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Yadier Molina Won Eight Gold Gloves and Deserves to Have More

Yadier Molina has won eight gold glove awards for his catching excellence. That’s impressive, but the total should be higher.

When the 2017 National League Rawlings gold glove honors were announced Tuesday night, Molina lost out to Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. (The third finalist was San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

I thought Molina was in line for his ninth career gold glove, but it’s headed to Cincinnati. After winning the NL catching gold glove for eight consecutive seasons, Molina is 0 for 2 over the last two years.

My purpose here isn’t to disparage Barnhart. He is a good catcher in many areas, and has a rocket arm. Some of the advanced defensive metrics for catchers gave Barnhart an edge over Molina. Barnhart had more Defensive Runs Saved, for example. But other numbers put Molina ahead of Barnhart, including two that I usually check out each season at Baseball Reference.

BR has a metric that assesses the leverage factor in steal attempts. And the leverage factor in caught-stealing situations. To boil it down: this is about game context … there is more at risk, and more pressure, in trying to steal a base when your team is down by a run in the eighth inning compared to, say, an attempted steal with your team up by four runs in the eighth inning.

And in both categories — Stolen Base Leverage Index, and Caught Stealing Leverage Index — Molina had a higher (as in better) “score” than Barnhart.

According to the Baseball Prospectus catching metrics, Molina has 7.5 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) in 2017. Or if we want to use the adjusted figure, Molina’s FRAA was 4.5.

Barnhart was minus 2.5 FRAA and minus 2.7 adjusted FRAA.

Barnhart was significantly  better than Molina at blocking pitches in 2017. Barnhart was one of the top blockers in the majors this past season, rated No. 2 by Baseball Prospectus. Molina was a tick above average, but his pitch-blocking performance was mediocre.

But in another important part of the job, Molina was vastly superior to Barnhart in framing pitches to get called strikes for his pitcher. And given the extraordinary volume of pitches received by Molina, that’s no small thing.

The voters were understandably impressed by Barnhart’s exceptional throwout rate (43.8 percent) on stolen-base attempts. But it isn’t as if Molina did a bad job; at 36 percent Molina came in well above the overall throwout rate (27 percent) in MLB. Baseball Prospectus rated Barnhart as the No. 1 thrower among regular big-league catchers this season, but Molina was high in the rankings at No. 4.

In 2017, both catchers did an outstanding job of throwing out the rascal base snatchers that dared to challenge them.

Now …

This is where I become confused.

Again … Barnhart had the superior throw-out rate. I do not contest that. At all.

But shouldn’t the  NUMBER  of attempted stolen bases enter into the evaluation?

If base stealers are intimidated by a catcher — or just reluctant to try him — then the catcher is suppressing stolen-base attempts. The catcher is so effective at zipping throws down to second or third base to strike a runner down, his arm becomes a deterrent. Oh, so you want to steal something from me? The catcher is the menacing guard dog defending his territory. Go ahead. Try to get past him. Try to steal something from his house.

Um, no thanks. I’ll just stay here, right where I am. 

And there’s value in that, absolutely. I mean, a runner can’t steal a base if he isn’t even willing to try. But if a catcher is viewed as less threatening — a runner won’t be as cautious. He’ll go more often; the risk is lower.

So let me pose this to you …

What would you say if I told you a “Catcher A” had more stolen-base attempts against him than “Catcher B” …. even though “Catcher B” caught started 28 more games and caught 199 more innings that “Catcher A?”

Well, that was the case in 2017 with Barnhart and Molina.

Molina led MLB catchers with 133 starts and caught the most innings at 1,125.2.

Barnhart started 105 games, and caught 926.1 innings.

Molina had 66 steal attempts against him in 1,125.2 innings.

Barnhart had 69 steal attempts against him in 926.1 innings.

Sheesh.

What the heck does that say?

It tells us that Molina was more of a deterrent than Barnhart, and it ain’t close.

And it also tells us that the voting experts seem to be overlooking or downplaying one of the most crucial aspects of catching — and a catcher’s value.

If we agree that Barnhart and Molina both are very good defensively, then please explain this:

Shouldn’t it mean something that Molina did a helluva lot more catching than Barnhart?

I would think the first job requirement for a catcher is, well, actually catching.

And applying his terrific catching skills to help his team and his pitchers for as many games and innings as possible.

So yeah, call me a homer but I believe when we have two strong defensive catchers … and Molina starts 28 more games and catches about 200 more innings than Barnhart … that should matter.

Going back to the steal attempts …

Sure, some of this is based on a catcher’s reputation. And Molina’s rep discourages runners. Since he arrived in St. Louis during the 2004 season, Molina’s caught-stealing rate of 41.2 percent is the best in the bigs over that time. And between 2004-2017, the overall throw-out rate in MLB is 28 percent. Managers and base runners have taken notice.

Since Molina became the Cardinals’ starting catcher at the start of the 2005 season, teams have swiped 705 bases against the Cardinals.

(That total includes steals against Molina’s backups. But since Molina has caught in 79 percent of the Cards’ games over the last 13 seasons … well, you get my point. )

While other teams were stealing only 705 bases against the Cardinals between 2005 and 2017, no other MLB team allowed fewer than 1,000 steals. Ten gave up at least 1,200 steals. And eight five allowed 1,400 steals or more.

Yep. Only 705 steals against the Cardinals.

It’s the same story with attempted steals. Between 2005 and 2017, the Cardinals had 1,038 stolen base attempts against them.

The other 29 MLB teams had between 1,340 and 1,997 steals attempts against them. Literally hundreds more than the Cardinals.

This is profound stuff, if you ask me.

Molina should have more than eight gold gloves.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: As the Offseason Begins, There’s Intense Pressure on the Cardinals’ Front Office