Friday, March 2, 2012

Molina, Varitek, and the Value of Catchers

Yesterday, for some reason, the Cardinals gave maybe the eighth best catcher in baseball a 5 year contract worth 75 million dollars. I honestly don't really know what the Cardinals are doing. One can only assume that they had some leftover cash after Pujols bolted because they just decided that it was in their best interest  to outbid themselves in order to lock down Yadier Molina. Yes that Yadier Molina.

My name is Yadier. Really.

To be fair Molina's coming off a great season, one in which he hit over .300 and slugged .465. I doubt he'll reach those numbers again, since he'd never slugged over .400 before last year, but Molina's an above average hitter for a catcher. He's also a four-time defending gold glove winner, who's thrown out 44% of potential basestealers (though last year his caught stealing percentage was 29%, right at league average). There's value in a catcher with reputation - even toward the end of his catching days, runners didn't try to steal against Ivan Rodriguez - and there must be some perceived value in a catcher who can "manage the game," call the right pitches, keep his pitchers cool.

In my opinion, the Cardinals vastly over-value this part of catching. Game manager for catcher is the same backhanded compliment as it is for quarterback. It's what you call a guy when he can't really do anything else all that well. Furthermore, I've never heard of a single catcher who isn't a good game manager. In football, the quarterback can be overly risky or throw downfield to shed that label, but a catcher pretty much calls one of three or four pitches and gives a rough estimate of location. Watching baseball with other fans, you'll hear people call out what they think the next pitch will be and the vast majority of the time they're right. If these fans, who don't have access to scouting reports, don't know the ins and outs of their own pitchers, and certainly haven't put in the same time honing the craft of catching can call roughly the same game, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that game management ability shouldn't be a contract consideration. Or else, I'd settle for about a million a year. I don't need to be greedy.

The dollars in this contract blow me away, as do the years. Molina got almost the same contract as Adrian Beltre (5yrs/80M), but he is nowhere near the hitter in raw terms or in positional value. Teams want production out of non-traditionally hitting roles because the theory is that if they have even average production out of the easier positions to fill, like right field or first base, they'll have a competitive advantage if they get great production out of a position where it's harder to find a good hitter. Maybe we're living in a golden age of catchers, but Molina's contract makes no sense in this context. Beltre is maybe the third best 3B in all of baseball, a vastly better hitter than Molina (career OPS+ of 110 to Molina's 88) and a dynamic fielder as well. He's also capable of MVP caliber seasons, intermittent but valuable nonetheless.

Molina is not the third best catcher in baseball. He's not even really close. There are two superstars at the position, Brian McCann and Joe Mauer. There are four mostly proven young guys in Buster Posey, Carlos Santana, Matt Wieters, and Alex Avila, all of whom I'd take before Molina. Mike Napoli doesn't catch much but is better. Miguel freaking Montero put up the same numbers as Molina last year. I'd put Molina somewhere around the eighth best catcher in baseball, certainly above average, but he's being paid like a top-three player at his position. My personal theory is that the Cardinals management was pushed into this deal by Mike Matheny, their new manager and a similarly defensive-minded catcher, or they just over-value defensive catchers (as evidenced by the hiring of Matheny in the first place).

Unless there's something truly ineffable about Molina's abilities to catch, though, this contract makes no sense. Catchers break down frequently, so I'd be wary about the length of the contract as well as the dollar amounts, and while Molina is durable it's like giving a lot of years to a running back. Past durability, especially in positions where you get beat up, is not necessarily an indicator of future durability. Yet, at least according to chairman Jim DeWitt, this contract was a no-brainer to the Cardinals. In explaining the contract, GM John Mozeliak said, "When you think about traditional metrics today, it's more offense-oriented. But when you factor in not only the hardware he's received but also the intangibles that go into a position like catcher, when you talk to our pitchers they're thrilled this was done." With catchers it seems there is something beyond the numbers.

Baseball is a great sport to argue because it is so numbers-centric. You want to argue that George Brett was a better third basemen than Eddie Matthews? Well then find me the data, absolute figures or those adjusted for ball park and era. Baseball fandom can exist in a vacuum from baseball itself. I love watching baseball, but I admit that I love arguing baseball just as much. I like to argue about other sports (and argue in general) but the visceral experience of watching basketball and football is the selling point of those sports. I think they're gaining in popularity relative to baseball because they afford instantaneous moments of transcendence. Watch Lebron on the fast break and it's breathless. Watch a man run a 4.4 40 yard dash to find a spiral seemingly placed in his hands and you'll have the same feeling. It takes something truly special, like last year's World Series Cardinals comeback, to get that same feeling in baseball. But I love baseball for the numbers, and I love it especially when the numbers might break down.

Jason Varitek, the Captain, formally retired today. For his career, at least by the numbers, Varitek was average. Almost literally as his OPS+ was 98 (100 is average). He threw out 23% of potential basestealers, when the league average throughout his career was 30%, and guys ran a lot on Varitek: three times he allowed more than 100 stolen bases (for reference, 2011 was the first year Molina allowed even 40). According to WAR, Jason Kendall was worth 14 more wins throughout his career than Jason Varitek. Jorge Posada, with whom I imagine Varitek will be linked in the popular memory, was 21 more wins valuable. If we argued purely by numbers, it's almost impossible to come up with a numeric justification for Varitek being better than Posada. Posada hit more home runs, hit for higher average and slugged better, walked more, had similarly high strikeouts, you name it. 

Who you got?

I don't know much about Posada's game-management abilities because he didn't play much toward the end of his career when he could no longer hit and that's when you start hearing that. 'You know, Posada's not the hitter he once was, but he can really call a game.' I know a lot about Varitek's abilities in that regard - he's been washed up as a hitter for years. I think for some, that image of Varitek as the captain who steadied the ship for the Red Sox, would cause them to overlook the stunning disparity in numbers between Posada and Varitek, just as those same narratives have caused so many to overrate the Yankee equivalent, Derek Jeter. I've never seen a stat that measures a catcher's effect on pitchers, so I'm not so easily swayed. There must be some value, but I think it's overstated. And certainly not worth 5 years and 75 million dollars.


  1. I don't have a quibble with this piece, mostly because I don't care much about the status of Yadier Molina's contract with the Cardinals beyond my ongoing fascination with the continuous catcher factory the Molina family would appear to be.

    I would like to say, however, that 75 Mil does seem to be right about the sweet spot for where i would be willing to
    A) spend the majoirty of my waking life crouching,
    B)Have a man throw a ball faster than i am legally allowed to drive at my face,
    C) Have players on the opposing team who are not only allowed but encouraged to truck me like they're Bill F***ing Romanowski.

    Just wanted to get that off of my chest.

  2. On the contrary, if someone said to me Hey Steve, you can play Major League Baseball and we're gonna pay you $75 million. All you have to do is crouch all the time, get balls thrown at you faster than you're legally allowed to drive your car, and get trucked once in a while! I'd be crazy not to do it.