Not to spoil the conclusion for this edition of Cooperstown Chances, but Yadier Molina will one day have a plaque in the Hall of Fame’s hallowed gallery.
The Cardinals lifer might not get to Cooperstown in his first year on the ballot, but he has my vote, and he’ll have the votes of plenty of my BBWAA colleagues when he appears on the ballot with the rest of the class of 2028. He’s already announced that 2022 will be his final season in the bigs, and his contract for next season is already signed.
But Molina’s case is, admittedly, a bit polarizing. Today, we’re going to take an honest look at both sides. I wanted to be up front about the conclusion, though.
Talk with most anyone in the sport, and they’ll extoll his defensive virtues at length, his very real historically elite skills that have consistently helped his Cardinals win baseball games — he made his debut in 2004 and the Cardinals have finished below .500 only once in his career (six games under in 2007). You will find very few — if any — people who have competed with or against him who will say he falls short of the Cooperstown standard. Most everyone I’ve every talked with about Molina not only says he’s a Hall of Famer, but insists he is.
But numbers are tricky for catchers, more so than any other position. Baseball’s statisticians have made strides in the past few decades, as we can now look at things such as pitch-framing, but overall the metrics still fall short (as the sabermatricians will readily admit). And it’s not their fault. I mean, how can you put a number on the way a catcher calls games? On the way a catcher works with his pitchers to get the best of out them? Things of that ilk are of primary importance for the position, but good luck quantifying those elements of the game.
Of the numbers that are easily defined, Molina often lags behind other catchers. His offensive numbers, especially, are not the equal of many of the 16 catchers currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He’s not Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra, not Roy Campanella or Mike Piazza. There’s no argument there, even among those who support his induction.
I asked Cardinals manager Mike Shildt — admittedly, not an unbiased observer — during a recent pregame Zoom session what people who don’t see Molina as a no-doubt Hall of Famer are missing about him.
“First of all, we’ve got to start drug testing because there are some people, if they are doubtful of that guy going into the Hall of Fame, man, we need to maybe have an intervention,” Shildt said with a laugh. “But it’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked it.”
Let’s jump in.
The Cooperstown Case
Molina is a 10-time All-Star and a nine-time Gold Glove winner, and though both of those have an element of popularity involved in the selection process, that’s still impressive. He’s a four-time Platinum Glove award winner, given since 2011 to the player deemed the best defensive player in the league, regardless of position. Molina has a pair of high MVP finishes, coming in fourth in 2012 and third in 2013.
The esteemed Bill James created his Hall of Fame Monitor in an attempt to measure the things that are often important to Hall of Fame voters. A score of 100 is a likely Hall of Famer. Molina checks in at 169. Back in January 2019, I asked Johnny Bench, maybe the greatest catcher of all time, whether he thought Molina was Hall of Fame-worthy.
“Oh, I do. I really do,” he said. “The longevity, first of all. He’s a leader. A great catcher, a receiver, a thrower. He hasn’t ever hit for a lot of power, but he’s hit in clutch situations. The RBIs have built up.”
Though he’s never been a middle-of-the-order thumper with the bat, he does have more than 2,000 career hits and a .280 batting average, including five seasons above .300. He has 168 homers and is closing in on 1,000 career RBIs (he’s at 983). Neither 2,000 hits nor 1,000 RBIs make the foundation for a Cooperstown argument, but when they’re seen as secondary parts of a resume, that’s important.
And, as Bench alluded to, you’ll hear the “clutch” word thrown around when describing Molina’s offensive game; that’s partially because he has a career .312 average in 39 NLCS games and a .328 average in 21 World Series games. He hit .412 when the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series and hit .333 with nine RBIs as St. Louis claimed the 2011 title.
Adding to that is his .302 career batting average with runners in scoring position, contrasted with a .260 mark with the bases empty. Debate the definition of “clutch” all you want, but it’s clear that Molina has performed better during the course of his career when the moments are more important.
“The numbers can paint a picture, but they don’t paint the complete picture,” Shildt said. “His ability to navigate through a game and figure out in real time how to work with what the pitcher has that given day and how to get guys through it is really special.”
By Baseball-Reference’s defensive WAR calculation, Molina ranks 15th all time, at any position. He’s second, behind Ivan Rodriguez at catcher. In the Total Zone Runs stat, he’s 21st all time, at any position. He’s again behind only Rodriguez at catcher. He’s the active leader in caught stealing percentage (40.3 percent).
Here’s a stat that stumbled across my Twitter timeline earlier this year that really struck me.
In this story is this graphic, which makes a pretty damn good Hall of Fame case for Yadier Molina.
It plots total attempted stolen bases vs. each team since 2005, Molina’s first as the STL starting catcher.
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 9, 2021
“We don’t give up a lot of free bases,” Shildt said. “He blocks unbelievably. He makes some of the most amazing blocks you’ll ever see in big situations. Guys don’t look to run on him. He controls the game. He’s just a special, special talent and does things that really can’t be quantified.”
The Cooperstown Hesitation
That lack of quantifiability of his special talents is where Molina’s case hits a few bumps. Let’s start with the basics, the WAR/WAR7/JAWS slash line. That’s a player’s career WAR, the best seven individual years by WAR and JAWS, a system created by Jay Jaffe to help compare players over different eras. Here are the average numbers for the 16 catchers in the Hall: 53.8/34.8/44.3. Now, Molina: 41.7/28.7/.35.2.
Yep, there’s a difference. The top six catchers, as rated by WAR, were all outstanding impact hitters: Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza and Yogi Berra. As we mentioned earlier, even Molina’s most staunch proponents will not claim that he is on their level offensively. The numbers clearly back that up.
Those same proponents will tell you that, for example, the gap between Molina and Piazza defensively is oceans wide. By defensive WAR, the gap is significant, 26.5 to 1.5, but most would tell you the actual gap is much, much larger between the two.
Here’s another example: Molina has been historically durable, no doubt. He’s fourth on the list of career games caught, at 2,087. The Hall of Fame Pudges, Ivan and Carlton, are Nos. 1 and 2, and Hall of Famer Gary Carter is No. 5. But the other six guys in the top 10 are not in Cooperstown: Bob Boone (No. 3), with Jason Kendall, Tony Pena, Brad Ausmus, A.J. Pierzynski and Jim Sundberg slotting in at 6 through 10.
“I was amazed when they gave him the new three-year contract. I’m thinking, ‘Why at this age?’” I was broken down by that age,” Bench told me in 2019. “He’s such a good physical specimen and keeps himself in shape and he’s such a clutch hitter. The numbers are there.”
If you want to make a case against Molina’s spot in Cooperstown, the numbers exist, no doubt. But this isn’t just an argument of numbers vs. reputation. That would be simpler, in some ways. It’s more of an argument between an impeccable reputation and admittedly flawed numbers. Not flawed in the sense that they’re bad, but flawed because they aren’t able to measure the important responsibilities that come with the position.
So you have to rely more on reputation for Molina than a similar defense-first guy such as Omar Vizquel, because defensive numbers for shortstops paint a more complete picture than defensive numbers for catchers.
“I’m sitting here in my chair,” Shildt said, winding down his answer to my Zoom question, “and you realize how impressive he is and how much he saves you … (and) does the little things he does that will never show up on the spreadsheet.”
Here’s betting those little things will show up on a plaque in Cooperstown, though.