Yadier Molina, 34, and the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to a three year extension worth $60 million a day before the season started. That contract now makes him the highest paid catcher by annual average. It was important for the Cardinals to get the deal done before the season started as Molina stated he would not negotiate terms of a new contract during the season. Molina had signed a five-year, $75 million contract in 2012, but even though he has become the face of the franchise and a very important leader of the Cardinals, it wasn’t a guarantee that the Cardinals were going to resign him. After the 2011 season the Cardinals chose not to resign the then 31 year-old Albert Pujols to a contract extension. At the time he was the face of the franchise and had been for majority of the past eleven years. We sometimes forget it is a business and money always talks.
Molina has been one of the best catchers, if not the best, in baseball over the past decade. During that span he has been a seven-time All-Star, won a total of eight Gold Gloves and four Platinum Gloves, while also finishing in the top five in MVP voting twice. He has a career defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 21.0 which is the 2nd highest active WAR and he currently ranks 41st all-time. With at least another three years behind the plate that all-time ranking will continue to rise. Too many times Molina’s work behind the plate overshadows his success at the plate. Over thirteen seasons Molina has a career average of .285 and currently ranks 6th among active catchers in offensive WAR.
Last season Molina was tied for his worst ranking in DRS (defensive runs saved) in his career. Since Molina took over as the everyday starter in 2005 he has ranked first among catchers in DRS seven of his twelve seasons. But his ranking in 2016 was mainly due to his inability to throw out would be thieves. In his first full season Molina threw out an absurd 64% of runners but has since thrown out 42% for his career. Last year he threw out a low 21% of runners, only Russell Martin averaged a lower percentage. Molina allowed more stolen bases in 2016 (67) than he did in 2014 and 2015 combined (60).
Through Molina’s career as a starter, the Cardinals rank first with the fewest stolen bases against, and it isn’t even close. The next closest team has 300 more stolen bases against than the Cardinals. Molina is the equivalent to a shutdown cornerback in football. At the end of the game, or even a career, statistics may not show you how dominant a cornerback was because there is no statistic for taking away half the field from the quarterback. There is also no statistic that shows when a catcher takes away a tool utilized by the offense like the stolen base. And there is no statistic that show how dominant Molina has been in that aspect.
So what do these numbers tell us? Has Molina become a bad catcher? Absolutely not, it’s just at 34 years old his name unfortunately precedes his actions. Most great catchers throughout history have changed positions by the time they celebrate their 34th birthday. Johnny Bench, arguably the greatest catcher of all time, only started ten games at catcher when he hit 33, and Yogi Berra was moved to the outfield in his 30’s. Currently, Buster Posey, 30, has received noticeable playing time at first base and Joe Mauer, 33, who was at one time the best catcher in baseball, has converted to first base and hasn’t caught a game since 2013. So even though Molina hasn’t produced the numbers that have come to be expected of him, at his age while playing a very demanding position, what kind of numbers are we supposed to expect from him? Molina said recently, “People don’t understand how hard it is to be a catcher, to put on the equipment after you run the bases, then get hit in the face with a ball, then take the equipment off and go hit, do that for 130 games a year. I mean, it’s tough. So, I’ve got my respect for every catcher in the league, every catcher in the minor leagues, every catcher in the Little Leagues because it’s not an easy job.”
He may no longer be the best catcher in baseball, so then why is he now the highest paid catcher on an annual average? The Cardinals value him more than any other team would have. Had he become a free agent he probably wouldn’t have gotten even $40 million from another team, but sometimes it’s about more than what statistics can tell you. His contract isn’t about the next three years as much as it is about his contributions over the previous four. According to Fangraphs value estimates, over the past four years Molina was worth an estimated $92.9 million, or $33.9 million more than what the Cardinals paid him during that period. Molina’s value is even more important to other players. Molina will probably catch fewer games a season through this new contract, but he will make a positive impact on his future replacement, Carson Kelly, as well as every Cardinals pitcher and pitching prospect moving forward.
Outside the Cardinals organization and fan base this may have looked like a bad and very costly decision. Paying an old declining player a lot of money who plays a physically demanding position isn’t exactly ideal. But having Molina retire as a Cardinal, be involved in the passing of the torch to Carson Kelly, and having his locker room leadership, that is something that can’t be valued in monetary terms.