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A different perspective on Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case

Fans and analysts are divisive on Molina’s worthiness for the Hall, but there is a comparison they’re all missing.

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

In the season debut of Sunday Night Baseball, the booth stated that Yadier Molina is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. This sparked quite a bit of discussion online. Buster Olney and Keith Law debated it on a podcast last week. SI’s Jay Jaffe, arguably the foremost expert on Hall of Fame analysis and inventor of the JAWS system, wrote an article on the subject.

If you were to peruse what fans think on Twitter, you would see that they are very polarized on Yadi’s Hall worthiness if he were to retire right now. They either believe that he obviously should be in, or that it is ridiculous to even consider him.

The process of getting players into the Hall of Fame is a mess, but I still really enjoy analyzing players’ Hall cases, so here is my evaluation of Molina’s case. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a lifelong Mets fan. I am also of Puerto Rican decent, and catcher is my favorite position.

All WAR values are from Baseball Reference unless otherwise specified. WAR7 is the sum of a player’s top seven seasons by WAR, and they do not need to be consecutive.

Here's generally how I evaluate a player's Hall of Fame candidacy:

  • Cases are evaluated based on a player's peak and overall career.
  • It's not the Hall of Stats, but objective analysis driven by facts and evidence will primarily drive the discussion, as it should.
  • Narratives will not be ignored, but their consideration will be minimal. Introduce too many narratives, too many unprovable claims, and too much subjectivity and you can make an argument for anybody.
  • All-Star appearances will be completely ignored. Call me crazy, but I believe it’s better to go by facts, not popularity contests.

Yadier Molina

  • 16 seasons, .248/.327/.348, 91 wRC+
  • Elite defensive catcher and one of the greatest defenders ever at the position. Career 24.8 dWAR is in the top five all-time among catchers.
  • Part of a World Series Champion team.
  • Peak seven offensive years combine for a 109 wRC+.
  • Threw out 41 percent of base stealers in his career.
  • Tremendous reputation as a leader and manager of pitching staffs. His leadership has commonly been credited with being the key factor in his team's success.
  • 40.5 WAR / 28.6 WAR7 / 34.5 JAWS

You would think with his reputation, this catcher would have more impressive numbers. But he is a below-average hitter for his career, and was only above-average in his best years. His calling card, of course, is his elite defense at the most valuable position on the field.

I am the first one to admit that catcher defense is the most flawed of the advanced defensive metrics. Baseball Prospectus has made strides in that area, and we will get to that later. Still, his 25 dWAR stacks up tremendously among catchers and is in the top 15 all time among all position players.

Catchers have a lower bar when it comes to the Hall of Fame. They do not hit much and they play fewer games as a result of injury and rest. Furthermore, it appears that it is more difficult for an elite catcher to impact games than it is for, say, an elite shortstop, second baseman, center fielder, or even an elite third baseman. Of the top 200 players ever by dWAR, only 35 were primarily catchers. They still get credit for playing the most difficult position on the field, so it has plenty of positional value.

This catcher's WAR-related numbers stack up poorly to the that of the average for Hall of Fame catchers, which is 52.5 WAR/ 33.8 WAR7/ 43.1 JAWS. Among all catchers, his WAR ranks 23rd, his WAR7 ranks 25th, and his JAWS ranks 24th. In each category he falls behind non-Hall of Famers such as Charlie Bennett, Darrell Porter, and Bill Freehan, just to name a few. Bennett played in the 1800s, but neither Porter nor Freehan even sniffed the Hall of Fame. They fell off the ballot after their first year of eligibility.

The cold, hard numbers add up to somebody who absolutely is not a Hall of Famer. For a sub-par offensive player to make it into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his defense, longevity is especially important in order to accumulate the needed value. Ozzie Smith played for 19 seasons and was also a great baserunner. Brooks Robinson played 23 seasons. Luis Aparicio played 18 seasons and was an even better baserunner than Ozzie. Mark Belanger is one of the greatest defenders of all time over 18 seasons, and he only got 3.7 percent of the vote in his one and only time on the ballot. His career 71 wRC+ was too little offense to overcome.

But longevity is especially difficult at such a demanding position as catcher. Other than a couple of Veteran's Committee screw-ups, there are no catchers in the Hall of Fame who were not above average offensively.

Of course, it is not the Hall of Stats. Fans of this catcher are well aware of his tremendous reputation as a leader and a manager of pitching staffs. Here's a quote from his GM:

"What he can do for us is bring the stability and leadership and high-caliber catching he has demonstrated to a team that is built substantially around a young pitching staff... The mere addition of his presence should help immeasurably."

A former manager of his said that he was the ingredient that helped the team win the World Series. His pitchers respect what he brought to the table. He knew what made his staff click, how to get the best out of them, and was respected for those characteristics. Proponents for his Hall of Fame inclusion stress these factors heavily.

Despite having caught a combined 344 games from five Hall of Fame pitchers, winning one World Series, being one of the greatest defensive catchers of all time, and having a tremendous reputation as a leader and pitching staff manager, he got only one vote in his only year on the ballot. Wait a second...

Yadier Molina isn't retired, let alone Hall eligible.

He was a part of two World Series Championship teams, not one.

He certainly never caught Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan.

Wait, I messed up. Something is wrong here...

Oh! Silly me! This wasn't Yadier Molina I was talking about! It was Rangers great, Jim Sundberg! Wow, they’re awfully similar, aren’t they?

Ok, ok, obviously I did this on purpose to make a point. Molina is not much different from Sundberg, and nobody pushed Sundberg's Hall of Fame candidacy. The only differences are that Molina was fortunate enough to play for the most respected organization in baseball, with pitching coach great Dave Duncan, and that he was the beneficiary of some generous narratives.

The quote above about Sundberg is from then-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz. The manager cited right after that quote is from then-Royals Manager Dick Howser. Let's try this again with the right numbers for Yadi.

Yadier Molina

  • 13 seasons, .285/.338/.400, 100 wRC+.
  • Elite defensive catcher and one of the greatest defenders ever at the position. Career 21.1 dWAR is fifth all-time among catchers.
  • Part of a team that won two World Series Champions and three pennant winners.
  • Peak seven offensive years combine for a 116 wRC+.
  • Threw out 42 percent of base stealers in his career.
  • Tremendous reputation as a leader and manager of pitching staffs. His leadership has commonly been credited with being the key factor in his team's successes.
  • 33.6 WAR / 26.9 WAR7 / 30.2 JAWS

This looks even worse than Sundberg, but of course Molina is still playing. Molina was a bit better with the bat, but Sundberg was far more durable. Among catchers, Molina ranks 30th in WAR, 29th in WAR7, and 30th in JAWS. WAR should only be used as a guide when evaluating players' Hall of Fame cases, but these numbers look pretty bad compared to the Hall average of 53.4 WAR/ 34.4 WAR7/ 43.9 JAWS at catcher. In fact, other than Roy Campanella, who was a special case, if the BBWAA elected Molina today he would be the worst catcher that the BBWAA ever inducted. He would be the worst by a lot, too.

Molina had a nice bounce back season at the plate last year, but that came with a .335 BABIP. As a 34-year-old catcher, it is going to be very difficult for him to add to his Hall of Fame candidacy with his bat. His defense has to be what carries his Hall of Fame case.

By dWAR, Yadi has a chance to be the greatest defensive catcher of all time. To have accumulated 20 dWAR in less than 1,500 games is amazing. Coincidentally, Sundberg is next on the list at 25 dWAR, but he played 500 games more than Yadi. His fellow countryman, Iván Rodríguez, is the all time leader at 28.7 dWAR, and he played almost 1,100 more games than Yadi has.

None of this analysis has included Molina’s pitch-framing, which has been among the best in baseball during his career. As a result, it skyrockets his WAR to 46.9 WARP. That makes his Hall case look MUCH better. It will be interesting because he could be the first true test on how Hall of Fame voters will value pitch-framing.

I believe that Yadi’s pitch-framing should absolutely count, but there is a problem. We only have pitch-framing data going back to 1986. Most of the catchers ahead of him played most of or their entire career before that. The crux of modern Hall of Fame analysis is comparing a player to his predecessors at the position. We just have no way of knowing the pitch-framing skills of the likes of Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, and Yogi Berra.

Molina has been a beloved member of one of the most prestigious franchises in baseball, a team that has won two World Series Championships, too. That counts for something, of course. But again, while I believe that his leadership and aptitude at handling pitching staffs are valuable, it is not some blanket that can cover any deficiency that exists in Molina’s numbers. Treating it as such sets a dangerous precedent. As I have shown, these things did not help Jim Sundberg at all. At the very least, anybody who supports Molina for the Hall of Fame right now has to concede that the voters screwed up badly with Sundberg.

I don't doubt that Yadi’s leadership and pitching staff management were valuable, but how valuable were they? Like I mentioned with pitch-framing, we have no idea how much better Molina was at those aspects of his job than some of the all-time great catchers. If he were close to those all-timers by the numbers, it might make sense that those skills should put him over the top, but that is not the case.

I do not believe that Molina is a Hall of Famer right now, but if he plays another five seasons at close to his play from 2016, and if you factor in the pitch-framing (despite the caveats that come with including that), he could have a decent case. This is purely speculative, but if Molina retired right now, I believe that he would (and should) have trouble getting into the Hall of Fame. The other all-time great defensive catchers were much better with the bat than Yadi.

The good news is that he still has time to accrue value. As somebody who wants to see as many deserving boricuas as possible get into the Hall of Fame, I am rooting for him.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.