framing values, I patched together a methodology to illustrate that Martin and McCann at the very least belong on the same plane as Molina. It’s worth revisiting that. Where FanGraphs’ pitch framing numbers only go back to 2008, covering the PITCHf/x and Statcast eras, Baseball Prospectus has a pre-PITCHf/x version of framing that goes back to 1988, the start of the pitch count era. As far as Hall of Famers go, those framing stats only cover the last few years of Carlton Fisk’s career, which ended in 1993, though between that version and the more recent numbers, we have the full careers of Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza covered. The former, considered by many to be the best defensive catcher ever, was not much of a framer but the latter, often derided for perceived defensive shortcomings — centered mainly around his meager 23% caught stealing rate — was an excellent framer. What I’ve done is create a FanGraphs WAR-based version of JAWS for catchers, using BP’s pre-2008 numbers and our runs-to-win converter to adjust the seasonal and career WARs for the relevant backstops. Updating the table I created two years ago: FanGraphs Framing-Inclusive JAWS for Catchers Player Career WAR FG Fram BP Fram WAR Adj fWAR fPeak fJAWS Mike Piazza 1992-2007 63.7 n/a 87.2 8.4 72.1 52.5 62.3 Ivan Rodriguez 1991-2011 69.2 2.9 -14.1 -1.5 67.7 40.0 53.9 Buster Posey 2009-2019 52.6 123.4 0.0 0.0 52.6 46.8 49.7 Joe Mauer 2004-2018 52.5 27.6 38.3 3.8 56.3 42.4 49.3 Russell Martin 2006-2019 55.2 165.7 33.7 3.3 58.5 39.8 49.1 Yadier Molina 2004-2020 54.5 147.4 30.0 2.9 57.4 39.5 48.5 Brian McCann 2005-2019 54.5 165.6 -11.3 -1.1 53.4 39.9 46.7 Jorge Posada 1995-2011 40.4 -43.9 -69.5 -6.7 33.7 29.5 31.6 FG Fram = FanGraphs framing runs for 2008-20, now included in WAR. BP Fram = framing runs from 1988-2007 via Baseball Prospectus. WAR Adj = BP framing runs converted to FanGraphs WAR. That version puts Molina within a couple points of Mauer, who via JAWS is a clear Hall of Famer, but it also illustrates how framing elevates the now-retired Martin and McCann as well as the still-active Posey, who missed a good chunk of 2019 and opted out last year but has nonetheless has packed himself quite a Hall resumé. Molina is the only other one from that group besides Mauer to reach the 2,000 hit threshold, which will almost certainly make Martin (1,416 hits) and McCann (1,590) tough sells to voters once they become eligible in 2025, and I do worry about Posey (1,380 hits through age 33), his three championships, MVP and Rookie of the Year awards notwithstanding. While we can produce a relative ranking via this methodology, we don’t really have standards to compare them to the way we do with B-Ref WAR-based JAWS, where Rodriguez ranks third, Piazza fifth, and Mauer seventh, all above the standard, while Posey, Molina, and Martin are well below. In an attempt to square the two resources to illustrate the impact of framing, I’ve created a 50-50 blend using the two versions of JAWS, giving some credit to those who excel in this area while trying to avoid unduly penalizing the players for whom we lack such data. Here’s an updated look at how that shakes out: Weighted Framing-Inclusive JAWS for Catchers Rk bRk Player Career Peak JAWS fWAR fPeak fJAWS wJAWS 1 1 Johnny Bench+ 75.2 47.2 61.2 61.2 2 2 Gary Carter+ 70.1 48.4 59.2 59.2 3 5 Mike Piazza+ 59.6 43.1 51.4 72.1 52.5 62.3 56.9 4 3 Ivan Rodriguez+ 68.7 39.8 54.3 67.7 40.0 53.9 54.1 5 4 Carlton Fisk+ 68.4 37.6 53.0 53.0 6 6 Yogi Berra+ 59.5 38.0 48.8 48.8 7 7 Joe Mauer 55.3 39.0 47.2 56.3 42.4 49.3 48.3 8 8 Bill Dickey+ 57.3 36.0 46.6 46.6 9 19 Buster Posey 41.8 36.6 39.2 52.6 46.8 49.7 44.5 Avg HOF C 53.6 34.8 44.2 44.2 10 9 Gabby Hartnett+ 56.9 31.1 44.0 44.0 11 10 Ted Simmons+ 50.3 34.8 42.6 42.6 12 11 Mickey Cochrane+ 49.1 36.0 42.6 42.6 13 24 Yadier Molina 40.4 28.8 34.6 57.4 39.5 48.5 41.5 14 12 Thurman Munson 46.0 37.0 41.5 41.5 15 27 Russell Martin 38.7 27.3 33.0 58.5 39.8 49.1 41.1 16 13 Gene Tenace 46.8 35.0 40.9 40.9 17 14 Buck Ewing+ 48.0 30.7 39.4 39.4 18 15 Bill Freehan 44.7 33.7 39.2 39.2 19 17 Wally Schang 47.9 27.6 37.8 37.8 20 32 Brian McCann 31.9 24.7 28.3 53.4 39.9 46.7 37.5 21 19 Roger Bresnahan+ 42.1 30.4 36.3 36.3 22 21 Darrell Porter 40.9 29.1 35.0 35.0 23 22 Roy Campanella+ 35.6 34.3 35.0 35.0 24 18 Jorge Posada 42.7 32.6 37.7 33.7 29.5 31.6 34.6 25 23 Jim Sundberg 40.5 28.7 34.6 34.6 28 28 Ernie Lombardi+ 39.5 25.0 32.2 32.2 31 30 Ray Schalk+ 33.0 25.6 29.3 29.3 41 41 Rick Ferrell+ 31.1 21.1 26.1 26.1 SOURCE: ttps://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/jaws_C.shtml + = Hall of Famer. bRk = Baseball-Reference JAWS ranking. Note discontinuity below No. 25 (Hall of Famers only). By including even partial credit for framing, Posey rockets past the Hall standard, and Molina at least winds up in the ballpark, at a level where the weight of more subjective factors can push a candidate over the line. He’s tied with Munson, for whom I’ve made the case in the context of the Modern Baseball Era Committee, though the latter’s candidacy — which features MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, seven All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, and two championships — is more akin to Posey’s on the traditional merits, except with a tragic end at age 32. Molina, who has over 700 more games caught than Munson, is Rodriguez Lite, reliant upon longevity and defense but with lesser offense (98 OPS+ to Rodriguez’s 106) over a lengthy career that’s still shorter by nearly 2,500 PA and 400-some games caught. Even with this cobbled-together methodology, I’m not sold enough on Molina’s candidacy that I’d include him on my ballot, but at this point, I no longer think we’re talking about one as polarizing as those of Omar Vizquel (even before the domestic abuse allegations) or Jack Morris. Vizquel, even given his longevity and collection of Gold Gloves, ranks 41st in JAWS among shortstops, four spots below the lowest-ranked Hall of Famer, Rabbit Maranville; he’s a lousy choice. Morris ranks 169th in JAWS among starting pitchers ahead of only five of the 65 enshrined. Molina, even with the framing data, would rank among the lower half of Hall of Fame catchers but nowhere near the bottom, though it’s a pity we’ll never have enough data to get a full comparison; I do wonder if there’s any signal to tease out in a WOWY comparison of pitcher strikeout and walk rates for pre-1988 catchers, but I don’t have the chops to pull that off. Long story short, I don’t see a future of pounding the table not to vote for Molina, even if he’s not my cup of tea. Back to present-day concerns, in a division where the Cubs, Reds and Pirates appear more intent on chasing mediocrity than a playoff berth, the return of Molina bolsters the Cardinals’ chances. By our current projections, both they and the Brewers look like they’ll barely clear .500; at this writing, we have St. Louis projected for 81.5 wins and Milwaukee for 81.4. I do think that given Molina’s age, a lot will depend upon the performance of his backup, whether that’s Andrew Knizner or somebody better. Knizner, a 26-year-old former seventh-round pick who only took up catching in his sophomore year at North Carolina State, rated as a 45 Future Value prospect heading into last season but also stands out as a poor receiver, both in terms of scouting grades (30 present, 35 future) and framing stats (-4.5 runs in 156 major league inning). It does not bode well when Eric Longenhagen writes a Graduation TLDR summary like this: “If Knizner could catch, he’d be an everyday player, but he’s scuffled during the fits and starts of his early big league career.” Maybe another season of Molina’s tutelage will lead to a breakthrough, but more likely, the Cardinals will need to go shopping if anything major befalls their starter. Tyler Flowers, who’s still a free agent, would make sense, but after taking a back seat to Travis d’Arnaud last year, might want a more substantial slice of playing time. In a division that looks to be a race to the middle, every edge counts, but even now, Molina’s return might be enough to help the Cardinals to another playoff appearance.