Bernie on the Cardinals: The Offseason Audit Continues With a Closer Look At Yadier Molina.

It’s been a while since my last offseason audit, so let’s dive back in. Today I’ll take a look at Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. His 2019 performance. The pluses and the minuses. And we’ll have a peek at 2020.

THE OVERVIEW: Molina, 37, turns 38 on July 13. He’s on the short list of the most enduring players in the modern game, having been a fixture as the Cardinals’ starting catcher since the beginning of 2005. (Though, as you know, Yadier was actually summoned to the big leagues for 51 games in 2004.) Molina’s career achievements include nine Gold Gloves, nine All-Star games, four Platinum Gloves, and the All-Fielding Bible catcher for the 2010-2019 decade. Molina’s career 40 percent caught-stealing rate is among the best in MLB history.

In MLB history only the Yankees’ Jorge Posada caught more postseason games — and started at catcher in more postseason wins — than Molina. In fact, Molina has been the Cards’ catcher for 51 career postseason victories, the most in National League history by a player at any position. Molina’s 98 postseason appearances are the most by a player in NL history.

With Molina anchoring the defense and guiding the pitching staff the Cardinals have qualified for 10 postseasons, competed in eight NL Championship Series, won four NL pennants and captured two World Series titles.

With Molina behind the plate — calling pitches and counseling his pitchers — the Cardinals rank second in the majors for best ERA (3.82) since 2005, when he took his place as the full-time starter.

Molina ranks fifth among catchers in MLB history in Defensive Wins Above Replacement (the Baseball Reference version.) He’ll likely move into fourth place in dWAR among catchers in big-league history.

Molina continues to move up on the Cardinals’ all-time list in multiple categories. He’s fourth in franchise history (and first among catchers) in games played, fourth in doubles (379), seventh in hits (1,963) ninth in RBIs (916), 10th in extra-base hits (.542), seventh in most times on base — and needs only three homers to move past Johnny Mize and into 10th place for most career HRs as a Cardinal.

To add more details on his hits totals …

Molina needs 18 in 2020 to move ahead of Red Schoendienst and into sixth place in franchise history. By the end of the ’20 season, Molina almost certainly will take his place as one of only six men to post at least 2,000 hits while playing for the Cardinals. He’ll join Stan Musial (3,630), Lou Brock (2,713), Rogers Hornsby (2,110), Albert Pujols (2,073) and Enos Slaughter (2,064.) With 148 more hits as a Cardinal,  Molina would rise to No. 3 on the hits list in franchise history.

Now, let’s zero in on 2019…

THE GOOD: Though sidelined over two different stretches because of a strained right thumb, Molina still caught 111 games and finished seventh in MLB for most innings caught (939.1) … His throw-out rate (29%) was slightly above league average … Molina was a significant factor in molding a 3.80 staff ERA that ranked second in the NL and fifth in the majors … among the 25 MLB catchers that received at least 5,000 pitches in 2019, Molina suppressed the running game with more authority than anyone; the 23 stolen-base tries against him were the fewest attempted against the 25 catchers … Molina gave the Cardinals a big boost offensively late in the season; more on that in a couple of minutes. Side note: though Molina came up large against Atlanta in Game 4 of the NLDS, he posted a .143 average and .459 OPS for his nine postseason games in October.

THE THUMB: Hampered by the injury, Molina tried to play through the pain and was allowed to do so by team management and manager Mike Shildt. Molina went on the IL on May 29 but returned (too soon) on June 10. It was a foolish decision that set him back; until going back to the IL for a longer recovery period on July 7 Molina batted had a .267 OBP and .292 slugging percentage in 21 games (18 starts.) The Cardinals went 12-11 during this stretch, losing five in a row at one point. After giving the thumb more time to heal, Molina returned to action on Aug. 13 and was fantastic down the stretch; in 41 games and 176 plate appearances through the end of the regular season he batted .285 with a .352 OBP and .449 slug. Outstanding. And Molina could have done more offensively had the Cardinals been more careful and responsible in handling the injury when the thumb first became an issue.

THE BAD: We’ve noted the problems caused by Molina’s thumb injury. But let’s not be shameless homers here, OK? Overall Molina had one of his worst seasons offensively –and that’s more trend than aberration.

Molina’s 1.2 WAR (FanGraphs version) was his worst since 2005.
His 87 wRC+ (13 percent below league average) was his worst since 2015.
His .711 OPS was his poorest since 2007.
His adjusted OPS was 15 percent below league average and his worst since 2015.
Molina’s .399 slugging percentage was his weakest since ‘15.
His .315 OBP was 19 points less than his career rate (.334) through the 2018 season.

And then there are the other parts of Molina’s defense. There’s some debate about the merit and accuracy of advanced catching metrics, and I’m fairly neutral on the subject. I won’t argue that the metrics are foolproof and correct … nope. But I don’t dismiss them as meaningless, either.

In Molina’s case — if we capsulize all of the data for pitch framing and pitch blocking and throwing — and put it into one metric known as Fielding Runs Above Average, or FRAA … well, here’s Molina’s recent trend line:

2016: 11.7   FRAA.
2017: 6.0
2018: 1.4
2019: 0.7

And that’s similar to his trend for adjusted FRAA. In 2019 Molina had an adjusted 1.5 FRAA, which was 13th among the 25 catchers that had received a minimum of 5,000 pitches. That represented a big drop from adjusted FRAA (3.5) in 2018. As recently as 2016 his adjusted FRAA was 9.3 runs.

Projections for 2020…

1-The Steamer projection at FanGraphs has Molina with a .263 average, .311 OBP and .410 slug for 2020; based on wRC+ he’d come in at 10 percent below league average offensively … though that would be a minor improvement from 2019.

2-The projection by Baseball Reference is slightly more upbeat: 16 homers (compared to 12 forecast by Steamer) and a .728 OPS. That OPS projection is 17 points higher than the OPS forecast from Steamer.

SUMMATION: Molina is a living legend. He’s a franchise icon. He’ll be a Hall of Famer in St. Louis, and in Cooperstown. And it is impossible to fully quantify all of his value to the Cardinals — well, except for all of the winning. That said, advancing baseball age and the attrition caused by a remarkable heavy-duty work load is more or a factor now. The Cardinals need to be smarter in how they allocate Molina’s playing time instead of constantly bowing down to satisfy his wishes.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie