By Tony Fioriglio (@TheTonyFiorigli)
Just hours before their season started, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that they’d signed a three-year contract extension with catcher Yadier Molina worth $60 million, making him the highest paid catcher by annual average value in baseball.
From the moment the ink dried, Molina’s contract generated a lot of reaction. Many saw it as a well-deserved and well-earned contract for one of the best catchers in baseball history. Others had reason to be skeptical. Emotions were strong that day.
The portion of the audience that believed the contract was a hefty overpay pointed to factors such as his age (34) and his generally average career statistical performance (33.5 bWAR*, 99 OPS+). Meanwhile, those in the other camp cite their eyes, which see elite defense and a team leader that managed a pitching staff to four NL pennants and two World Series titles.
Realistically, neither side is wrong, as Molina has done everything everyone has claimed on his behalf. However, just because neither side is wrong, doesn’t mean both are right, at least as far as a modern baseball front office is concerned.
While teams still employ plenty of scouts, the eye test is now just one factor that teams look at when making decisions. At this point every team in the Majors has an analytics department guiding their GMs. It’s the reason Kevin Kiermaier just got the contract he did, and Jose Bautista struggled to find work. Within baseball, the war on WAR is over, but this is not an instance where history is written by the winners; quite literally, it’s the opposite.
Journalists, writers and prognosticators have, for more than a century, been the gatekeepers of baseball’s history and legends. It was these people who turned Babe Ruth into something close to a god, Yogi Berra into a lovable scamp, and Bob Gibson into the meanest man the mound has ever known. And, for many of these gatekeepers, analytics vs legends was never even a war to begin with, just a minor skirmish by a group of nerds in their parents’ basements.
After all, numbers can’t quantify the fear that made Jim Rice a Hall of Famer or the grit and determination that made Nolan Ryan the greatest pitcher of all time. And Jack Morris’ performance in the 1991 World Series shows that being clutch matters.
And this is where the disconnect lies.
Analysts use data to make projections and decisions. If the data says Morris was basically an average pitcher who once threw the game of his life on the biggest stage imaginable, then that’s what he was. And if it says that Rice was a solid power hitter that greatly benefited from his home ballpark, well, then that’s most likely the case.
Baseball teams are ultimately businesses, and the widgets they work in happen to be people that are exceptionally skilled in a very specialized way. Just like in every business within a field, teams all have the same goal: organizing a finite number of resources in a way that allows them to be more successful than all other businesses in the industry.
The gatekeepers of baseball’s legacy, on the other hand, have very different goals. The primary goal of these people ultimately is to sell a story, and to do that, they need to create compelling characters and plot twists that end with David taking down Goliath; heartbreak and triumph, good vs evil, the fall and the redemption.
Saying Ryan was a very good pitcher that pitched forever doesn’t sell papers. Telling the story of a good ol’ Texan that kept his head down and didn’t take crap from anyone is compelling. When that person is twice the age of his competition, getting by on guts and savvy, that becomes a story the audience at large can get behind. Everyone likes to fancy themselves as a mythical Nolan Ryan type, going to work every day and proving to the arrogant next generation that you’ve still got plenty left in the tank.
And, with the changing media landscape, with 24-hour news cycles, content available on demand across the web, and the prevalence of social media, now, more than ever, these gatekeepers need a way to keep audience attention—and creating a narrative around a player does just that.
Which brings us back to Molina.
His career epitomizes the disconnect between baseball’s past and its future. Analytically, the numbers say that Molina doesn’t have much of a case for potential Hall of Fame candidacy. He’s been roughly a league-average bat has played above average defense at a position that requires skills that can be difficult to measure.
Still, at no point in his career has Molina been the best catcher in baseball. For the first half of his career, he was clearly behind Joe Mauer, who won three batting titles, an MVP, and has accumulated nearly twice as much career bWAR as Molina (49.9, 44.2 of which was accumulated through 2013 when Mauer last caught regularly). As Mauer’s decline began, Buster Posey burst onto the scene, winning an MVP and batting title of his own, along with a Rookie of the Year and three World Series rings. Posey has been worth almost exactly as many wins as Molina in just more than half as many plate appearances. Even knowing that the strength of Molina’s case comes from the hard-to-measure elements of catching, those skills would need to basically double his career worth to be on the same tier as Mauer and Posey. Heck, he’d need to be worth 10 more wins over the course of his career just to catch Jorge Posada.
Anecdotally, though, Molina’s supporters present a case that is much different and much stronger by pointing to his long reputation as a clubhouse leader and ability to traverse the postseason. And comments made by his battery-mates over the past decade and a half have hardened that support. In fact, ironically, Molina’s case is about as old school as it gets, but he, more than almost any other player, has benefited from the changing media landscape.
He was clearly a more valuable player than other fringe Hall of Fame cases like Omar Vizquel and Jack Morris, both of whom were never regarded as elite players in their time but have greatly benefited from post hoc fact-making. Molina, meanwhile, was just extended by a team that has shown in the past that they were willing to part with a franchise icon if it was in the team’s best interest. Additionally, Molina’s legend is unfolding in real time. He’s received MVP votes five times (including two top-5 finishes) and stories have been told for a decade about his intangible and immeasurable contributions to the franchise.
Yet, it’s impossible to know where the legend ends and the truth begins. What is irrefutable is that Molina has been a roughly league-average hitter for his career that played for a franchise that won the NL pennant four times and the World Series twice during his career. What is unknowable, however, is whether Molina was the driving force behind these successes, or if he just happened to be a good player on great teams.
In the end, the truth of that will not matter. All people will have are the numbers and the memories and, taken in conjunction, that’ll ultimately be how the story of Yadier Molina is told.
(*bWAR: Baseball Reference WAR. To understand the difference between bWAR/rWAR, fWAR and WARP, refer to Fangraphs.)
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