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.

Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals—in June!

The latest edition of Penning Bull hit subscribers’ inboxes late Tuesday night. It’s about the early start to the serious trading period that was the Nationals’ deal for Royals closer Kelvin Herrera. Here’s an excerpt:

In cases like those of the Nationals and Royals, though, decision time can come earlier, and there are more and more cases like those of the Nationals and Royals. No one really wants to win the Wild Card anymore; that’s strictly a consolation prize for the losers of particularly noble division races. With so many teams taking all-or-nothing approaches to contention, though, there are ample incentives for early moves. In that way, the two-Wild Card system has successfully brought us back to the way things were in, for instance, 1985, when it wasn’t good enough to be good. Every good team can count on having two or three teams competing with them for just one desirable playoff spot, so teams aim for 93 or 94 wins, instead of 87 or 88. That means that teams whose best-case scenario finds them grabbing a Wild Card berth are basically out on premium trade candidate, and it makes it more worth the while of very good teams to improve sooner, thereby improving more.

For Washington, making this particular improvement at such an early date might be particularly crucial. Firstly, the Braves are no fluke, and in fact, have a higher third-order winning percentage than have the Nationals so far. Secondly, with Stephen Strasburg joining the already long list of injured Nationals recently, one can fairly expect an added toll on the bullpen over the coming weeks. Having the kind of depth Dave Martinez now enjoys in the relief corps makes distributing high-leverage innings much easier, and gives Herrera, Doolittle, Madson, and the rest of the Washington bullpen a better chance of reaching October relatively fresh and ready to dominate.

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Brandon Crawford Opens Things Up

The latest edition of Penning Bull hit subscribers’ inboxes this morning. It’s about Brandon Crawford’s stellar offensive season to date, and whether it’s sustainable. Here’s an excerpt:

Crawford, however, has been crucial for the Giants all year. He’s hitting .317/.368/.496, good for a 133 wRC+, to go along with his usual above-average defensive work. At 31, he’s no longer the best defensive shortstop in the National League, but he’s matured into the kind of hitter that could make him similarly valuable.

There’s bound to be some temptation, though, to dismiss this improvement as a mirage. After all, Crawford has walked only at his customary rate, about seven percent of the time. He’s whiffing about as often as usual, and just a hair less than the league as a whole. He’s hitting for much more pop than usual, and the plate discipline adjustments he has made—less contact, especially outside the zone, as he grooves his swing for power, but more aggressiveness within the zone—are consistent with that kind of improvement. Much of the overall improvement is driven, though, by a .374 BABIP that is in line neither with his profile (left-handed, average speed) nor with his track record. The baseline expectation, here, is for him to regress.

I’m not sure that it’s that simple. Crawford is using the opposite field more this year. In that way, he’s using the entire field better. It’s not just lazy fly balls to left, either. On a per-plate appearance basis, Crawford has more batted balls classified as Flares & Burners to the opposite field than any other qualified hitter in baseball: 29 of them, in 272 plate appearances through Saturday. Twenty-four of those have gone for hits, and of those, seven have been doubles.

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Take The Hitter, Stupid

The latest edition of Penning Bull is a brief, broad-strokes bit of Draft analysis. It lays out more or less the only Draft philosophy a prospect dilettante like me can offer: there’s far more expected value in hitters than in pitchers, near the top of the draft board. More teams ought to embrace that. Many already are.

Here’s a taste of the newsletter:

Consider the famous first round of the 2011 Draft. The Pirates picked first, and in Gerrit Cole, they got a good one—even if they didn’t capture the full benefit for which they might have hoped. The Mariners, of course, weren’t nearly so lucky: Danny Hultzen blew out before he reached the Majors. Then again, the Diamondbacks found another productive starter, in Trevor Bauer—again, despite the fact that he didn’t realize his full potential until after they traded him. So, using the top three overall selections, three moribund franchises managed to go two-for-three on finding solid, above-average big-league starters. Heck, despite the major injury issues he had, high-school stud Dylan Bundy has turned into another good one for the Orioles.

Still, would any of those teams, given the chance to go back and try this over again, take any of those four hurlers ahead of Anthony Rendon? How about George Springer? Those were the first two college hitters taken. Bubba Starling was the first high school position player drafted, but the next two were Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez.

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February 23, 2018 – Jake the Cleveland Killer

In the latest edition of Penning Bull, I wrote about Jake Odorizzi, the Twins’ new number-three starter. Specifically, I tackled the topic of Odorizzi’s notable reverse platoon splits; the way that characteristic makes him particularly valuable to the Twins; and what, in my opinion, the Twins need to do to make this transaction pay the highest possible dividends.

For something close to zero real cost (shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios is no higher than fourth on their organizational depth chart at any infield position), the Twins got what amounts to a solid back-end starter, with just a smattering of upside. The thing to love about this deal is the way it goes right up to the Twins’ chief division rival and punches them in the mouth. The Cleveland Indians are baseball’s most platoon-happy, switch-hitter-heavy offense. They had the platoon advantage in 69 percent of their plate appearances last season, highest in MLB. Odorizzi, a right-hander, figures to see lefties in about 70 percent of his encounters with Cleveland batters this season, because they have either switch-hitters (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Mejia lurking in the minors, plus Greg Allen and Abraham Almonte on the fringes of the roster) or pure lefties (Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Yonder Alonso, Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer, plus top first-base prospect Bobby Bradley and floundering former rookie sensation Tyler Naquin) at most positions, most of the time.

Odorizzi, however, belongs to the phylum of pitchers who are better (much better, really) against opposite-handed hitters. His approach mostly consists of high, rising fastballs, then splitters that dive below the strike zone. That’s the recipe for a reverse-split starter.

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February 22, 2018 – Underextended

The latest edition of Penning Bull went out to subscribers overnight, on a consequence of the CBA (and the increased penalties therein, for spending beyond the luxury tax threshold) that rarely gets discussed: the way it discourages early extensions for good players.

Say you’re the Red Sox, and you’re thinking about signing Mookie Betts to a long-term deal. It really doesn’t matter at which point, over the last three years, but let’s say it’s early 2016. The point is, you want Betts to be a Red Sox for a very long time. He’s interested. After all, he signed for just $750,000 back in 2011. He’s not represented by Boras. He knows there’s only so much money waiting for him on the professional bowling circuit, if his size catches up to him before he gets megarich. He’s willing to sign a deal comparable to the one Christian Yelich signed in 2015. Yelich got seven years and just under $50 million, guaranteed, with a $15-million club option for 2022. Betts wants seven years and $52.5 million, with a similar club option tacked on at the end.

From one perspective, that would be a huge win for you. Betts would be under team control for at least two years more than he’s slated to be, and it could be three. There’s cost certainty all the way through, and obviously, those certain costs are discounted pretty heavily.

You can’t do it. You just can’t. You want to get under the tax threshold in 2017, and this deal would blow a hole in those plans. As it is, you’re going to surpass the threshold for a second straight year in 2016, but if you sign Betts to this deal, his tax number immediately becomes $7.5 million, rather than the $1 million or less it will be if you leave things alone. Even if it saves you a few million on the same number three and four years down the road, it won’t offset the negative effect of having that AAV shoot up two years before it needed to do so.

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January 14, 2018 – Gerrit Cole and the Astros’ Window

With their acquisition of Pirates ace (if that’s what he truly is) Gerrit Cole on Saturday, perhaps the Astros announced their intention to trade the long term for the best possible chance to win another World Series within the next two years. Here’s an excerpt of my brief breakdown of the trade:

Given the price the Astros ended up paying to acquire Cole, it’s easier to see why they wanted him so badly. Previous reports indicated that the Pirates would hold out for a higher class of prospect than this. What they actually got, in the end, was Joe Musgrove (an intriguing but no longer promising pitcher crowded out of the picture in Houston), Colin Moran (a corner infielder whose professional track record is mixed, and who was blocked in Houston), Michael Feliz (a hard-throwing righty who (picking it up yet?) had no apparent place in the deep Astros bullpen), and Jason Martin (a toolsy but flawed outfield prospect whom the team left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft last month). That’s a lot of quantity, but it’s conspicuous for the absence of bigger names, like Francis Martes, Forrest Whitley, Kyle Tucker, and Derek Fisher. This feels like a deal the Astros would have been very happy to make at any time, and one to which the Pirates eventually acceded because they were overeager to be rid of Cole and couldn’t extract the sexier targets in either the Houston or the Yankees system for which they had originally aimed.

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