ST. LOUIS — You will not find a Hall of Fame argument for any active player that’s more contentious than the one about Yadier Molina’s Cooperstown resume.
And somehow, this NLDS between the Cardinals and Braves — heading to a winner-take-all Game 5 in Atlanta on Wednesday after Molina’s Cardinals walked off with a 5-4 victory Monday — has added fuel to the fire for both camps. Because of course it has. Why would anyone expect otherwise?
On one hand, Molina grounded out meekly to Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson each of his first three plate appearances Monday afternoon, dropping his average in the NLDS to just .133 (2-for-15). His production with the bat is the primary focal point for those who say he doesn’t meet the Cooperstown standard, and those folks have an avalanche of statistics in their back pocket, starting with his career 98 OPS+ (100 is a league-average hitter).
On the other hand, Molina drove in both the tying run — a single in the eighth — and the winning run — a sacrifice fly in the ninth — in an elimination game. His track record of coming through in the biggest moments is a strong supporting point — behind his all-encompassing defensive package, of course — for those who believe he’s a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“When his career’s over, said and done, you’ve got to look past just the standard baseball-card numbers and realize just how many winning teams he was on, and how big of a role he played in some of those postseason moments,” Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter told Sporting News after Monday’s win. “Obviously, the hardware — the Gold Gloves, the All-Star Games, all the great things that he’s done individually — but the things that he’s done for this organization, this team, you look at the run of playoff appearances and he’s right in the middle of it. I think that stuff factors into it.”
Chances are, you already have your mind made up one way or another, but let’s press pause on preconceptions for a minute and take a look at a few factors, shall we?
There are 15 catchers in the Hall of Fame, and those 15 legends have an average WAR of 54.3 and an average JAWS — a statistic that compares players to Hall of Famers at the position for the purpose of judging their Hall of Fame worthiness — of 44.7. There are a few veterans committee additions at the back end of the group, but with only 15 guys — led by legends like Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and recent inductees like Mike Piazza — it’s a small group.
Molina, who is 37 and in his 16th big-league season (10 of those have ended with trips to the postseason), checks in at 40.2 and 34.4. Both numbers are below that standard, without a doubt. And that’s why even a guy like Carpenter, who earlier in his interview session called Molina a first-ballot Hall of Famer without even being asked about that subject, brought up the idea that Molina’s case rests on more than statistics.
And that brings up another point, too. Stats like WAR and JAWS take defensive metrics into account, and defensive metrics for catchers are sorely lacking. Saying that is not a thin limb to walk out on, either. Those who live in the world of baseball statistics are continually striving to find better ways to quantify work done by those who wear catching gear. Strides have been made, but more needed advancements are on the way.
So how do Hall of Fame voters — I’ve voted three times, for the record — consider catchers when filling out their ballots? It’s, well, complicated. There are no official guidelines. Judging a candidate’s worthiness based on those who are in the Hall already is a good place to start, but for other positions the numbers are more concrete. And Molina’s offensive numbers don’t hold a candle to Bench or Piazza, of course, but his case isn’t founded on his production — it’s founded on everything else.
And that gray area is where Molina’s case resides, which is why it’s so complicated and contentious (on social media, at least). You won’t find anyone who’s played with him — or, really, against him — who thinks he’s not Cooperstown-worthy, on or off the record. And not just because they’re afraid of having a dissenting opinion, but because they believe they’re watching a Hall of Fame catcher every time they’re on the field with him.
And that should matter, honestly.
The Hall of Fame is about the players, about the legends of the game, and if those in the game feel he belongs, he probably does. And that’s why, regardless of where you stand on the subject, the truth is this: Yadier Molina will one day have a plaque in Cooperstown. It might not be on his first year of eligibility — five years after he stops playing, whenever that might be — and he might not even be elected by the BBWAA (though I suspect he will). But there’s zero chance he’d fail to be elected by a secondary committee.
Games like Monday’s help assure that will happen. When numbers don’t tell the whole story, narrative fills more of the space.
“This guy’s a Hall of Famer,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said after the game, asked about Molina’s two huge RBIs. “He hits to the situation, stays within himself, doesn’t try to do too much. All the cliches, everything, that’s him.”
I asked a couple of Molina’s teammates what they’ve learned from their time with Molina. Not surprisingly, both answers referenced his ability to deliver in big at-bats Monday.
“Go out there and slow the game down,” Jose Martinez said. “The game’s going to come to you, and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. If not, you’ll have a second chance.”
Kolten Wong, who led off the 10th with a double and scored the winning run on Molina’s sacrifice fly, echoed Martinez.
“I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said. “I pick this dude’s brain as much as I possibly can. Just how he figures out a way to slow it down in the biggest situations, that is such a hard thing to do that people don’t understand. For someone like him, he’s been doing it for years. It’s fun to continuously watch someone who’s getting older in age, but like wine, man, getting better. It’s crazy.”
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