Value of catchers not easily measured by stats
Advanced numbers don't tell whole story of backstops like Cardinals' Molina
PHOENIX -- Yadier Molina has won six consecutive National League Gold Glove Awards. If you consult with anybody who has worn a St. Louis Cardinals uniform since Molina's arrival in 2004, you are sure to hear that he's the most valuable defensive player in Major League Baseball by a substantial margin.
"Yadi's the best I've seen behind the plate in my 50 years in the game," Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa said, taking it a few steps beyond.
And yet, not once in his career has Molina been the MLB leader in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for defense, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The highest rating Molina has been given for his defense is merely 2.9 wins in 2010. Playing for Toronto and Atlanta, shortstop Alex Gonzalez was the leader that year at 3.7. Molina ranked sixth. The highest Yadier has been is fifth, in 2012.
Molina was accorded lavish and fairly universal credit for directing a rookie-heavy Cardinals pitching staff to a second World Series appearance in three seasons in 2013. It's baffling that his defensive WAR of 2.1 was third best among catchers, behind Welington Castillo (2.8) and Russell Martin (2.6). Molina was not among the top 10 overall defensively, bringing looks of disbelief from the game's best minds.
Numbers might not lie, but they don't always tell the whole truth -- or even come close.
At Chase Field during Tuesday's media availability of MLB general managers and managers, unsparing praise flowed with every mention of Molina and catchers, and their unquantifiable value as a group.
"Ask any manager," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "It's a hard skill, a difficult skill. When you see it and hear it, you know it's there. When you're managing a club or running a club, there are qualities you're looking for -- and when you have one like Molina, it's worth its weight in gold."
Seattle imported veteran John Buck not just for his bat and experienced defense behind the plate but also for his ability to mentor Mike Zunino, the club's catcher of the future. Catchers respect catchers, knowing the full breadth of their responsibilities.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, who began his playing career as a Reds catcher in 1978, understands fully what Molina brings to his team.
"I think it gets lost in the grand scheme of things, but I don't think there's anything more important than the relationship a catcher develops with his pitching staff," said McClendon, a Tigers coach under Jim Leyland before moving to the Pacific Northwest. "Yadier Molina, he's number one, no question. Not only for the way he handles the staff but in the way he shuts down the running game and blocks balls [in the dirt] as well.
"Miguel Cabrera is a different animal, but if you're talking about total value as a player, Molina is right there with him."
There is so much involved in being a catcher -- knowing the personalities and quirks of 12 or 13 pitchers; studying opposing hitters; reining in a running game; keeping everyone on the field focused -- that it takes years before a finished product such as Molina emerges.
"When he first came up, he wasn't much heralded by other people," said Reds GM Walt Jocketty, a Cards executive in Molina's youth. "We thought highly of him and told him to concentrate on his defense, that the hitting would come.
"I love the guy. I'm really happy to see him develop his potential the way he has."
Jocketty credits Albert Pujols, Molina's former teammate and close friend and mentor in St. Louis, with being a positive influence in terms of his "discipline and how to prepare."
San Francisco's Bruce Bochy has one of the game's best catchers in Buster Posey, but the 2012 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner won't rest on his laurels.
"In this game, particularly for a catcher, you never stop learning," Bochy said. "If you do, it's time to move on. Buster feels there's room for improvement in all things, including game calling. It's all about picking up little things in watching other guys. Buster listens; he wants to learn. He's not a guy who thinks he has it figured out."
A former catcher, like Bochy, Oakland manager Bob Melvin is amazed that Molina has hit .305, .315 and .319 the past three seasons while handling the multiple defensive demands and averaging 137 games.
"He's pretty unique," Melvin said. "He has an impact whether he's hitting or not. He does everything well, but what he does best is giving his pitching staff confidence with the trust they put in him. When Yadier Molina puts a finger down, it takes away any uncertainty with a pitch. They're lucky to have him."
Kansas City has perhaps the Molina of the next generation in Salvador Perez, the massive Venezuelan with star-quality skills and an attitude to match. Martin, Castillo, Yan Gomes, Jonathan Lucroy, A.J. Ellis, Matt Wieters, Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis are among other catchers highly regarded inside the game for their defensive work.
In Miami, Mathis clearly had a large hand in the emergence of rookie right-hander Jose Fernandez, the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner. The analytics community is skeptical with respect to catchers' ERA, but Mathis' history makes a strong argument for its value.
In each of his seven full seasons, Mathis' CERA has been substantially lower, by about a half-run per game, than the team's overall ERA. His 3.75 career CERA is measurably better than the 4.20 MLB norm over the period.
The gap was huge last year with the Marlins, who fashioned a 3.15 ERA with Mathis behind the plate, 3.71 overall. Fernandez? The phenom had a 1.56 ERA in 109 1/3 innings with Mathis, 3.27 in 63 1/3 innings with four other receivers.
"He's a veteran guy," Marlins manager Mike Redmond said of Mathis. "He does such a great job with the pitching staff. I think sometimes we forget, not only are we developing our young players, we're developing our pitching staff as well. That's probably going to be the thing that carries us over that long haul, our pitching staff and our defense."
New Dodgers starter Dan Haren, an 11-year Major League veteran with 327 appearances with five clubs, owns a 2.41 ERA with Mathis in 32 games. This is by far the best he's had with any of his 15 catchers.
"Jeff does everything you'd want in a catcher," Haren said. "Fans can say what they want about his [lack of] hitting, but I'm pretty sure every pitcher he's ever worked with will tell you he's great."
The analytics community will tell you that Mathis is a terrible player -- because of his .195/.255/.310 offensive line and because they don't trust CERA.
"The only numbers that really matter are wins and losses," Angels ace Jered Weaver said in 2011, Mathis' final season with the Halos. "We've won a lot more than we've lost since Jeff's been catching here."
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.