After going 4 for 5 with a home run yesterday afternoon, I suppose this is as good a time as any to take a look at another one of the Cardinals’ MVP candidates: Yadier Molina.
In terms of fWAR, Yadi ranks last among the MVP candidates, providing his team a mere 5.2 wins above replacement. Generally, I find fWAR to be a very compelling statistic because it encompasses a lot of the pertinent aspects of play, meaning that I ought to find the case for Yadier Molina as MVP to be unconvincing.
In this case, however, WAR doesn’t tell the whole story and doesn’t effectively encompass Yadier’s skills. It’s not his fault that his talents aren’t effectively captured by the wins above replacement statistic, it’s WAR’s. See, catchers are a different beast, and sabermetricians are still struggling to figure out how to make all of those “intangibles” that a catcher brings to the table tangible. WAR did it for most fielders, but it can’t quite grasp the guy behind the plate. Basically, there are still a lot of questions to answer. Questions like “how important is a catchers ability to frame pitches?” Or “how much influence does a catcher have on a pitching staff’s performance?”
While far from complete, the early studies suggest that a good catcher does a lot more for the team defensively than most thought. Perhaps someday soon there will be a way to accurately evaluate a catcher and the skills that he brings to the table, but currently there is not. All we do know is that the current wins above replacement system isn’t capturing the whole picture, so we need to dig a little bit deeper to grasp how good Yadier has been this year.
We do know that Yadi is hitting .317 right now with 12 home runs, 39 doubles, 66 RBIs, and 62 runs scored. He has, at various points of the season, held the NL batting title, and if he plays well for the next half month, he could finish the season with it. He has been very good offensively, although he doesn’t lead the NL in any single category right this moment.
Defensively, he’s caught 45 percent of potential base stealers, absolutely shutting down the running game against the Cardinals. That number leads all Major League catchers. In addition, his .997 fielding percentage is second only to Russel Martin among catchers, and third among position players. He has also logged 1014 innings behind the plate, more than any other NL catcher, in spite of a stint on the DL.
Looking at his influence on the pitching staff as best we can, Molina also boasts a 3.22 catcher’s ERA, second best in the league. That means that when he’s behind the plate, pitchers pitch well.
The most telling fact about Yadier Molina, however, is how well St. Louis’ rookie pitchers have been. Now, I don’t want to give Yadi all the credit for rookie performances, by any means. Everyone from the scouts, to the GM, to the coaches, to the players themselves have been just as involved (if not more involved) with the development of phenomenal talent. At the same time, when you have a somewhat volatile and untested rookie behind the plate, having a catcher able to bring the best out of his pitchers (and to bring them back to earth when they struggle) is crucial. And Yadi may be the best out there.
The twelve Cardinal pitchers who are rookies this year have a combined 34-21 record, with a 3.17 ERA, and 493 strikeouts in 500.1 innings. Those numbers aren’t just impressive, they’re flat-out phenomenal. Again, it’s challenging to tell how much of an influence Yadi has on how well those pitchers do, but even if it’s minute, he must be doing something right. If we’re to believe the coaches and the players, though, Molina’s influence is far from minute.
Effectively, Yadier Molina is an incredible catcher: he pumps out very good offensive production, fields his position better than anybody else, and seems to handle a pitching staff extraordinarily well. All of that before you get into the minutia of catching, like pitch framing.
So is Yadier Molina an MVP in terms of offensive statistics? No, it wouldn’t appear so. Could one make a very legitimate case for him being the Cardinals’ MVP (and perhaps the MVP of the entire league) due to his defense and skills as a backstop? Absolutely. In fact they should. If I were to start a baseball team, I’d pass on McCutchen and head straight for Molina, and that is why he’d get my MVP vote.
P.S. If you’re interested in checking out some of the sabermetrics behind catching, take a look here. If you’re interested in the strides being made regarding pitch framing in particular (and this is incredibly interesting stuff to me), check this out.