Yadier Molina, Cooperstown, and Incomplete Information

Today, instead of a short excerpt, I’m running Penning Bull in full, here, for free. It’s a brief piece, anyway, on the recent and persistent conversation about Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case.

It seems like we can’t go more than a few months, anymore, without the argument breaking out anew on Twitter. Sometimes it’s sparked by a great game or notable milestone, and sometimes it stems from bad news about yet another painful-sounding injury. One way or another, however, baseball fans seem to keep finding a reason to ask (and then heatedly argue) the question: Is Yadier Molina a Hall of Fame catcher?

I’ve been drawn into this argument more than once over the last several years, and I’ve slowly changed my stance. Where once I was staunchly against the notion, I now view Molina as a near-lock for Cooperstown, and a deserving one. The purpose of this piece, however, isn’t to state Molina’s case (or my case for him). I’m not here to parse his WAR numbers from FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference, which don’t make any real effort to capture the value he’s delivered as a receiver over the course of his career, but nor am I here to tout his Baseball Prospectus WARP, which gives him full (and handsome) credit for those skills but can’t do the same favors for Bob Boone, Thurman Munson, or Ted Simmons, because of the limitations of the dataset. Brian Kenny is writing Twitter poll questions and talking about this on MLB Now, trying to get people to take sides. Many are happily doing so.

I’m here to say: it’s too early to have a well-founded take on this.

Molina is 35, which is old for a catcher. The thing is, though, that it’s only old if you believe Molina is more or less a normal, human catcher. If you start with the assumption that he’s somewhat comparable to players like Simmons, Boone, or even Carlton Fisk, then it seems silly to assume he’s nearly done. In fact, all the on-field evidence also suggests that he has plenty left in the tank. PECOTA projected him for 1.5 WARP before this season; he’s already delivered 2.2. He’s still an above-average defensive catcher, all things considered, and that’s just based on the numbers we use to detail and evaluate catchers physically: it doesn’t account for his leadership and ability to handle the Cardinals’ pitching staff. He’s having his best offensive season since 2013, hitting for the power he showcased last year and continuing to make plenty of contact.

My point is that Molina, who’s being written and talked about as though his case for the Hall is all but finished, could well end up with a career catching workload comparable to those of Jason Kendall and Boone, and his offensive stats aren’t dissimilar to those of Ivan Rodriguez. In fact, though Rodriguez had a higher offensive peak and was far less of a drag on the bases, Molina’s superior defense could nearly cancel that out. He’s been worth 2.0 WARP or more in 11 straight seasons, now, and 12 overall. This could yet be the eighth season in which he surpasses 4.0 WARP. Rodriguez only had 15 seasons of at least 2.0 WARP, and just five of 4.0 or more. His last good season came at age 38. Boone had a very good season at 39, and a fine one at 40. Fisk, famously, was even better, even older.

The greats of the position defied its broader aging curve, and Molina is still showing every sign of doing the same. Unless and until he has a full season in which he’s a substandard hitter for the position (that’s only happened once since 2007, in 2015) or a below-average defender (that’s never happened, nor has it come close to happening), we can simply defer this conversation. Should Yadier Molina go to the Hall of Fame? Ask me in three or four years. I have a good guess, but the answer will probably be clear to both of us if you wait for all of the information before making a decision.

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