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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

  • Frank Murtaugh

    Great stuff, Bernie. So hard to quantify Molina’s true value (because much of it is that “guard dog” quality and his adept skill at garnering called strikes for his pitchers). It’s gonna be interesting to see how this plays in his candidacy for the Hall of Fame someday. Fine offensive numbers, particularly for a catcher (but not what Ted Simmons put up, and he didn’t make it to a second ballot). Eight Gold Gloves, but still shy of Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez.

    Fact is, Yadi’s the best catcher baseball has seen over the last decade-plus (apologies Mr. Posey). Best way he can punch his ticket to Cooperstown is to play in a fifth World Series.

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    • Scott Warren

      Frank, Yadi doesn’t have the offensive numbers to make it. Look at Pudge, way, way better with the bat and just as good with the glove as Yadi. It will be a struggle for Yadi to get there.

      • geoff

        Pudge cheated

      • GMO Joe

        Ozzie made the HOF on his defense with just decent (not HOF-type) offensive numbers. When voters recognize an outstanding defensive player at a key defensive position (SS, catcher), they generally get in if ththeir offensive numbers are above average for their position. All of baseball recognizes Yadi as the best defensive catcher of his generation, and he’s had good offensive numbers for a catcher. Not only will he get into the HOF, I think it will be on the first ballot.

        • JohnS

          And Ozzie got in with below average offensive numbers, to buttress your “defense first” argument, GMO Joe….

          • GMO Joe

            Ozzie’s numbers definitely weren’t HOF material, but they weren’t all negative. He stole 580 bases, and while his early career numbers weren’t good, he did make himself into a good hitter, and that helped. Look at his OBP in the mid- to late 1980s, and they were very good – although still not HOF. It helped, but overall his offense was a bit of a detraction. His defense got him in. Molina has above average offensive numbers for a catcher, and it won’t detract. His offensive numbers won’t get him in, but they won’t hurt either.

        • Steve k

          Ozzie sits at 77 WAR for his career while Molina currently at 35 WAR, so not really a good comparison there. Molina will have to depend on intangibles that do not show up in WAR.

          I am not saying WAR is everything. Bruce Sutter is in at 25 WAR while Lou Whitaker is not at 75 WAR. I am just wondering if HOF voters 5 years after Molina retires will focus more on advanced stats rather than intangibles considering the way managers, writers, bloggers, etc. today, and presumably in the future, are becoming more focused than ever on these advanced metrics.

      • JohnS

        Scott you are using the old “second-best” argument. Just because player A is better than player B does not necessarily mean that player B is not deserving of the Hall of Fame…Judge Yadi on his own merits, and as others have noted, the prime thing you want from a catcher is superior defense and excellent handling of pitchers….Yadi has combined those qualities like few other catchers in MLB history, and is a pretty darned good hitter for the position also….

    • Mark Steinmann

      His candidacy is going to be very interesting. If this was football or even basketball, with their greater emphasis on titles and intangibles (leadership, etc), as well as pure statistical levels,he would be in. Using the JAWS system he is currently 29th, and will probably move up to the low 20’s by the end of his career. If the voters place as much or more emphasis on the playoff success and the defense, he’ll have a shot. An interesting comparison is Joe Mauer. He’s 7th in JAWS, but his entire candidacy is offensive based. And he’s only played 920 games at catcher (Yadi has nearly twice that at 1715), and has no playoff success to speak of. He did win an MVP award as well. I think most GMs would state they would rather have had Molina’s career, even if the WAR level isn’t quite at Mauer’s. How the Hall handles these 2 in 10 years will be fascinating.

    • JDinSTL

      Good luck with that! Would have to be with another team

  • James Berry

    Look, i’m a Yadi homer and a Cards homer…to a point. Yadi isn’t what he once was and there’s nothing unexpected about that. Few catchers age well and Yadi has been well above the curve on that front. But you and i can both see the slippage in reactions behind the plate. After his less than stellar 2016 behind the plate, it’s near amazing how much he regained of his old(younger) self in 2017.

    Barnhart was outstanding in 2017. In one game alone against the Cards he saved at least 6 wild pitches…and i do mean wild!

    I see no shame in Yadi not winning this season. Should Yadi have more GGs? Maybe. I cite 2007 as one season in particular that i believe he should have won, but Martin won it with the Dodgers instead.

  • Mike Bissell

    What about ERA when Molina/ Barnhart are catching as opposed to their backups?

    • Dennis

      Bernie has quoted a figure before, but I cannot find it anywhere. It was the Cards win percentage when Yadi starts compared to when his backups start, going back to 2004. It was something ridiculous like .560 to .485. That includes his offense as well, but gives an indication of his value in handling pitchers.

      • Mike Bissell

        I agree. I think during the Tony Cruz backup era, that there was almost a run differential in ERA between Yadi and Tony. That’s huge.

  • Doug Dillard

    Just ask team who it would want catching for it next season. Molina or Barnhart? Case closed!

    • Dan1281

      If it was this past season then I’d choose Barnhart. The guy who deserved it the most won it. Just come to grips with it. It will be ok.

      • Doug Dillard

        Ok, this past season. The answer is the same. Every team would pick Molina over Barnhart.

        • James Berry

          Are we including their respective salaries, because that would be a huge factor in a team’s choice.

        • Dan1281

          If you want to ignore reality and facts then that’s on you. Barnhart had the better overall season on the defensive side. You can say no all you wan’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. There are actual stats people use to make these decisions that show evidence on why Barnhart had a better year on defense. Seeing as how coaches and managers vote on the gold glove I’d say most teams would pick Barnhart at catcher for his defense instead of Molina. So you’re wrong again. Molina will go down as one of the best catchers to play the game, but he got outplayed on defense this season. I’m sure he will be in the running for another GG next season.

  • BradW

    Fangraphs gave Yadi a “Defense value” of 12.6 and Barnhart a 14.9. Yadi had a DRS of 3, and Barnhart had a DRS of 21. Those seem to suggest Barnhart was the superior defender, although I’m no expert. If Barnhart played for the Cards, would Bernie make the same argument?

    • rightthinker4

      Agree. Barnhart deserved the award. Not really any controversy.

    • Jace Barnett

      ANSWER: In a world where Barnhart was a Cardinal in 2017, Bernie would be saying that the right man won the award, and it wasn’t even close.

      Sometimes I honestly feel Bernie is less of a journalist and more of a confirmation-biased fan. And like many fans, he actually spends time searching for information to confirm said bias.

      It’s possible that Yadi may be deserving of more than 8 GG awards on his resume, but 2017 isn’t the right year to make that argument. Congratulations Barnhart. You deserve it.

      • BradW

        Agreed on the confirmation bias.

  • Scott Warren

    So Molina should benefit because “the manager” is doing his best to run him into the ground by playing him every, single day right before our eyes? Come on now. The right player won the award, move on.

  • geoff

    A part of lack of attempts can also be attributed to the pitchers doing their part as well. I have been watching baseball for about sixty years and Molina is the best I have seen, and I saw Bench and Berra, Howard and Campenella. I wonder, Bernie, if you could compare Molina’s numbers compared to other number five hitters this past year. I would hope the Cards could field a team that would enable them to have Molina hitting sixth or seventh in the lineup. While he was a fine clutch hitter this year, the team might be better served having him bat a bit lower in the lineup to try to clean up those heavier hitters that would precede him. I know it was a small sample size but, that Kelley kid didn’t hit his waist size, while Molina playing almost every day, turned the tide in an awful lot of games with his bat.

    • GMO Joe

      I don’t disagree with you, Geoff — although I’d have to take a look at what Molina did with RISP. But don’t write Kelley off based on the sporadic appearances he got this past season. You’d have to see what he does with regular playing time, and that’s not likely to happen with Molina around.

  • geoff

    If I were putting together a team for next season and started with the catcher’s spot my choice would be Molina followed by Sal Perez, Posey( not as much for his defense as his bat), and I would take Contreras of the Cubs over Barnhart all day every day. If you want to talk about a cannon for an arm and being a deterrent force that kid is a dandy and he is fun to watch. It looks to me like the Molina/Posey conversation will soon be the Barnhart/Contreras conversation.

  • Rich Rauch

    Compelling arguments, for sure. He should have more than eight.

    But I still look forward to a day when framing a pitch is no longer necessary. A few years back, I finally came around to the realization that the umpire exists only out of necessity, NOT to inject additional “human element” into The Game. The time to automate the calling of balls and strikes is long overdue.

    • Mike Bissell

      I agree 100%. I read not long ago that umpires across baseball miss something like 17% of pitches, (not sure of the exact figure, but in that neighborhood). Look up what hitter’s averages do when ahead 1-0, as opposed 0-1, or any other count. Yes, one missed pitch does make a difference. How many times have you seen a pitch 6 inches outside called a strike, then the next the batter flails at anything that comes in, because he doesn’t know what the strike zone is. Or the same with a pitcher. Throws an obvious strike, doesn’t get the call, grooves the next pitch and it gets hammered. And I don’t get the whole “framing” thing. Does that mean the umpire is watching the glove, as opposed to where the ball is in relationship to the plate?

  • Doug Palmer

    Few base stealing attempts indicates that only the elite base base runners try to steal on Molina, hence the lower percent of caught stealing. They are simply harder to throw out.