One of the most prevalent baseball debates in recent years is in regard to the merit of Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case. From a traditional perspective, he has it all: the reputation, the accolades, the championships, the longevity. Still, some analytically driven fans have argued that his induction would be undeserved. Yadier has an interesting Hall of Fame case, but that’s another article entirely. I’m more interested in the debate no one is having: one about his brother, Jose. While Yadier Molina is a household name among baseball fans and the eldest Molina, Bengie, was at least a full time player, Jose had a decidedly understated career. He never won an official MLB award, nor did he even receive a single vote (his older and younger brothers combined for eleven Gold Gloves). He never played more than 102 games, reaching that total at age 37 with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. In fact, he averaged just 55 games played over the first decade of his MLB career. He was a career bench player. But what if he wasn’t?
HIS HISTORIC SEASON
When we talk about historic seasons, there are a few that pop up in every discussion. Williams’ .406 year in 1941. Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001. A host of Ruth seasons. Here’s one you might not hear often: Jose Molina’s 2008. It’s certainly not celebrated. Wikipedia dedicates just one paragraph to his 2008 season, briefly touching on two interesting tidbits: his September 21st home run, the last one ever hit in the House that Ruth Built, and the fact that he was successful on all but one of his sac bunt attempts. It’s safe to say this season isn’t viewed as one for the history books.
So what made it so special? The Yankees’ starting catcher, Jorge Posada, went down for the season midsummer, leaving the 33 year old Molina to play in triple digit games (100 exactly) for the first time in his career. His numbers were not particularly flashy, with a slash of .216/.263/.313 and a wRC+ of 51 that ranks in the bottom 2.1% of all seasons in MLB history with at least 250 PA. Still, Molina managed to produce 3.6 fWAR (FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement) and 3.7 bWARP (Baseball Prospectus’), a 150 game pace* of 5.4 fWAR and 5.6 WARP. For context, 2018 NL MVP runner-up Javier Baez posted an fWAR of 5.3 in 160 games. Christian Yelich’s 2018 NL MVP campaign was worth a bWARP of 4.8 in 147 games. So how did Jose manage to put up borderline MVP caliber production despite costing his team approximately two wins on offense? He quietly played perhaps the greatest defensive season on record.
Let’s break it down. Molina contributed a mind boggling 45.3 Def (FanGraphs’ adjusted defensive runs) and 35.8 FRAA (Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average). Prorated to 150 games, those numbers would be 68.0 and 53.7. The most Def recorded in a season, as it so happens, belongs to another catcher, Brian McCann, in the very same year. McCann put up 50.1 in 145 games. The most FRAA ever contributed in a single season (since 1988, the start of the pitch-by-pitch data era, and thus the earliest season in which framing value can be somewhat reasonably estimated) is Andruw Jones’ 48.2 in 162 games in 1999. The most by a catcher is Jonathan Lucroy’s 41.7 in 136 games in 2011. This is all essentially fancy-talk for “Jose Molina’s 2008 is unprecedented.”
Here are a few more ways to look at it. Give Jose Molina no more playing time but league average batting and his 2008 WAR is around 5.5. Give him the catcher standard 135 games played and it’s around 7.0. A really fun one: without giving him any performance or volume boosts, FanGraphs valued his 2008 at $22.2M; he made $17.3M in his entire career. However, this article is not about Jose Molina’s 2008, nor is it about what he’d look like with league average offense. The true question is how his career would have played out if teams simply let him play.
What follows is a list of Molina’s innings played at catcher, bWARP, Deserved Runs Above Average (Prospectus’ offensive value metric), and FRAA in each year of his career**.
While these totals certainly are not bad, they don’t exactly jump out either. His 21.0 bWARP ranks 64th all time among catchers***. Of course, his career was held back by playing time constraints more than performance. Let’s estimate these figures if Molina had been a full time player. While games played may be the more accepted standard for volume, Molina often came in for a short time as a defensive replacement, so even a full season of these appearances would not truly represent regular playing time. Instead, I’ll estimate his yearly playing time at 1,000 innings, 215 below the catcher standard (to account for potential added injuries and decreased production from increased playing time). This approach is certainly not the most precise (WARP and DRAA are dependent on different measures of volume than FRAA, for one), but it is a quick way to get an idea of the kind of value Molina could have put up given the opportunity to play more. The table that follows shows Molina’s bWARP on a per 1,000 innings basis by year (excluding his cup-of-coffee in 1999, which remains untouched).
Interestingly, this exercise yields an estimated career total (42.0) exactly double Molina’s bWARP of 21.0. This adjusted figure would rank 22nd in MLB history among catchers. His new career DRAA of -193.7 would be the worst in MLB history, just barely edging out Lefty Grove’s -191.1. The worst by a position player is Cristian Guzman’s -185.4. However, Molina’s new FRAA would be the most all time by a wide margin, his 359.5 demolishing his brother Yadier’s record of 250.2. His games played total (approximately 1,560), meanwhile, would likely be somewhere from just 45th to 50th all time at his position. Clearly, this is a conservative estimate of playing time for a “full time” catcher with a fifteen year career. To conduct a more liberal version of this exercise, I have also estimated his yearly totals assuming the standard 1,215 innings, again leaving 1999 untouched.
This adjustment increases his estimated total from 42.0 to 51.0. This would place Jose Molina 12th all time in catcher bWARP, behind the likes of Mike Piazza, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Yogi Berra, Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, Ted Simmons, and Joe Torre. Just behind Jose to round out the top twenty would be Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Gene Tenace, Bill Freehan, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, Ernie Lombardi, and Thurman Munson. To simplify: a whole bunch of Hall of Famers. Molina’s new games played total (approximately 1,900) would now rank around 25th for catchers. His DRAA would be head and shoulders above (below?) the worst of the worst, ranking around 50 runs worse than Guzman’s position player record. Meanwhile, his new FRAA of 436.6 would be so absurdly unprecedented it feels comedic to even type it out. These numbers are not meant to be “would have” numbers, but more like “could have” numbers, given that they assume no injuries and equal rate production.
Thus, these figures should not simply be taken at face value. An increase in playing time means more opportunities to produce, but it also means more opportunities to get injured and more fatigue, which could have meant a dropoff in production at the ends of seasons, not to mention long term as the weight of prior years continued to eat at his body. There is also a question as to how this increased volume would affect Molina’s bat. Would he have been even worse than he already was with all the additional wear and tear? Would he have improved with more regular at bats? It’s impossible to say for sure where Jose Molina would be if teams were smart enough to let him play, but I can think of one place: a nice little museum in Cooperstown, New York.
*NOTE: 150 games is generally the standard “full season” for non-catcher position players, while 135 is often used for catchers. However, I use 150 here for comparative convenience to examples of similar seasons in overall value and defensive value. Additionally, “pace” here doesn’t mean what he would have done with more opportunities, but is simply a way of better contextualizing his performance on a rate basis.
**I initially planned on including the aforementioned Prospectus figures as well as FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, Offensive Runs, and Defensive Runs, but framing numbers do not extend back to the first half of Molina’s career (covering only 2008-2014), so I opted to omit these numbers.
***It is important to acknowledge that defensive data for catchers is incomplete prior to 1988, as Prospectus does not track framing data in earlier seasons. Catchers from earlier eras are still listed on bWARP and FRAA leaderboards, although their numbers do not benefit from any framing prowess they may have possessed.