Cardinals Catcher Yadier Molina: Comically Underrated At Age 36

Earlier this week, ESPN revealed its rankings of the Top 100 players in Major League Baseball. Four Cardinals were deemed worthy of this (ahem) esteemed honor: First baseman Paul Goldschmidt (13th),  third baseman Matt Carpenter (40th), starting pitcher Miles Mikolas (76th) and left fielder Marcell Ozuna  (96th.)

Two things immediately caught my attention here:

1. Yadier Molina is not on this list.

2. Marcell Ozuna is on this list.

Now, if you privately asked every baseball-uniform-wearing employee of the St. Louis Cardinals to choose the better player in this March of 2019 — Ozuna or Molina? — Molina would win 100 percent of the vote.

If you privately asked every suit-wearing member of the Cardinals ownership-management team to choose between Molina or Ozuna in this March of 2019, Molina would win 100 percent of the vote.

If there was a way to ask every Cardinals’ fan in the world to name the better player in this March of 2019 — Ozuna or Molina — the overwhelming response would be loud laughter, or genuine confusion, or the assumption that that the questioner was playing a prank, or just joking around … is that a clown question, bro?

Understand that Molina occupies a position that’s primarily based on raw defense, and pitch selection, and handling the psychological wants and needs of an entire pitching staff. Keep in mind that a catcher competes with his IQ — namely the scouting of opponents, the game-planning, the and the ability to out-think batters on pitch-by-pitch chess match. Keep in mind that the weakest defensive outfielder is usually stationed in left field — a position that is reserved for big bats that aren’t really being paid for their skill with the glove. (That said, Ozuna has good range as a left fielder. He also has a mediocre arm.)

Molina, the defensive specialist, had a 103 OPS+ last season … only three points lower than Ozuna’s 106. Molina out-slugged Ozuna, .436 to .433. They were separated by only three home runs — 23 for Ozuna, and 20 by Molina — even though Ozuna had 125 more plate appearances than Yadi.

And not only did Molina the defensive specialist virtually match Ozuna offensively, Molina the defensive specialist also won the ninth Gold Glove of his distinguished career. And was chosen for his ninth All-Star game. This all adds up to an obvious conclusion, at least at the World Wide Leader:  OZUNA, not Molina, is the superior player.

ESPN also picked five catchers for the Top 100 team: J.T. Realmuto, Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras, Buster Posey and Yasmani Grandal. That’s really interesting considering that:

A) Molina ranked in the top five among MLB catchers in homers and RBIs last season…

B) Was 7th among MLB catchers in slugging and in OPS…

C) Was voted into the All-Star game…

D) Caught more than 1,000 innings for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons — despite having his most private and sensitive of area bludgeoned by a high-speed foul tip that caused swelling, internal bleeding and the urgent need for emergency surgery.

E) Won yet another Gold Glove as the industry standard setter for defensive excellence.

Minor considerations, I know.

And since I’m being sarcastic here, let me add this salt: Molina probably deserves a little extra credit for … well, you know … CATCHING.  Catching more than most fellows do, and that was true again in 2018. The baseball media in our great nation evidently hasn’t noticed that Buster Posey doesn’t catch as much as he used to; over the last two seasons Posey has averaged 90.5 games started at catcher. Over the last four seasons Posey has averaged 102 starts and 889 innings at catcher … compared to Molina’s four-season average of 132 starts and 1,127 innings.

As for the five catchers tabbed for the Top 100 list …

• Molina had a better season offensively (based on OPS+) than Sanchez and Contreras and was virtually even with Posey.  (Posey 106 OPS+, Molina 103.)

• Molina outslugged Posey by 51 percentage points.

• And Molina caught 258 more innings than Posey.  And had a higher percentage of throwing out stealers than Posey.

• Grandal’s OPS+ was 17 points higher than Molina’s, but Molina had a better caught-stealing rate and won the Gold Glove.

• Molina can’t match Realmuto offensively; there was a 28-point difference in OPS+ between them last season. (Realmuto 131, Molina 103.) And Realmuto is very good defensively. ESPN got it right by ranking Realmuto at No. 28 overall. But again: Gold Glove. None of the five catchers on the Top 100 won that award in 2018. But I have no complaints over any recognition for Realmuto; I wouldn’t put Molina ahead of him right now.

Lets remember this: The Cardinals have established a high standard for pitching performance. The bullpen was minced last season, but the rotation had another strong year. Same as it ever was with Molina. Since 2005, when he succeeded Mike Matheny as the starting catcher, the Cardinals rank second in the majors to the Dodgers in ERA over the 14-year stretch.

No catcher is as astute at calling pitches and coaching up his pitchers than Molina. His pitching staff was (much better than average again in 2018. His throw-out rate (31%) on steals was above the MLB average again in 2018. He won another Gold trophy. He was selected for another All-Star Game. Among catchers that caught enough to have at least 500 plate appearances in 2018, only one drove in more runs than Molina. Only one had a higher OPS or OPS+ than Molina. Only two had a higher slugging percentage. Only two banged more home runs. And only three had a higher bWAR than Molina.

I’ve written this before, but Molina symbolizes how the media, in general, views prominent athletes in our national sports culture.

Stage One: Praise, praise, praise …  and praise, praise, praise. … more praise … and more and more praise. This athlete is THE GREATEST!

Stage Two:  So much praise, such an overflow of praise, such sizzling skillet of hot-take praise …  the same media that did all of the praising suddenly shifts and claims that the athlete is OVERRATED.

Stage Three: The media pack starts spending so much time shrieking about this overrated athlete … HE’S OVERRATED! — this previously hallowed athlete is instantly categorized as underrated …  even though nothing, or very little, has  changed about the athlete’s performance.

This is really about short attention-span media getting bored with an athlete it once lionized. You see, the cool kids get bored when it’s no longer hip to praise a enduring presence like Molina; after all he’s been praised a million times before. And layering praise on an old and familiar monument like Molina won’t get you any social-media influencer points.

So here we are.

At 36, Molina has moved into another realm of his career.

He isn’t just underrated. He is crazily and comically underrated.

Thanks for reading and have a swell weekend.