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All winter, Isaac Bennett (whose work you’ve seen at BP Wrigleyville) and I have carried on baseball talk via Google Hangouts. We agree on more things than not, which is something neither of us can say about most of the other people with whom we get to consistently converse about this kind of stuff, so the conversations are usually easy. Two things divide us pretty sharply, though, at least at the moment. They are:

  1. Catcher framing. Isaac is, to put it mildly, not as sold as I am on the methodology and the validity of the catcher defense data we present to you on this site.
  2. The Cardinals. I think their competitive window remains open pretty wide, and more importantly I think they’ve done a good job of preparing themselves not to have that window slam shut on their fingers anytime soon. I think they can and should sustain their contending status for the next several years, even as their current, aging core fades away. Isaac disagrees, and thinks they have missed an opportunity to aggressively play for the medium and long term, when the Cubs might be a bit less unbeatable. (He has been generally complimentary of the individual moves they’ve made this winter, given the premise that they still view themselves as contenders.)

I thought of Isaac as soon as I saw the Cardinals’ sub-.500 projection on the PECOTA preview last week. As I’ve studied them more, I’ve found myself coming back to one particularly notable thing about that projection, one that brings me around to that first point over which Isaac and I disagree so frequently.

Here’s Yadier Molina’s PECOTA projection for 2017, in a nutshell:

Season

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

FRAA

2016

581

.307

.360

.427

.278

11.6

2017 (proj.)

482

.285

.332

.413

.263

6.0

This doesn’t look unreasonable. Molina will be 34 this year. His 2016 season was terrific, but came on the heels of two much worse seasons. His workload last year was extraordinarily high, and indeed the mileage on every part of his body is piling up. He’s never been an elite power threat, even for a catcher, but he’s been particularly anemic for about three years now. He just doesn’t hit the ball especially hard and he very rarely lifts it. He’s gotten a bit more selective, willing to let pitchers’ pitches go by and wait for something better, but hurlers have no reason to fear him and he’ll never walk very much. That’s OK, because on the bases he’s no asset. Only Victor Martinez cost his team more runs as a baserunner last year.

Behind the plate the cracks in the foundation are showing less, but they’re there. Molina had a Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) rate no lower than 0.013, with no fewer than 16 framing runs, for six straight seasons beginning in 2008, but has been at 0.007 CSAA or lower and has saved fewer than 10 framing runs for each of the last three years. Maybe most alarmingly, he was worth -0.2 runs as a controller of the running game last year, the first time he’s ever been below average in that regard.

Runners still respected him (his TRAA was -.010, right in line with his career norms, meaning he depressed the likelihood of a steal attempt), but when they ran they had much more success than against an average catcher (SRAA .030, sixth-worst of the 22 regular catchers in MLB last year). If opponents figure out that he’s slowing down behind the dish, start running more, and still find success, they could have a real advantage over St. Louis in that dimension of the game for the first time in over a decade.

Let’s circle this back to PECOTA’s projection of Molina’s performance. Remember, it’s charging him a 50-percent discount on defensive value, from last year to this year. Is that fair? In light of the information above, it might be. PECOTA projects Molina to play less often (which he almost certainly will), and figures he’ll also continue his gentle decline as a framer. All it takes after that is for runners to better avail themselves of his weakened arm (or slower release, as the case may be) and he’ll be only a modest defensive weapon. Catchers age slower than most players when it comes to this advanced understanding of their defensive value, but they do age.

Molina retains one defensive skill, however, that can help point us in what might be a more productive direction for this discussion. He still blocks pitches well. As with framing, Molina’s blocking numbers went over a small cliff after the Cardinals’ World Series run in 2013, but also as with framing there was enough room between where he was and where the average catcher was for Molina to get substantially worse without ceasing to be good. He’s saved a fistful of would-be wild pitches and passed balls, relative to what an average catcher would have done, in each of the last few seasons.

That has tangible value (a couple runs a year), but a good deal of intangible (and, in this case, symbolic) value, too. Adam Wainwright has no trouble trusting Molina with a curveball in the dirt in a tricky spot. Ditto for Seung Hwan Oh’s slider or Kevin Siegrist’s changeup. Molina has been working with most Cardinals pitchers for years. He’s able to pick up what is and isn’t working for them quickly within outings and is willing to adapt his game-calling. In two-strike situations no catcher calls for fewer fastballs than Molina. He’s a leader and a partner to his hurlers, and he probably makes most of them better in a way that even our advanced catcher metrics can’t (yet) capture.

As for his bat, there’s also something there with Molina that PECOTA may not capture. It will come up for other players too, as we all work through the sea of projections spat out this spring. The ball is different. We may not have proof of it, in the traditional sense, but in a very real sense the proof of it is everywhere. The ball is different. It comes off the bat harder, carries better. Every hitter benefits from that and maybe hitters who put the ball in the air a lot can benefit more than a player like Molina, in an absolute sense. Because he makes so much contact, though, Molina also gets a greater benefit than most hitters.

In a world where every collision between bat and ball has more value than it used to have, a batter who generates more of those collisions has more value than he used to have. Molina’s top three player comps, according to PECOTA, are Kenji Johjima, Mike Lieberthal, and Paul Lo Duca. Those were all fine catchers, and fine hitters for their position, at their best. None of them were Molina.

In all, PECOTA projects Molina for 2.5 WARP in 2017. That’s respectable. It’s more than respectable for a catcher in his mid-30s. I still think it’s probably low, and perhaps low by a full win or more. We have a long way to go before the season begins. There are a bunch of player and team projections to scrutinize. This is just a good starting place for that conversation, because it points out that three factors usually converge to generate projections we view as inaccurate.

First, there’s something happening that the numbers are picking up, but that we might be prone to miss. Second, there’s something the system is fundamentally unable to capture, because we have no numbers we can responsibly apply to that thing and so no way of communicating that dimension of the player’s value to the projection framework. Finally, there’s some shift or fast-changing piece of information that even we don’t fully understand yet and that we haven’t yet contextualized correctly. That stops any projection system we create from understanding and valuing that changing dynamic correctly.

So, maybe Molina is really more like a four-win player and maybe the Cardinals are more like an 80-win team. Maybe they’re even more than that if PECOTA just isn’t able to see all of their strengths in focus.