By Glen Sparks
Does Yadier Molina already have his ticket punched for the Hall of Fame? Has the St. Louis Cardinals catcher done enough to merit a plaque at Cooperstown?
Yadi, who will be 36 on July 13, signed a three-year, $60 million contract last spring that takes effect this year. He plans to retire when that deal is up after the 2020 season. Does Molina need to end his career on a high note? Will eight Gold Gloves and eight All-Star selections—through 2017—be enough for HOF voters?
How do experts view Molina’s chances? Bob Nightengale, baseball writer for USA Today, included Molina with Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre as stars who “don’t have to play another game and they’re in.”
ESPN senior baseball writer Buster Olney argued in a column last April that “he (Molina) should be elected into the Hall of Fame, easy.” Olney spoke to former St. Louis skipper Tony LaRussa about Molina and Cooperstown. LaRussa pointed out that the Redbirds have been one of baseball’s best teams during Molina’s tenure, winning two World Series. “LaRussa explained,” Olney wrote, “…. what distinguished the Cardinals In this time was Yadier Molina, a catcher bearing a set of skills that no other team could come close to replicating for about a decade.”
What about Molina’s throwing arm? Olney pointed out that “Molina has been a shutdown catcher.” Yadi became the Cardinals’ full-time catcher in 2005. Through 2016, the team had allowed 651 stolen bases, or nearly 300 fewer than the next stingiest team, the Arizona Diamondbacks (934). And, Molina is an expert at picking off careless baserunners. Between 2005 and 2016, he recorded 45 pickoffs. Russell Martin had the second most in that span, 19.
So, what does Olney conclude? Well, he may have written that “(Molina) should be elected into the Hall of Fame, easy.” He followed that with, “But he probably won’t be.” So, what’s the rub? “Offense,” Olney writes.
How do Molina’s offensive numbers stack up against other Hall of Fame catchers? The average enshrined catcher has a batting average of .289, plus 1,043 runs scored, 2,031 hits, 298 home runs, 1,210 RBI, and an OPS+ of 124. Going into 2018, Yadi has a .284 career batting average, plus 601 runs, 1,730 hits, 126 home runs, 785 RBI, and an OPS+ of 98.
Molina’s counting numbers were certainly helped by his 2017 campaign. He knocked 18 homers, the second-highest figure of his career. He also drove in a career-high 82 runs. Even so, he still just posted a 96 OPS+, down from his career mark. Assuming Yadi stays healthy over the next three seasons, he still should fall short of the HOF catchers’ average in most categories. He’ll probably end up with more than 2,031 hits. He has 301 to go.
Graham Womack wrote an article a couple of years ago for Sporting News. The headline might make a Yadi fan cringe –“Yadier Molina’s surprisingly weak Hall of Fame case.” The problem? Yes, once again, it’s offense. Womack looked at Molina’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement), the in-vogue stat for assessing players. The average Hall of Fame catcher has a WAR of 52.5. Molina had a WAR of 30.3 when Womack wrote his piece, 35.4 now. Three years from now, that number figures to be around 40. Will it be enough?
WAR places more emphasis on offense than defense. Yadi has a career defensive WAR of 22.1 but an offensive WAR of just 23.1. (WAR includes a positional adjustment, thus dWAR and oWAR usually do not add up to the player’s overall WAR rating.) Among Hall of Fame catchers, Ray Schalk has a comparable WAR (23.7), no one else has a lower number. (I’m not including former catchers Al Lopez, Wilbert Robinson, and Connie Mack, who earned Hall of Fame plaques more for their managerial talent than their playing ability.)
So, how does Yadi’s dWAR rank among other top catchers of all-time? He is fifth overall, behind Ivan Rodriguez (28.7), Gary Carter (25.5), Bob Boone (25.3), and Jim Sundberg (25.3). By time he retires—again, assuming he stays healthy—Molina could skip past those players. (Molina had a 1.1 dWAR in 2017, a 0.7 in 2016 and a 1.6 in 2015. If he duplicates those numbers from 2018-2020, he’ll retire with a dWAR of 25.5, tying him with HOFer Carter for second place.) It should be noted that while Rodriguez and Carter have earned spots in Cooperstown, Boone and Sundberg haven’t. (The more curious readers may be interested in Johnny Bench’s career dWAR. It is 19.3, sixth all-time among catchers.)
How does Yadi rank with the five most recent catchers elected to the Hall of Fame? We’ll go over Molina’s stats again and include a few more numbers.
Yadier Molina (2004-????), 126 HR, 785 RBI, .284, .336 on-base percentage, .403 slugging percentage, 35.4 WAR, eight Gold Gloves.
Ivan Rodriguez (1991-2011), 311 HR, 1,332 RBI, .296 Avg., .344 OBP, .464 SLG, 68.4 WAR, 13 GG
Mike Piazza: (1992-2007), 427 HR, 1,335 RBI, .308 Avg., .377 OBP, .545 SLG., 59.4 WAR, O GGs
Gary Carter: (1974-92), 324 HR, 1,225 RBI, .262 Avg., .335, OBP .439 SLG., 69.9 WAR, 3 GGs
Carlton Fisk: (1969, 1971-93), 376 HR, 1,330 RBI, .269 Avg., .341 OBP, .457 SLG., 68.3 WAR, 1 GG
Johnny Bench: (1967-83), 389 HR, 1,376 RBI, .267 Avg., .342 OBP, .476 SLG., 75.0 WAR, 10 GGs
Now, consider some other top catchers from the past few generations. All these backstops have come up short in Hall of Fame voting. Will Yadi also fall short?
Thurman Munson: (1969-79), 113, 701, .292, .346, .410, 45.9, 3 GGs
Lance Parrish: (1977-95), 324, 1,070, .252, .313. .440, .39.3., 3 GGs
Ted Simmons: (1968-88), 248, 1,389, .285, .348, .437, 50.1. O GGs
Bill Freehan: (1961, 63-78), 200, 758, .262, .340, .412, 44.7. 5 GGs
Jim Sundberg: (1974-89), 95, 624, .248, .327, .348, 40.5 6 GGs
Jim Sundberg again? Well, what about Jim Sundberg? Luis Torres wrote an article last spring for Beyond the Box Score titled “A different perspective on Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case.” Torres has some fun as he argues the merits of Molina vs. Sundberg. His conclusion? “Molina is not much different from Sundberg, and nobody pushed Sundberg’s Hall of Fame candidacy.” He adds, “I don’t doubt that Yadi’s leadership and pitching staff management were valuable, but how valuable were they? … I do not believe that Molina is a Hall of Famer right now. … The good news is that he still has time to accrue value.”
What do Redbird fans think? I’ve included a few comments from fans who wrote in after Viva el Birds (a popular Cardinals blog) published an article titled “How does Yadier Molina compare to 2017’s Hall of Fame ballot catchers?”:
ESPN has Molina going in to the hall in 2033
I think he does have an outside shot of going in, but he needs a bounce back year defensively. If he could capture 2 more gold gloves while remaining a better than average hitter, I think he will go in. However, I think it will be tough to un-seat Posey in the NL gold glove.
Nah I think he makes it in the back half of his eligibility
Yadi has such a reputation, that when you factor in the amount of innings he consistently catches, his place as the one constant of the Cardinals’ 21st century success, and the status of being the best defensive catcher of this era, I bet he makes it in around year 7 or 8.
And because I will never tire of citing Schoenfield’s ESPN article about him, this is a good spot to leave this here:
With him starting: 449-317 (.586)
Without: 94-96 (.495)
That’s a 70-game difference over less than 5 full seasons worth of games.
I think the real problem I have…
…is his peak was so short. As we currently value catchers he only had 1-2 seasons over 6 WAR and only minor MVP consideration.
Nah, his peak has been fine, you are just defining his peak based only on offense.
I realize that how to measure catcher defense and the available data are not there, and probably won’t be for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the defensive value we can’t measure doesn’t exist…just that we have a hard time placing a number on it.
It is just one opinion, but I remember Dave Cameron unequivocally answering the question, “Who is most under rated by WAR?” during a chat with, “Until we figure out how to measure catcher defense, Yadier Molina.”
Let’s go back to the “Weak Case” article for just a minute. Why? Womack offers some good news for Molina supporters. He predicts that Molina ultimately will be voted into the Hall of Fame. Yes, it may take a while. He writes: “It’s hard to describe what about Molina makes him feel like a Hall of Famer, even in spite of pedestrian offensive sabermetric stats. But there’s something about him that suggests he won’t have too many problems when he debuts on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballot for Cooperstown in eight or 10 years. It may anger some in the sabermetric or online baseball writing community, but it is what it is.”
What do I think? Well, for what it’s worth (and I don’t have a vote), I think Molina will get into the Hall of Fame. I’m not sure he is a slam-dunk, no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer, but not every candidate for induction is Willie Mays, Stan Musial, or Greg Maddux. It will certainly help Molina’s case if he can stay healthy for the next few years even as St. Louis super-prospect Carson Kelly waits for his chance. As Womack wrote, Molina simply has the feel of a Hall of Famer.
What do you think? The Yadier Molina Hall of Fame debate is a fun one. It certainly comes with lots of questions.