The Yadier Affair

There is something wrong with Yadier Molina and that means bad news for the Cardinals.

If there is anything that Cardinals fans should take for granted, it’s a good defensive catcher. Over the last decade, the Cardinals have employed two excellent starting backstops.  First there was Mike Matheny.  Then, after he left for San Francisco, Yadier Molina took over and has held the job ever since.

First, there was Mike Matheny. Matheny was an abomination with the bat. In 2001, he got 424 PAs despite a .218/.276/.304 line.   Don’t look too long at that stat line.  It’s  been known to cause headaches, confusion, nausea, and abandonment of hope.  Also you can add the BA, OBP, and SLG together and it’s still lower than Barry Bonds’ 2001 SLG (.863) so there’s that.

There’s probably a good argument that Matheny should not have been an everyday player for a major league team.  But that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Matheny managed to keep the starting job because Tony La Russa loved him, and because he was amazing behind the plate.  A disclaimer: evaluating catcher defense with statistics sucks right now.  I’m not sure if anyone has come up with a good stat yet, so I’m stuck using the eye test (which is both biased and bad in general) and numbers that may only be marginally illuminating.  But I don’t think anyone will argue that Matheny was a bad catcher.  What stats we do have back up my assertion: in his five years with the Cards, he averages 4.4 passed balls a year, 27.2 wild pitches, and 2.8 errors.  For his career, he threw out 35% of attempted basestealers.  He also won a few Gold Gloves, but so has Derek Jeter so Gold Gloves mean nothing.

Yadier Molina followed him with more excellence.  In his first 6 full years as the Cardinals’ starting catcher, Molina averaged 6.3 passed balls, 28.7 wild pitches, 6 errors.  Not as good as Matheny, but outside of a godawful 2006 (which he redeemed with a certain timely HR) he’s a better hitter and he’s thrown out a stunning 46% of baserunners.

Granted, there are a lot of things wrong with all these numbers I’ve thrown out there.  The difference between a passed ball and a wild pitch is the whim of the official scorer.  CS% is also dependent on the pitcher and the speed of his delivery.  Errors?  Official scorer again.  But Molina, like Matheny, passes the eye test.  Almost every game, we see his strong throws and his quick feet and his ability to block the plate.

Something’s different this year.  He’s not as quick as he has been in the past.  His arm is weaker and more errant, though he’s still managed to nail 38% of runners.  This speaks to the baseline that he’s deviating from–a bad throw from Yadier is still a good throw.  His errors yesterday were bad, and that’s what prompted me to make this post, but that’s not the biggest issue.  Most pressing, he’s not protecting his pitchers like we’re used to.  He’s not getting out in front of pitches before they can fly errant.  It shows both on the field and in the (admittedly bad) stats.  He already has 14 wild pitches and 2 passed balls.

What does this mean?  It’s not just bad for Yadier and his quest for a fourth Gold Glove.  It’s bad for our pitchers.  For a decade now, our pitchers have never had to fear bouncing a curveball in front of the plate.  They’ve been able to throw a slider off the outside corner without worrying about it slipping from the catchers glove.  And they’ve rested a bit easier with a speedy runner on first base.  Undoubtedly, TLR and Duncan’s pitch selection has been influenced by this security as well.  But what if it went away?  If Molina is injured, or age and workload are catching up to him, the pitchers will have to adjust.  Hopefully the “Dave Duncan Effect” wasn’t actually the “Cardinals Catcher Effect”

Hopefully this is just a slump.  People say defense doesn’t slump.  Those people never watched a full year of Brendan Ryan.  If Yadier Molina works his way out of this, then I’ve written a whole bunch of words about nothing.  But it’s a concern, especially when the defense everywhere else on the diamond is so suspect.

PS: This weekend I will be taking part in the fourth annual UCB Progressive Game Blog.  It’s a collaborative look at a single game, with each inning handled by a different blogger.  Check out the information here.