Cardinals Extend Yadier Molina At Premium Rate

Yadier Molina is one of my favorite players in the sport. His combination of elite defensive skills and developing offense gives him a real argument to be considered the best catcher in the sport, and he’s one of the main reasons the Cardinals have been a contending team since he took over as their regular catcher in 2005. And, beyond just his on field value, Molina is remarkably entertaining to watch, as his footwork and arm strength allow him to do things that most catchers can’t even dream of.

However, as much as I love Molina, I figured his contract extension talks with the Cardinals would end with him re-signing for something like $40 million over four years with some sort of vesting option at the end of the deal. Instead, he’s reportedly agreed to a five year contract with St. Louis worth between $70 and $75 million, per Ken Rosenthal, which would be the third richest deal for a catcher in the history of the game – only Joe Mauer ($184 million) and Mike Piazza ($91 million) made more in a single contract. Given the enormous gap between what I thought Molina would sign for and what he actually got from St. Louis, my initial reaction is that this was an overpay by the Cardinals. Even as good as Molina’s defense is – and as limited as our abilities are to accurately value catcher defense right now – they’re still signing up for the age 30-34 seasons of a catcher who has carried a pretty heavy workload up to this point in his career. At $14 million per year, Molina is going to have to remain one of the game’s best catchers in order to justify the salary. What are the odds that he’ll still be an elite player in 2017?

Maybe better than we all think. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Ryan Campbell’s story on catcher aging curves from last week, where he showed that the degradation in catcher performance might not be as severe at an early age as is always assumed. There’s definitely a downward trend, just as there is at other positions, but it doesn’t show the age-32 cliff dive that is commonly referenced for those who wear the tools of ignorance.

However, there’s more to measuring the wear and tear of catching than just a player’s age, as not every player breaks into the big leagues at the same time or carries the same workload early in their career. Molina got to the big leagues at age 21 and has been a starter for seven years, carrying an especially heavy workload the past three seasons, as he’s caught over 1,100 innings in each year since 2009. So, I decided to look at other catchers who had racked up similar sized workloads through this same point in their career, rather than just looking at all catchers as a whole.

Since 1962, only 13 catchers had more plate appearances through their age 28 season than Molina’s total of 3,497, and one of those is Joe Mauer, who doesn’t tell us anything about how Molina might age going forward. The other dozen guys who have carried a workload at least as large as Molina’s through age 28? Johnny Bench, Ted Simmons, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Carter, Butch Wynegar, Darrell Porter, Bill Freehan, Jason Kendall, Tim McCarver, Lance Parrish, Benito Santiago, and Thurman Munson.

Of that group, here’s essentially how it breaks down.

Aged well: Bench, Simmons, Rodriguez, Carter, Porter, Freehan, Santiago
Aged normally: Kendall, McCarver, Parrish, Munson
Fell off a cliff: Wynegar

Seven of the 12 all performed very well even after they turned 30, and four others performed fairly well even as they regressed from their prior form in terms of rate performance and playing time. Of the 12, only Wynegar really experienced dramatic decline, and given what we’ve been led to believe about catchers performance after turning 30, I’d certainly have expected to find more than just one example out of 12 high-workload guys who experienced a sudden and drastic end to an early productive career.

There’s no doubt that catching takes a toll on a player’s body, and that the careers of those who play the position are, on average, shorter than those who play other positions, but the evidence just doesn’t really support the notion that every productive catcher should be expected to turn into a pumpkin as soon as he turns 30. In fact, most of the high quality young catchers of the last 50 years have maintained a good portion of their value into their early-to-mid-30s, which are the years covered by this extension for Molina.

So, we shouldn’t just apply an extraordinarily severe aging curve to Molina simply due to the position he plays or the amount he’s played it early on in his career. In fact, we should probably just treat him like we would most any other player who signed a contract extension that covered his age 30-34 seasons, and assume that he’ll lose something close half a win off his value per year during the extension.

That brings us to the other question – how good do we think Molina presently is? There’s no question that catcher defense is one area that we just haven’t really figured out, so this is a much more open-ended question than it is with most other players in the sport. Molina has averaged +3.3 WAR per season over the last three years, but that only gives him credit for +0.3 wins per season above an average defensive catcher in terms of value with the glove. If Molina provides more defensive value than can just be measured by his ability to throw out opposing base runners (and he almost certainly does), we could easily be underestimating his value by as much as +1 per season. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we eventually look back and realize that Molina was more of a +4 to +5 win player the last few years, rather than the +3 to +4 win player that WAR currently values him at.

So, this is really an area where no one should be too terribly dogmatic about their opinions. Maybe Molina’s presently a +3 win guy, maybe he’s a +5 win guy, or maybe he’s anything in between. You can make a case for pretty much any true talent level in that range, and obviously whatever side you lean towards will greatly affect what kind of value you think he’ll produce going forward. I’ll settle on him as a +4 win player right now, and you can adjust your expectations up or down depending on how bullish you are on his defensive value.

A +4 win player for 2012, with normal aging, would offer value that looks something like this going forward, assuming $5M per win and 5% inflation.

2012: +4.0 WAR, $20M
2013: +3.5 WAR, $18.8M
2014: +3.0 WAR, $16.5M
2015: +2.5 WAR, $14.5M
2016: +2.0 WAR, $12.2M
2017: +1.5 WAR, $9.6M

The Cardinals already had Molina under contract for 2012, so for this extension, we’re only interested in 2013-2017. Interestingly enough, if you look at the $/WAR values for 2013-2017 with those assumptions, the total comes out to $71.1M, almost exactly what Molina just got from St. Louis. Basically, if the Cardinals believe that Molina’s presently a +4 win player who will age fairly normally, then they just paid something close to the market value for wins to keep him in St. Louis.

However, that conclusion is a bit of a two-edged sword. While that projection suggests that he may very well earn this extension, it also suggests that the Cardinals didn’t get any kind of discount for giving him this deal before he actually hit free agency, and they had to pay full market price for defensive value, which generally does not command full value on the free agent market. In other words, this is probably about what we’d have expected Molina to get if he stayed healthy and played well in 2012, and then became a free agent and had the leverage of multiple bidders. By giving him this deal now, the Cardinals essentially absorbed some injury and performance risk that was previously carried by Molina, and yet they didn’t really get much in the way of cost savings in exchange for taking on that risk.

I understand the desire to show the fan base that Molina wouldn’t be the next Pujols, and that the team was still intent on keeping the team’s best players from walking away via free agency, but at this price, perhaps the Cardinals could have just waited another 12 months before committing top dollar to a defensive specialist. Molina may very well be worth the money, but the Cardinals had to pay a premium price to lock up their star catcher, and if his bat regresses in 2012, they may regret not waiting for his value to drop slightly before committing to him long term.

Still, this deal looks better upon closer examination than I initially thought it would. My expectation of $40 million over four years looks like it would have been far too team friendly given what Molina should be able to produce going forward. This contract keeps a premium player in St. Louis, and sometimes, premium players just cost premium money. Like with the Ryan Zimmerman extension in Washington, this isn’t any kind of bargain, but it ensures that St. Louis will have a high quality backstop going forward. That has real value, especially for a team attempting to defend a World Championship.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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