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Why Yadier Molina should be Your N.L. MVP

In Baseball, Long form on September 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Yadier Molina is putting up one of the quietest MVP-caliber seasons in recent memory.

If Yadier Molina had retired after the 2006 season, Cardinals fans would still remember him. Not because he hit .216 (and not because you only had to count to six to tally his home runs). They would remember him because  the last home run he hit that season sent the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2006 World Series. It was a career highlight in a career that appeared to be over before it had begun.

Since his Major League debut in 2004, Molina’s numbers had done nothing but decline. From a .267 B.A./.329 OBP/.356 SLG line in 2004, he slumped to .252/.295/.358 in 2005, then plummeted to .216/.274/.321 in 2006. He never hit more than 8 home runs, couldn’t knock in more than 50 RBI, doubled his strikeouts and dropped his OPS+ 25 points to a staggeringly bad 53.[1] He was one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and his arm caught nearly 50 percent of base stealers. Even so, the Molina-shaped offensive hole in the Cardinals’s lineup couldn’t be filled with Gold Gloves.

That was six seasons ago.

Cardinals fans still remember Molina’s home run in the 2006 NLCS, and they remember his four Gold Gloves. But after 2012, they may have to remember something else — Yadier Molina: 2012 National League MVP. Prior to 2006, Molina had essentially been the baseball equivalent of a wet piece of firewood.[2] He just wouldn’t catch fire. That NLCS home run might just have been the spark Molina needed. Here are his slash lines since 2006:

2007: .275/.340/.368

2008: .304/.349/.392

2009: .293/.366/.383

2010: .262/.329/.342

2011: .305/.349/.465

2012: .322/.379/.510 (as of 09/26)

Except for one down year in 2010, Molina has boosted his statistics in nearly every offensive category. He’s added 100 points to his batting average, tripled his home run total, raised his OPS+ to 141 and set a career-high in doubles. He’s even stolen 12 bases this season.[3] And he’s done it while catching an average of 130 games per season since 2006.

Go take a look at the 2012 NL batting leaders. You’ll see a lot of familiar names: your Brauns, your Poseys, and your McCutchens. In fact, those three names are usually tossed around as the short list for NL MVP, with all other candidates in a lower tier. But if you look at the leader board again, you’ll also see the last name MOLINA listed quite a few times, and it isn’t José or Bengie.

Yadier Molina ranks in the top five in the NL in six offensive categories. He’s tied with David Wright and Ryan Braun for second in Wins Above Replacement and WAR among position players with 6.8, and trails only Andrew McCutchen’s score of 7.[4] Molina ranks fifth in offensive WAR at 4.9, behind McCutchen, Buster Posey, Braun and Chase Headley. defines a score of 5+ as “all-star quality,” while a score of 8+ is “MVP quality.” Molina’s numbers put him somewhere between “all-star” and “MVP,” but then again, so do Braun’s, Posey’s and McCutchen’s.

But offense doesn’t tell the whole story. Molina has developed a reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and rightfully so. Since 2007, Molina has a .9935 fielding percentage. In 2012, he has a .997 fielding percentage with only three errors in 1,003 chances. Among active players, he’s currently 10th in career fielding percentage at .9934, and first in caught stealing percentage at 44.61.

Currently, Molina ranks third in the NL in defensive WAR at 2.7, behind only Darwin Barney’s 3.5 and Michael Bourn’s 3.0.[5] That’s important for two reasons. First, there are only two catchers on that list, the other being Josh Thole of the New York Mets, whose score of 1.4 puts him in a three-way tie for 10th. Second, the names McCutchen, Braun and Posey are noticeably absent. Molina’s numbers are especially damning to Posey, the other catcher in the MVP conversation. While Posey has the edge in runners caught stealing with 36 to Molina’s 34, Posey has also allowed the second-most stolen bases in the NL with 85. Posey has also committed the third-most errors as a catcher in the league this season. And he’s done this while playing in 11 fewer games and 168.1 fewer innings behind the plate as Molina.

If you look at the advanced metrics, Molina is unquestionably the better defensive player. Molina’s Rdrs is 17, which means that he has saved the Cardinals 17 runs behind the plate by throwing out base stealers, preventing passed balls, smothering wild pitches and making every other imaginable play a catcher would have to make.[6] Ryan Braun scored a 9 in left field, usually the outfield position with the fewest number of fielding chances. McCutchen, on the other hand, scored a -6, indicating that he made fewer plays than a hypothetical average player. The same goes for Posey, who scored a -1. The Pirates and the Giants were actually worse off defensively by starting McCutchen in center and Posey behind the plate than they would have been had they started a replacement-level player.

Looking at those advanced stats, Molina should clearly be in the MVP conversation, if not a front-runner. Unfortunately, the guys who cast MVP ballots write columns like this, where any mention of advanced metrics is followed by a snickering, “If you believe in that kind of thing.” So let’s ignore the advanced stats and talk old-school baseball. Molina’s hitting over .300. His .322 batting average leads the Cardinals, and is good enough for fourth-best in the NL, behind McCutchen and Posey, but ahead of Braun. His .379 on-base percentage also leads the Cardinals, but places him ninth in the NL behind McCutchen, Posey and Braun. Molina also ranks ninth in the NL in OPS at .890, still behind the Brauny McPosey.[7] He’s also set a career high by hitting 21 home runs, nearly half of which he hit out of pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. Oh, and his 12 stolen bases show that he’s not afraid to get dirty, and baseball writers love nothing more than grit.

It’s an impressive body of work, and while McCutchen, Braun or Posey will probably take home the trophy, Molina has demonstrated his enormous value to the Cardinals. As of September 26, the Cardinals are 4.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers for the second NL wild card, while the Pirates are 7.5 games back. If the Cardinals make it to the post season, Molina will have played a major role in that achievement. Instead of being the first year of the post-Pujols era in St. Louis, perhaps this is the first year of the Molina era in St. Louis. And who could have seen that six years ago?

[1] OPS+ normalizes a batter’s total offensive production by taking into account ballparks and league average batting statistics. A score of 100 is completely average, over 100 is above average, and under 100 is below average.

[2] José Bautista excluded — even Mark McGwire’s numbers were more believable than José Bautista’s.

[3] For context, he’s tied with Rafael Furcal for third-most stolen bases on the Cardinals this season. For even more context, 40-40 club member Alfonso Soriano has six.

[4] WAR quantifies how many wins a player contributes to the team above what a replacement level (AAAA) player would contribute, which is presumed to be zero.

[5] Defensive WAR quantifies how many wins a player contributes to his team purely through his defensive performance.

[6] Compiled by Baseball Info Solutions, defensive runs saved above average quantifies how many runs on defense a player was worth compared to an “average” player, based on the number of plays made at his position.

[7] On base plus slugging percentage.


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