The Yadier Molina Effect

Yadi knows everything about every single hitter, exactly what to throw. If you execute your pitches and throw them where he wants the ball, you’re going to get hitters out, have a better ERA, win the game. I seriously believe that all the success I’ve had is totally on him.” – St. Louis Cardinals’ rookie Shelby Miller

It’s not just instinct. It’s sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art.” – Former manager Tony La Russa

With him catching me, I never had to worry. It’s never like he was back there guessing. He gets to know his pitchers. He got to know me, what I like to do, my strengths and weaknesses. When I got into trouble, what do we need to do to get me out of it? Those are the things he not only has to remember for one guy, but a whole staff. The ability to do that is pretty amazing.” – Milwaukee Brewers’ pitcher Kyle Lohse

The quotes listed above are just a small sampling of the praise that has generally rained down on Yadier Molina over the past 5 seasons or so. He’s widely regarded as the best defensive catcher in baseball thanks to his sublime framing skills, his Howitzer arm, and a glove so soft that Adam Wainwright once described it as a pillow. But can the mighty Molina really lower a pitcher’s ERA while taking runs off the board, as Shelby Miller and so many others claim? Or is there something else at work here? Let’s dive into the data to see if we can catch a glimpse at the inner workings of St. Louis’ finest:

Season % of innings caught by Molina Team ERA with Molina Team ERA without Molina ERA Difference
2013 75.90% 3.22 4.33 -1.11
2012 79.40% 3.6 4.15 -0.55
2011 78.70% 3.8 3.55 0.25
2010 78.30% 3.23 4.79 -1.56
2009 81.70% 3.48 4.47 -0.99
2008 68.90% 4.2 4.16 0.04
2007 60% 4.29 5.17 -0.88
2006 72.60% 4.52 4.59 -0.07
2005 66.40% 3.39 3.68 -0.29
2004 23.70% 3.64 3.77 -0.13
Total 68.40% 3.74 4.21 0.47


So, at least by the simplest of measures, it appears that the hype surrounding Molina is indeed justified. If we strictly go by ERA, St. Louis’ pitchers have allowed fewer runs with Molina behind the plate in 8 of his 10 seasons and over the course of the sublime catcher’s career he’s been responsible for a half a run drop in his staff’s ERA.

The youngest Molina brother has only gotten better with age too. Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Molina and his pitchers have posted a 3.48 ERA with him behind the plate, compared to a 4.24 ERA with anybody else. There are only a handful of catchers in baseball with even one season of ERA improvement that’s more than 0.76. Molina’s been averaging that for 5 straight years while spending more innings behind the dish than any other ballplayer.

At least some part of Molina and his staff’s success has to be attributed to the way he calls a game. St. Louis’ pitchers rarely shake of their catcher and the younger members of the staff (Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, among others) follow Molina’s instruction to the letter. And while it’s difficult to tell whether or not that the majority of that drop in ERA is caused by Molina’s pitch selection, there are a couple of things the All-Star catcher does that are guaranteed to keep runs off the board.

The first (and potentially most important) cause of the Molina effect is Yadier’s ability to block any ball thrown his way. The Cardinals as a team have allowed fewer passed balls and wild pitches than every other team in baseball for the better part of the past decade and Molina, who catches between 75-80% of his team’s games annually, is the biggest reason why.

This year alone Cardinals’ catchers have allowed just 26 passed balls/wild pitches and no other team, outside of Philadelphia, is even in the same ballpark. Not only does every blocked ball prevent base runners from advancing, but it also has the added effect of instilling confidence in a pitcher while giving them a greater variety of options with two strikes. Shelby Miller and Adam Wainwright can throw vicious, bouncing curveballs into the dirt all day long with the knowledge that, no matter what, Molina will be there to keep the ball in front.

Yadi is also second to none at taking runners off the bases. His arm strength is the stuff of legend and his extensive history of picking runners off of 1st base keeps lead-offs to a minimum. His effect on the running game is also unmatched in baseball today. As we saw back in May, most runners are cautious when even thinking about swiping a bag. Molina allows the fewest stolen base attempts in the league and those brave souls that are foolish enough to run are gunned down at an elite 45% rate.

What Yadier Molina is doing on defense right now is almost otherworldly. He’s one of the 3 or 4 best catchers in the game at every single aspect of defensive play and thanks to his production at the plate. He’s a legitimate MVP candidate in the National League and at this point a 6th straight Gold Glove is a foregone conclusion.

24 thoughts on “The Yadier Molina Effect

  1. 1
    no statistician but says:

    He has also come into his own with the bat.

    This sounds like work, but it would be interesting to see the documentation you provide compared to similar stats for catchers from the past with reputations for pitcher-handling ability, such as Jim Hegan, now little remembered, of the Feller-Lemon-Wynn-Garcia Indians, or Berra, Bench, Rodriguez, Pick-your-own-name.

    • 9
      wx says:

      As a Phillies fan, I’d be very interested to see Carlos Ruiz done in this manner

    • 23
      Hartvig says:

      If there either already is or if anyone is contemplating doing some sort of a study on catchers performance along these lines one player I would love to see the results on would be Brad Ausmus. When he was active many people talked of his ability to handle a pitching staff and it’s pretty obvious he didn’t catch more games that all but 6 other catchers in the history of the game because of his bat.

  2. 2
    mosc says:

    I feel like everything you’ve said here is an understatement. He’s also stayed relatively healthy and his offensive production over the past 3 years has been comparable to some of the best hitters in the league. His 16.7 DWAR to me is about half of what it should be. Doubling that roughly puts him at 40 WAR career at age 30.

    Pitchers to me are overvalued because of their defensive ineptitudes. A lot of the battery’s performance is combined into the catcher’s score so when a poor defensive pitcher is out there, the catcher suffers. Pitchers vary widely on their ability to hold runners, field their position, and cover first. Defensive value of pitchers is not properly understood and a lot of the slack falls on the catcher.

    The entire base running statistical analysis is… young. Base stealing is under appreciated, as is controlling the running game. Even taking the extra base or tagging up to advance are things that are poorly tracked. A lot of that inaccuracy shadows the catching position as well. Yadier is a massive detractor to the running game.

    • 4
      RJ says:

      I appreciate that you feel dWAR is not distributed fairly amongst the positions, but if we arbitrarily double a statistic it becomes pretty meaningless. WAR most certainly does not undervalue Molina’s fielding contribution compared to other catchers: his Rfield is 5th all-time for that position. Assuming even a modest defensive performance for the rest of his career and he’ll likely end up at 2nd on that list, behind Pudge.

    • 6
      RJ says:

      Doubling Molina’s dWAR would put him in the top 5 for any position, ever, and he’s only 30. If he averages 1.5 dWAR per year for the next five years (this is below his career average) then he still cracks the top 20 in all-time dWAR.

    • 7
      Artie Z. says:

      Adding to what RJ wrote, if you argue that “Defensive value of pitchers is not properly understood …” it may be the case that, once it is properly understood, the Cardinals as a team are teaching their pitchers to do things that make them better than other pitchers (I have no idea if this is true, having not watched much of the Cardinals and not looked at any detailed statistics – but we don’t know that this is not true either). If that is the case, then maybe Molina is valued exactly as he should be, but someone else is working with atrocious pitchers and should be valued much more highly. What you seem to be doing is assuming that the “correct” valuation of pitcher defensive contributions will double Molina’s dWAR – and we have no idea if that is true, or if it will remain the same, or even be cut in half.

      • 10
        mosc says:

        It is one factor. Pitch framing is another. Managing the running game is yet another. Also, I don’t feel pitch blocking is attributed well between the battery. For example, Cardinals starters have combined for just 13 wild pitches in 126 games! Saving a wild pitch doesn’t really get counted favorably for the catcher.

        There are many compounding factors that undervalue the defensive importance of a catcher that cannot be tossed aside by simply saying they’re equally unfair

  3. 3

    Well done, David. Very well written, very illuminating. The fans seem to understand how important Molina is, as he’s dominated recent All-Star voting, even with the reigning MVP as competition. Writers, though, are an uphill battle, as he’s not likely to drive in enough runs to win an MVP. He’d be a solid candidate this year if not for the time he missed earlier this month.

  4. 8
    John Autin says:

    Excellent, David, very thorough.

    One specific point about WP+PB eludes me: “The Cardinals as a team have allowed fewer passed balls and wild pitches than every other team in baseball for the better part of the past decade….”

    I can’t tell if you mean that the Cardinals have led the annual rankings for most of Yadi’s seasons, or if you’re gauging the combined totals for that period. But if I’ve done my arithmetic correctly, neither of those interpretations is true.

    The Cardinals’ annual rank in fewest WP+PB during Yadier’s seasons as their top catcher, out of all 30 teams:
    – 2013, 1st
    – 2012, 10th
    – 2011, 13th (tied)
    – 2010, 8th (tied)
    – 2009, 3rd (tied)
    – 2008, 9th (tied)
    – 2007, 6th (tied)
    – 2006, 1st
    – 2005, 14th

    And for 2005-13 combined, the Phillies have the fewest WP+PB (394), with St. Louis 2nd (441), and nos. 3 through 7 closer to the Cards than the Cards are to the Phillies. The Phils have led in each of the prior 4 years (2009-12).

    At least, that’s what my calculations show.

    (Method: For each season, I copied B-R’s yearly team catching stats into Excel, summed the WP+PB, then sorted by that sum.)

  5. 11
    Mike L says:

    Wanted to put something out there but didn’t see a logical place. There’s a story in today’s Washington Post that says that MLB’s PAC has received a letter citing an excess contribution to Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican. The Commissioners office reported that about 28% of all current major leaguers were born outside the 50 states, with all but 4 percent Latino. The Dominican Republic (89) and Venezuela (63) have the greatest number. The Molinas were born in Puerto Rico, so they would be citizens. But the Sessions (double) contribution caught my eye (I think I’m probably the worst political junkie on HHS) because Sessions (along with Senators Cruz, Cornyn, and Grassley) have been spearheading opposition to the Gang of Eight bill in the Senate, and are looking to severely curtail any immigration (legal or not) from Latino countries I understand that MLB is a terrifically profitable business that has to spread around the cash, but I thought that particular contribution was interesting, given both the percentage of Latino players and the pipeline. Given that these are uniquely skilled individuals, there’s probably an immigration loophole for them, but…

  6. 20
    BryanM says:

    It strikes me that one way of getting at the likely benefit of good catching is to question the position adjustments that are used to equate the contributions of the different positions – in other words, not to question how much above an average catcher Molina is, but whether or not the average catcher is fairly valued by the current system. One way of gathering anecdotal evidence is to compare the total WAR for the top 5 players at any position and ask whether catchers are in general less talented than other ballplayers or whether in fact the position is harder to play than we give it credit. Two other anecdotal bits ; Casey Stengel on his success ” I never play a big game without my man ” (Yogi). And the fact that newspapers used to publish starting batteries, not just starting pitchers, as the most valuable information to estimate chances of team success.

  7. 21
    BryanM says:

    Further to my@20. I have just been glancing at the career records of Johnny Bench and his near contemporary , Ted Simmons, the latter was ,in his time, by reputation an average defensive catcher, an assessment with which BRef broadly concurs. Both men caught around 15000 innings, the vast majority in the same league at the same time. Simmons allowed about 150 more WP+PB And 720 more steal attempts at an incremental rate of 79%. – that’s an awful lot of bases, to say nothing of pitch framing or game management.. Maybe Bench at 75 WAR and Simmons at 50 are both a little undervalued by the system , and maybe an “average” catcher is worth half a win per year more than replacement , my mental appreciation of both has moved up as a result of this thread

  8. 22

    […] Puerto Rico’s Cinderella run to the final of the World Baseball Classic. Cardinals’ pitchers watch a full run magically disappear of their collective ERA with Molina behind the plate he caught 43% of would-be thieves, limiting the opposition to just 1 […]

  9. 24

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