Molina the top all-around catcher
This is a tough one -- two players without any obvious flaws, two players who have been starting catchers for two World Series champions. They possess all the tangibles and intangibles. But Yadier Molina, by the slightest of margins, is the guy I'd want for 2014.
We'll start with this: Molina is the best all-around defensive catcher in the game, with a laser-like arm that allowed only 38 stolen bases in 2013 while nailing 35 guys. (Posey allowed 63 while catching 27). Molina is also rated as one of the best pitch-framers in the business. But his greatest skill behind the plate may be what we can't evaluate with numbers and metrics: his ability to call a game and coax the best out of pitchers, especially young pitchers.
The Cardinals reached the World Series last year with rookies Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness all playing key roles. You hear Cardinals pitchers talk about Molina and it's like a preacher praising his savior.
Now, being this generation's Johnny Bench wouldn't be enough on its own to make Molina the most valuable catcher in the game. He's raised his offensive game in recent years as well, hitting .313/.361/.481 over the past three seasons, including .319 with 12 home runs and 44 doubles last season. He actually had a higher slugging percentage than Posey last year, and if Posey can't outslug Molina, there isn't really much debate here.
Posey supporters will point to his 2012 MVP season when he hit .336 with 24 home runs. It was an awesome season, but Posey has put up those numbers once -- and that season was fueled by an insane .433 average against left-handers. The other issue with Posey is there has to be a little concern about what happened in the second half last season, when he hit .244 with two home runs. Fatigue? Injury? Slump?
Catching and hitting is a difficult thing to do year after year. Molina has proved he can handle that difficult workload, but Posey's second-half fade raises questions about whether he can do the same.
In Molina, we have a catcher who defines the position defensively and has become one of the best-hitting catchers in the game. He's the guy every team would want.
Bat gives Posey the edge
OK, so 2013 was a disappointment for Giants fans: It proved that Buster Posey can't procure a World Series title in every full season he plays. For this, we should deny him his due? There is no better player behind the plate today, and there's no dishonor in being No. 2 when you've got Buster Posey in front of you.
Sure, Yadi, Yadi, Yadi. But let's get real: Posey isn't just the future, he's the now. To be sure, Yadi's slash stats since Posey came up are awesome: .301/.353/.448, the best stretch of his career. But Posey's are better: .308/.377/.486. That's consistent with Posey's historical dominance at the position: Among all regular catchers ever, Posey has already put up the second-best five-year run at the plate at the outset of a career with his 143 OPS+. The only catcher who ever hit better at the start of his career? Mike Piazza. Expand it to full careers as catchers, and Piazza's career OPS+ drops into a tie with Posey's 143 in a contest for best-hitting catcher ever.
So we're not just talking great, we're talking an all-time great. Admittedly, it will be a tough challenge for Posey to win his battle with Piazza for the title of best-hitting catcher ever over the full course of a career, but that isn't the question here. The question is who's going to be the best backstop right now, in 2014, and the answer there is all Posey. ESPN Insider's Dan Szymborski pegs Posey for a 138 OPS+, Yadi at 114. Posey is headed into his age-27 season, which is still recognized as the typical crest of a player's range for peak performance. Meanwhile, Molina, who turns 32 in July, is moving further away from that.
Fine, but we're talking about catchers, and defense behind the plate matters. And what about the new developments assessing defensive value with catcher framing, what do they suggest? The latest from Baseball Prospectus puts both men in the top 10 from 2008 to 2013, but the margin of 62-41 to Yadi's advantage counts two full seasons when Posey wasn't in the majors. Advantage? Nobody, they're both awesome. Throwing? Yadi's better, but both throw well in an age where stolen-base attempts are down.
We already have reason to talk about Buster Posey as one of the best backstops ever. Yadi might be in that conversation too, but if Posey beats everyone, Yadi is part of that population. As I said, there's no shame in being second to Buster Posey, in this or any conversation.