Word broke earlier this week that the St. Louis Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina were extremely close to agreeing on a five year contract extension. Those rumours were confirmed today when the Cardinals scheduled a press conference this afternoon to announce a deal with the team’s catcher worth $75 million, plus a mutual option for a sixth year that will see the catcher earn $15 million more.
According to average annual value, this is where Molina’s contract ranks him all time among catchers:
- Joe Mauer, $23 million (2011-2018)
- Yadier Molina, $15 million (2013-2017)
- Jorge Posada, $13.1 million (2008-2011)
- Mike Piazza, $13 million (1999-2005)
- Jason Kendall, $10 million (2002-2007)
He’ll earn only $7 million this season after the Cardinals exercised their 2012 club option. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than how well his previous contract worked out for the team is that Molina, whose reputation after eight years in the league is that of a grizzled veteran, is only 29 years old.
If we go by the typical $/WAR analysis, such a contract would require Molina to put up more than a dozen wins above replacement over the next five years for it to work out to being equitable for the Cardinals. As a member of the rare breed of elite catchers though, you could probably justify modifying that analysis slightly. Considering the difference of opinion in measuring a catcher’s defensive value, the typical $/WAR analysis becomes even more questionable.
While certainly ages 30-34 will project differently than ages 24-28, here are Molina’s WAR totals over the last five years according to FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus:
- 14.7 fWAR
- 12.5 rWAR
- 10.0 WARP
According to Baseball Reference, 26 catchers have put up better than 12 wins above replacement in their aged 30-34 seasons.
It should also be noted that Molina ranked fifth in the league over those last five years at framing the strike zone and saving runs by getting extra strike calls at the edge of the zone. Over that same period, no catcher in baseball ranks as highly as Molina in any other defensive metric.
Also adding to his value is last season’s power increase. In 2011, Molina doubled his ISO numbers from the year before, hitting a career high 14 home runs. If he can maintain and develop that type of power as he ages over the life of this contract, it looks even better.
Given these factors, plus the intangible elements of the Cardinals fan base losing Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa this off season, extending Molina is likely a better deal than straight numbers analysis might suggest, as it does solidify the identity of the team. It’s impossible to quantify such things, which are often overstated by those looking to build a narrative where one doesn’t necessarily exist. However, it’s likely equally mistaken to ignore optics entirely.
To counter these points, it could be suggested that catchers field a position that forces them to take a lot of abuse. Because of the potential for injury, locking up a catcher to a long term contract carries with it an inherent risk. Molina’ s offensive numbers, even with an uptake in power, simply aren’t good enough to ever justify a realistic position switch.
Assuming that Molina can maintain the production that he’s offered thus far, both offensively and defensively, the deal will depend on his durability. If he stays healthy, the deal looks good for St. Louis. If he doesn’t, the deal doesn’t look good for the team.
It’s likely both a blessing and a cursing then that Molina has played more innings behind the plate than all but one catcher since he first became a regular for the Cardinals in 2005. It means he can handle a heavy work load, but it’s also telling of the amount of punishment that he’s already received in his career.