Yadier Molina is a valuable baseball player. Every game that he misses is a game in which the St. Louis Cardinals are, on average, worse than they were planning to be. The injury to his thumb comes at a lousy time, and it's threatening to futz up an otherwise fantastic season for his team.
Start with something we can all agree with. That paragraph is "milk is white, not green." There is nothing controversial about it. If you're looking for controversy, you can join the folks at Viva El Birdos in questioning whether Mike Matheny mismanaged the injury, leaving Molina in too long after it happened, but we can all agree that this stinks for the Cardinals. Replacing Molina on the active roster is Travis Tartamella, a 27-year-old with a career batting average of .197 in the minors, which makes it all sting just a little more. Tartamella's pennant-winning hit will sure be fun to write about, though.
There. I wrote something about Yadier Molina's value that wasn't controversial. The trick is to not quantify exactly how valuable he his, and you'll be ...
The Internet: Did you say something about Yadier Molina's value?
Well, I ...
The Internet: /sound of frogs screaming over each other in a car parked in direct sunlight with the windows rolled up
I'll be honest with you, I find that to be a really unpleasant sound
The Internet loves to argue about Molina's value, loudly and often. On one side, you have the True Believers, the folks who think his ability to control the running game, pitcher-whispering, framing pitches, and leading the team adds up to some sort of super player. On the other side, you have the stat-lubbers, the WAR pigs gathering in their masses, who will gladly and quickly point out that Molina has had two great years, and six or seven pretty OK ones, according to WAR, nothing more.
If Molina is unable to come back, or if his thumb can't heal enough to allow his full catching brilliance to shine through, the True Believers would react as the Nationals might if they had lost Bryce Harper just before the postseason, or Blue Jays fans would if they lost David Price. Just a punch to the kidneys when you weren't looking.
The stat-lubbers would note before you asked that, well, actually, Molina's WAR is lower than Melvin Upton's and just above Geovany Soto's. You wouldn't write a sad paean to Upton if the Padres were without him, so they don't see what the hubbub is. Now that Molina isn't cranking 20 homers and hitting .320 anymore, he's just another catcher. A valuable one, mind you, but not that valuable.
Before you pick a side, please note that there's another group. A larger, silent group that's just getting attention. I'd like to welcome you to the Yadier Molina Agnostics. Here's a pamphlet:
Wait, that's not the one. Someone's messing with ... well, anyway, I do have an opinion on this. And that opinion is that I have a horrible feeling that one day, the baseball minds of the future will look back at how we evaluated catchers, and they'll be appalled. Until that day, I will continue using the evidence at hand, but i'm also not going to call the True Believers nasty names and/or make fun of them.
Consider that among the True Believers are the Cardinals themselves. The players, the coaches, the front office. Not a single one of them is thinking, "Big deal. So we lost someone a little less valuable than Melvin Upton this year." If Molina misses a chunk of the postseason, there will be a depressing cloud of what-if hanging over the entire team. If the hyper-successful team is upset because they've lost what they believe to be a huge component of that hyper-successful team, it's probably not best to pooh-pooh it with the stat you pulled up on your phone.
Is that an appeal to authority? Heck yes, it is. But what an authority. The Cardinals haven't finished under .500 in eight years, and they think Molina is a huge part of that. I'm not going to disagree. A Cardinals partisan might say something about how Molina has been one of the most valuable players in baseball over that stretch, if not the most valuable. At which point I'll look at the stats and back up at them and back at the stats and back up at them, not sure how to respond. But it would be with squinting, not head-shaking.
Consider that the first thing I did when stumbling across a secret Internet nest of people arguing about Buster Posey vs. Molina. These arguments exist, and they're nasty. The first thing I did was go to StatCorner's catcher report to see how they stacked up on runs saved on pitch framing, then I took a spin around Baseball Prospectus, looking for the same thing. Both of those seemed to suggest that while Molina was good, Posey was better.
Except the fact that those leaderboards exist make me more of a Molina agnostic. They weren't there a couple years ago, and that's the point. There was a sea change in baseball analysis from this ...
First of all, the much-maligned stats we've been using for years to evaluate catchers--runners thrown out and passed balls, might actually quantify their defensive value. Furthermore, the relative unimportance of the running game could prompt teams to shift better offensive players to catcher without hurting the team's defense.
... to this ...
"Jorge Posada could hit like Albert Pujols and Jose Molina could hit like Jose Molina, and Molina would still be better,"
And now we care about pitch-framing. Like, a lot. The problem is that we're late. Teams were in on that idea decades ago, and they kept trying to tell us. When the Giants signed Mike Matheny to be a defensive stalwart at the expense of offense, I was so very angry. For months. One time, when I was complaining about it in the bleachers, Matheny hit a ball that went about eight inches from my skull. That might be when I started to have an open mind, but I probably came around to the importance of the catcher at the same time as the rest of you.
The Giants were right, though. Matheny was a net positive for the team, especially over the internal options. They praised his field-general abilities, pitch-calling and pitch-framing at the time, and a decade later, we can quantify just one of those.
It used to be that defensive stats were the next frontier, the impossible advance that sabermetrics had to take. Except that seems like a given now. The reason statistics work so well in baseball is that they're quantifying a one-on-one matchup most of the time. Pitcher throws, batter hits, what happened? Fielding is the same way once we have the ability to collect the data. Ball is moving, fielder is trying to chase it, what happened? The advanced tracking will be continually improved, and we (or just the teams) will know a whole lot of what we need to evaluate fielders properly.
Catching is a different. It's not just catcher vs. batter, but catcher vs. pitcher and catcher vs. umpire. It's catcher vs. the fatigue of an entire pitching staff and catcher vs. the scouting report. It's catcher vs. the pitcher who acts like a big baby when a call doesn't go his way and catcher vs. the pitcher who throws harder when he doesn't know what else to do. It's a maelstrom of different things the catcher is parsing and dissecting, and the hope is that one day someone much smarter than myself will figure out how to quantify that for the general public. We were wrong about pitch-framing. It's probably best not to get too strident and snippy about the other stuff.
Until the smart folks get better at valuing catchers? I'll default to the stats on hand. They're trusty. They've usually done me right. But if I've learned anything over the last two decades of baseball nerdery, it's that nothing makes you look dumber than dogma. The stronger your opinion about a player's value, the more likely that opinion is going to age like the music you listened to in the 7th grade. So while I'm not going to suggest that Molina is among the dozen or most valuable players in baseball, and the Cardinals are in a deathly precarious spot until he gets back, I'll listen to the pitchers and coaches who maintain otherwise and keep an open mind.
And if you think this is a rough argument, just wait until five years after Molina retires. They'll hear the frog screams from space. It will be so much fun, everyone. So much fun.
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