Earlier this week, venerable Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina announced that -- after signing a one-year extension with the Cardinals -- 2022 would be his final season. Once his farewell tour ends, it will bring to an end a 19-year career all with the Cardinals. It's a career that includes 10 All-Star Games, nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, two World Series titles and plenty of adulation from the St. Louis area and beyond.
Once Molina has been retired for five years, he'll be on the Hall of Fame ballot. His case is a perplexing one at the intersection of numbers and the so-called intangibles.
In JAWS, Molina ranks 22nd all-time among catchers, well below the average Hall of Fame catcher and trailing contemporary players like Jason Kendall and Jorge Posada. Joe Mauer is seventh and Buster Posey is 14th (and counting). Gene Tenace and Bill Freehan are among other non-HOF types rating well ahead of Molina here. If we go strictly by WAR, Molina is 20th and still well below the average Hall of Fame catcher, sitting the ballpark of Kendall and Posada.
Longevity has to count for something, though, and Molina's racked up some impressive counting stats, given his position. His 2,090 career hits are 10th among catchers, sitting above the likes of Johnny Bench, Bill Dickey and Gabby Hartnett. His 397 doubles are seventh and he has a shot to get to third (Mauer is currently third with 428). With 983 RBI, he's 17 away from becoming the 15th catcher to get to 1,000.
Only 12 catchers have been to more All-Star Games.
Is all of this on the offensive side enough to overcome the career .280/.331/.403 slash, which is a 97 OPS+ (three percent below the league average of on-base percentage and slugging percentage combined).
Some would say no. WAR, which is the main component in JAWS, also includes defense and, again, Molina sits pretty well below the Hall of Fame average there.
Now, legions of people will be quick to note that we need to consider his postseason accomplishments. OK, let's do that. He's a career .280/.333/.366 hitter in 101 playoff games. He has 101 hits, including 19 doubles and four homers. He's driven home 36 runs. His playoff win probability added is actually negative. To put things in context, though, a lot of his bad postseason play has been in the NLDS round, because he's a .312/.358/.433 hitter in the NLCS and .328/.395/.403 hitter in the World Series.
The latter numbers are certainly a plus in Molina's favor, but are they enough to sway those who look at his career rate stats and scoff as if he's just Russell Martin with more fanfare?
My hunch is no.
Look at the defense, though. Molina has led the majors in caught stealing percentage four times. In his career, he's thrown out 40 percent of would-be base-stealers while the league average is 27 percent. He's long carried low passed ball totals, done well in back-picking runners at first base and for a while rated out very well in what few advanced metrics can rate catchers.
There's also something that is inescapable for me and it's something we just can't measure. Molina has one of the greatest "it" factors of all-time at the most important everyday position on the diamond.
The next game Molina catches will put him beyond the great Yogi Berra in career games. The only catchers with more are Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Gary Carter, Bob Boone and Bench.
Throughout all this time with Molina as their catcher, and most of the time as their clubhouse leader, the Cardinals have had a losing record one time in 18 seasons. They've made the playoffs 11 times. He's rarely been the best player, sure, and we can't prove that this run of success with the franchise has much to do with him, but we also can't prove it had little or nothing to do with him. There's something there, you know?
Go back through these 18 years and try to find players, coaches, managers, front office people, etc., who don't consider Molina a Hall of Fame difference maker. I'm not going to say you can't find any, because no one is perfect, but the pickings are slim here. Nearly every baseball person you come across swears by Molina as a Hall of Famer and gold standard for what a catcher should embody.
The best I can do here with a number is to point out that fellow career Cardinal Adam Wainwright has a career 3.23 ERA with Molina behind the plate (1,976 innings) and a 4.10 ERA when forced to pitch to someone else.
I guess we could also mention the respect factor. That is, look at what Molina's presence alone does to the running game of opposing teams.
Stolen base attempts against, 2005-present
1. Cardinals, 1,290
2. Diamondbacks, 1,743
3. Twins, 1,782
4. Astros, 1,804
5. Royals, 1,859
That's not a coincidence. That's Molina affecting games just by playing in them. Again, there's just something there.
While I'm here, let's have a word on catchers, who are under-represented in the Hall of Fame, by the way.
First off, there's no way to measure the physical toll it takes on a human being to undertake this role defensively more than 100 days in a year while still trying to help the club on offense. Defensive metrics all over the diamond are still kind of the wild west, but everywhere else we at least have ways of measuring stuff like range and arm strength. Behind the plate, sure, we can see passed balls, wild pitches and caught stealing percentage. There are framing metrics as well. But simply throwing a defensive WAR on a catcher doesn't give us the total picture when it comes to how a catcher manages a baseball game, in my opinion.
Perhaps this is where Molina is short-changed. Hell, maybe it's where people like myself are overrating him. We can't be sure. It's all a matter of opinion laced with a feeling.
For me, Yadier Molina feels like a Hall of Famer. It's possible I'm off base here, but it's also possible the people only looking at WAR and JAWS are far more off base. I'm comfortable with my stance and will be comfortable with my BBWAA vote once he's retired for five years.