The face of defensive excellence and the face of the Cardinals’ franchise for over a decade has started to slip.
A big inning fueled by a Yadier Molina error…don't say that too often
— Ray Woodson (@RayWoodson680) September 17, 2016
We all knew this day would come. There are three things that are certain in this world: death, taxes and the slow decline of catchers after serving in the big leagues for more than 10 years. We saw it with Joe Mauer until they moved him to first and now we’re beginning to see it with 33 year old Yadier Molina. Like it or not, the face of the Cardinals has not been playing his best baseball behind the plate this year, and it’s been trending downwards for a while now. 2016 is where his defense has suffered the most. He has battled some injuries in his left hand, but since it’s his non-throwing hand those are probably inconsequential when it come to defense. We take a look into how much his defense has suffered from age and injuries over the past couple of years.
To be clear, Yadier Molina is still an excellent catcher. He hits well and by some metrics, he is still a net positive on the field, but his days of being a perennial gold glover are over. Plus, good catchers are hard to come by. He is certainly not as valuable as he was a couple years ago and I don’t see it getting better any time soon.
Take a look at Molina’s dWAR over the past four years.
dWAR is a measurement of wins above replacement using only defensive statistics. It’s a pretty good metric to show how good a player is overall. An average player (or replacement level player) would have no wins above replacement, so Molina’s defensive is still worth a win on its on. Still, Molina’s dWAR hasn’t improved by any substantial amount in the past 4 years, and thats not the only stat where he shows a downward trend. Molina also had his worst season in defensive runs saved and runs saved from stolen bases. Fan Graphs rates Molina as a below average defender while Baseball Reference puts him at slightly above average.
If you’re not into these new-fangled stats, Molina hasn’t been passing the eye test either. He has his career worst or second career worst in caught stealing percentage, wild pitches and passed balls. It’s not just this year too, all of these stats have been declining over the past few years. The most obvious metric where Molina is slipping is his arm. Check out his caught stealing percentage, one of the most important stats for a catcher.
This is the first year in his career where his caught stealing percentage has dipped below league average, and I predict it will stay there. It’s hard for a catcher who has played so many games to maintain such a superb level of defensive prowess. For the longest time, running on Molina was a surefire way to get gunned down, but over the past couple seasons it’s been getting easier and easier. Matt Heiken already wrote about the heir to Molina’s crown, and it’s almost time for the Cardinals to consider him before Molina becomes a liability defensively behind the plate.
Before diving into possible 2017 additions, we must consider some general information regarding Major League promotions. Specifically, it is important to recognize that promotions happen for a multitude of reasons, as well as at different times throughout the season. In a plain sense, a promotion can occur when a player is simply ready to take the next step.
Throughout Molina’s career, many have praised Molina’s ability to “manage a pitching staff.” Unfortunately that’s not a real stat, but the closest thing we have is pitch framing. Pitch framing is basically the catchers ability to keep the ball in the zone while catching. It’s a pretty important part of being a catcher and Molina was historically one of the best at it over his career. Statcorner.com has developed a stat called RAA that evaluates a catchers overall ability to frame pitches. I won’t get into how it works, mostly because it’s very complicated, but there is an explanation on their website. Let’s look at Molina’s RAA over the past couple of years for the Cardinals.
This is the one defensive stat that stems from Molina’s left hand injury because he needs a healthy left hand to frame pitches properly. However, the injury has made it so his pitch framing is no longer what it once was, and even if it continues to trend upwards its unlikely that it will ever reach the value it was at the peak of his career. Molina’s pitch framing and arm were probably once his greatest strengths as a catcher; however, they stand no match to father time.
No, Molina is no longer the ultimate home security system for the Cardinals. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. Molina has actually seen a second half renaissance that has given him a huge value boost offensively. This is one of Molina’s top 5 offensive seasons ever in terms of oWAR. In addition, even though he’s lost a little power he still has an OBP of .350 and an OPS+ of 103. His base running is as bad as ever but nobody was expecting him to be Barry Allen out there.
Perhaps most important of all is his postseason resume. Two world series rings, 20 series worth of playoff experience and a .707 postseason OPS is nothing to sneeze at. Molina isn’t going to be benched or cut from the postseason roster, but it may be time to consider some more rest for Molina. The more time goes on, the more Molina’s other tools will start to deteriorate too. If the Cardinals want to retain as much value from Molina as possible, he’s going to need more rest more often. There’s no doubt that wear and tear behind the dish and various injuries have hampered Molina’s performance and the time to replace him may come soon, but for now we should all enjoy his presence as team leader and cool guy.
Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire USA Today