For most of the summer, columnists — myself included — have been writing about the likely fade of the Pittsburgh Pirates. And, for most of the summer, Andrew McCutchen made us all look silly, carrying the Pirates to unexpected victory after unexpected victory. As July came to a close, the Pirates were in line for a wild card, just three games behind the Reds in the NL Central, and Andrew McCutchen was the obvious choice for National League MVP.
However, August hasn’t been kind to either McCuthen or the Pirates. With their star center fielder slumping for the first time all season — he’s hit just .252/.350/.346 in the season’s first 30 days — Pittsburgh has gone just 11-16 and have fallen to third place in the NL Central, and are now on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. And, for the first time in a couple of months, it seems possible that someone other than the Pirates star center fielder might end up with the National League Most Valuable Player Award at the end of the season.
That opening has led to rising campaigns for other deserving candidates. Buster Posey’s tremendous performance with the Giants deserves recognition, David Wright’s rebound has made him one of the game’s best players again, and Ryan Braun might actually be having a better season this year than he did a year ago when he actually won the award. However, there’s one legitimate candidate who hasn’t garnered much attention as of yet, despite the fact that he may have the best case of all – Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.
Molina is generally known for his defensive abilities, but while he might not be the star of the Cardinals offense like Posey is in San Francisco, don’t overlook the tremendous season he’s had at the plate this season. Here is a list of the seven best hitters in the National League this season, rated by wRC+, an index scale where 100 is average and which adjusts for ballpark factors, creating a more level playing field.
1. Ryan Braun, 168 wRC+
2. Andrew McCutchen, 159 wRC+
3. Buster Posey, 152 wRC+
4. Matt Holliday, 146 wRC+
5. Melky Cabrera, 146 wRC+
6. David Wright, 146 wRC+
7. Yadier Molina, 144 wRC+
Molina has essentially been the offensive equal of Wright, Cabrera, and Holliday this season, and Posey has only been slightly better at the plate. The only hitters in the National League who you can say have been drastically better than Molina are Braun and McCutchen and, of course, neither Braun nor McCutchen are catchers.
And, with all respect to Posey as a defender, he’s no Yadier Molina behind the plate. Evaluating the defensive contributions of a catcher is more difficult than any other position because of their interactions with the pitcher, but there are things that we can isolate about a catcher’s defense, specifically their ability to control the running game.
There are 14 NL catchers who have spent at least 500 innings behind the plate this year, Molina included. The 13 other catchers have caught 9,916 innings and have seen opposing base stealers attempt 990 steals, or essentially one every 10 innings. They have thrown 28% of those would-be base stealers, or stated another way, an average defensive NL catcher (not named Molina) has allowed a runner to take an extra base once every 14 innings, and created an out with his throwing arm once every 35 innings.
Molina blows them all away in both categories. To begin with, hardly anyone runs on Molina, as opposing baserunners have only attempted 52 steals against the Cardinals when he’s been behind the plate, and that’s still probably too often, as 24 of those 52 runners (46%) have been gunned down trying to take the base. Putting it on the same scale as the rest of the NL catchers, Molina only allows a success steal of second once every 33 innings, while he creates an out with his throwing arm once every 38 innings. In other words, Molina is gunning down runners almost as often as the league average while allowing successful steals less than half as often.
As for Posey, runners have tested his arm more than twice as often, attempting an additional 53 stolen bases against him despite the fact that he’s caught 118 fewer innings. Of those extra 53 stolen base attempts, Posey has only thrown out an additional four runners. The difference between the two in controlling the running game is 49 additional bases allowed by Posey with a gain of only four outs.
A successful stolen base allowed costs a team approximately 0.25 runs on average, while throwing out an advancing runner saves a team about 0.50 runs. Applying those average run values to the difference between Molina and Posey yields a 10 run difference, which more than cancels out the seven run lead Posey has with the bat this season.
Molina is the best defensive player at one of the most important positions on the field, and this year, he’s hitting at the same level as slugging clean-up hitters. While McCutchen has been the shining star of the first four months, the Cardinals August surge was due in large part to Molina — he’s hit .417/.463/.556 this month — and he is the primary reason the team is still a strong contender in the National League.
While the MVP award usually goes to the guy with the best offensive stats, the true MVPs are often the ones who hit well while providing excellent defense at premium positions. This year, no National League player has combined elite offense and defense like Molina. After years of simply being a defensive specialist, Molina is now playing like a true MVP talent.