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St. Louis Cardinals: Quantifying The Intangible Value Of Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina

One of the biggest arguments for the St. Louis Cardinals to extend Yadier Molina is the “intangible value” he brings to the club, especially in his management of the pitching staff. I’ve often wondered if there is a way to quantify this intangible value. Today, I set out to do just that by looking at batted ball data, advanced catcher metrics, and catcher ERA.

If Yadi brings anything intangible to the table, especially in terms of pitcher management and game calling, we should find evidence in the exit velocity and launch angle allowed on batted balls while he is catching. If Yadi is better at fooling hitters through his pitch sequencing and guidance, we’d expect that to show up in the form of lower exit velocities and less “barrels.”

Yadier Molina

In 2015, Yadi was a full MPH better at suppressing exit velocities than his backups, and was nearly a full MPH better than the MLB average. While he was slightly worse than his backups in 2016, he was again nearly a full MPH better than league average.

Among the 43 catchers with 1000 tracked batted balls against in 2015, Yadier Molina ranked 6th lowest. In 2016, among 48 catchers, he ranked fourth lowest. Considering the struggles the St. Louis staff had this season, his 2016 ranking is no small accomplishment. As a side note, it also probably means the St. Louis Cardinals were a little unlucky and bad defensively.

Regarding launch angles, lower is better for a pitching staff. Based on that premise, Molina was a full degree better than his backups and the league in 2015, and then two degrees better than the league in 2016. While this is partly due to the groundball tendency of the staff, it also speaks to Molina’s ability to maximize that groundball tendency.

The trend continues into the rate at which batters square up the ball (measured by Barrel%). Barreled balls are defined as batted balls with a 50% chance or higher to be a hit; many of those balls are hits almost all the time. Below is a visual from Statcast:

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina has been a little better than his backups at minimizing Barrel%, and about .85% better than the MLB average. This is a product of the lower exit velocities and launch angles allowed by Molina and confirms that he does manage contact quality better than his peers. Over an average of 3000 batted balls per season, that difference only amounts to about 26 barrels. However, when you consider the high value nature of barreled balls and the number of games that are lost or changed by even one run, 26 barrels might mean a few extra wins.

Next, using advanced defensive metrics for catchers from Baseball Prospectus, we can evaluate how many runs Molina saves per season based on his pitch framing (FR), pitch blocking (BR), and throwing ability on stolen bases. Each of these metrics are scaled so that 0 is average. Since the runs saved/lost are accumulated through opportunities over the course of a season, I scaled FR to 8000 opportunities, BR to 5000 opportunities, and TR to 50 opportunities to put it on a rate basis, and total Catcher Runs (CR) to 1000 innings.

For some perspective and reasoning behind those scales, Molina has averaged about 8000 framing opportunities per season, 5000 blocking opportunities per season, and 50 steal attempts per season. The number of steal attempts don’t match what I’ve found on Baseball Reference (thread here), but for the sake of this article I’ll stick with what BP uses in their calculation.

Yadier Molina

By FR, Molina has been above average every single season of his career, and often among the very best in the MLB. His framing ability accounts for an average of 70% of his defensive value each season. He’s also been above average at blocking balls (BR) every year since 2005. While he’s clearly no longer as good by these metrics as he was in his prime, he is still above average at each.

By TR, he’s been above average every season except last year. He was well above average in 2014 and 2015, though, even when his FR and BR dropped down a level. Hopefully that’s a sign that he can rebound, and his performance in the WBC suggests he can.

By CR, he was still 8 runs above average, which equates to nearly one win. Additionally, he hasn’t been getting worse on a rate basis over the last three years. So, while his defense has fallen down a tier, it is still consistent year-to-year and is still very good relative to the rest of the league.

Putting Baseball Prospectus’ metrics and the Statcast data together, I’d expect to find a quantifiable run impact that Yadier Molina has on games. That value might show up through Catcher ERA (C ERA), which I found through Fox Sports. Whether C ERA is a real, significant statistic is a little controversial, but if we all believe Yadi really does impact games then we should also believe that we will find a difference between the ERA when he catches and the ERA when he does not.

First, I want to see whether starting catchers have a positive run impact defensively or not. It would make sense that starter’s are better than their backups, but does that show up in C ERA? To find out, I looked at the “qualified” catchers every season since 2004, averaged their C ERA (QC ERA), and compared it to the league average and an estimated non-qualified C ERA (NQC ERA, calculated using the league average ERA and estimated playing time distribution).

Yadier Molina

With a 0.18 difference in ERA, it’s fair to conclude that starters are a little better, on average, than their backup at suppressing their team’s ERA. If Yadi is better at suppressing team ERA than the average MLB starter, than we’d expect the gap between his C ERA and his backups’ C ERA to be greater than the Starter Factor in a given season.

To find the Yadi Factor, I used his C ERA from each season and the innings he’s caught each year (available at FanGraphs) to calculate the earned runs scored while Yadi was catching. I then subtracted Molina’s stats from the total innings caught and total earned runs allowed by the St. Louis Cardinals each year to get a “not-Yadi” C ERA. The difference between Molina’s CERA and the not-Yadi C ERA after adjusting for the Starter Factor is the Yadi Factor.

Yadier Molina

Sure enough, Molina’s C ERA has been 0.42 runs better than all other Cardinals catchers, even after adjusting for the Starter Factor. Part of this is probably the fact that other Cardinals catchers have been replacement level or worse (I’m guessing), but a large part of it is the fact that Molina is really, really good at managing the staff and suppressing opponent runs.

A ton of this value has come in the last four years, since 2013. The average Starter Factor over this period is only -0.04, which is almost nonexistent. Yet, at the same time, Molina has been about 0.90 runs better than his backup. The resulting Yadi Factor over that period is -0.86. Over the last four seasons, Yadier Molina has been nearly a full run better per game than the average MLB starting catcher.

We saw this directly in 2014 when Molina went down for nearly two months with a thumb injury. In that period, Cardinals pitchers yielded an ERA of 4.50. When Molina was catching that season, they yielded an ERA of 3.19. That difference was not just a small sample size fluke.

Using the average Yadi Factor from the past four seasons and his average games started at catcher in those years (127), Molina has saved 110 runs per year for the Cardinals. If you want to play more conservatively and set the Yadi Factor at -0.42, he’s saved 53 runs per season.

That number won’t show up in WAR. It doesn’t really show up in Defensive Runs Saved or UZR. It only partially shows up in the Baseball Prospectus metrics. But it looks real, and it has a major impact.

FanGraphs projects Yadier Molina to play 125 games this season. Using that number and a Yadi Factor range from -0.40 to -0.80, he might save the Cardinals between 50 and 100 runs again this year.

Pay. That. Man.

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