ESPN honored St. Louis Cardinals long-time backstop Yadier Molina, ranking him as the third best catcher in the MLB. Did Buster Olney overrate the Cardinals catcher?
When Buster Olney released his top ten catchers Wednesday morning (ESPN Insider), I was shocked to see Yadier Molina ranked third in the MLB. While the St. Louis Cardinals icon is arguably the most accomplished active MLB catcher and likely a Hall of Famer, he is no longer a top ten catcher.
Last year, Yadier Molina ranked 9th among catchers with 2.4 fWAR. However, by Defensive Runs Above Average (Def), Molina’s 4.7 rating ranked 21st of 35 catchers with a minimum of 100 plate appearances. Additionally, on offense Molina’s 113 wRC+ ranked 8th among the same sample.
Molina’s value measured by fWAR in 2016 came primarily from his durability as he played a career high 147 games and caught a league-most 146 games. All this in his age-33 season following two years in which he struggled with thumb injuries. Thus, given his age and recent injury history, it is unlikely that Molina can be counted on to continue managing such an extreme workload.
Additionally, 2016 was an unexpected rebound season for Molina. In 2015, his 1.3 fWAR ranked only 19th of 37 catchers with 250+ PAs. Prior to his improvement in 2016, Molina’s value had decline three consecutive years.
I’ve recently examined Yadier Molina’s bounceback season to see what it means for his future. I’ll borrow the charts from that article to make a demonstration again now.
Yadier’s Defense is Declining
The trend is clear. The St. Louis Cardinals long-time backstop has been declining defensively for the last five years, as measured by FanGraphs Def or StatCorner’s Runs Above Average (RAA). While he brings intangible value through scouting and his management of the pitching staff, his tangible, physical defensive value is obviously falling.
Even Buster Olney discusses Molina’s recent defensive decline. In 2011, baserunners attempted 68 steals on Molina and were successful 35 times, a 51.5% success rate. Steal attempts against Molina declined each season until 2014 (an injury shortened season), when runners were successful 23 of 44 times, a 52.3% success rate. In 2013, base stealers were successful in 56.5% of their 46 steal attempts against Molina.
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However, runners have been getting more aggressive against Molina the past two seasons. Furthermore, and even worse, they have been increasingly successful. In 2015, baserunners stole 37 bases in 63 attempts, a 58.7% success rate. Then in 2016, they were successful 67 out of 85 attempts, an astounding 78.8% rate. His rSB (stolen base runs above average) was well below-average in 2016 at negative 6.
This is a huge cause for concern heading into 2017. While it might be argued that the pitching staff bears some responsibility for this drastic increase, it also signals that Molina likely had a worse “POP” time in 2016.
POP measures the time from when the catcher receives the ball until the ball gets to the glove of the intended fielder. It incorporates the catcher’s footwork, exchange, and arm strength. As Molina ages, he’s likely to have worse POP times.
Additionally, Olney notes that evaluates think Molina’s ability to block balls in the dirt has decreased. The stats back this up, as Molina gave up a career worst 8 passed balls in 2016 and also allowed a career worst 42 wild pitches.
While wild pitches are often blamed on the pitcher, the reality is that a great-blocking catcher can stop more balls to limit total wild pitches. Unfortunately, Molina’s passed balls and wild pitches allowed have both increase two consecutive seasons.
I recognize that Molina brings great intangible value to the St. Louis Cardinals. His ability to manage the pitching staff and scout opposing hitters is unmatched. However, his declining physical ability behind the plate is a cause for concern. While Olney’s ranking is a great achievement for Yadier Molina, the ESPN writer overrated the St. Louis Cardinals icon for 2017.
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