Cardinals actually can afford to lose Molina

Sunday, Yadier Molina suffered a thumb injury. A few hours later, our friends at ESPN Stats & Information – maybe it was my friend Mark Simon, or maybe it wasn’t – dove into the numbers to find just what Molina’s absence might cost the Cardinals.

Mark and his crew do tremendous work, of course. But see if you can spot the hyperbole in the following passage (hint: it comes early on) …

Though Molina has been worth only 1.3 Wins Above Replacement this season and was hitting .152 this month (7-for-46), he’s a player the Cardinals can’t afford to lose.

–snip–

The Cardinals are 85-47 when Molina starts this season. When he doesn’t, they are 8-9.

In the past five seasons, Cardinals are 378-259 (.593) when Molina starts, 80-80 when he doesn’t.

Also remember that in last year’s National League Championship Series, the Cardinals and San Francisco Giants split the first two games, with Molina suffering a strained oblique in the second.

With Molina out, the Cardinals lost the next three games.

Can you say “small sample size,” my friends?

Granted, the 378-259 isn’t small … but for three of those five seasons, Molina was a significantly better player than he’s been this season. As for the Cardinals losing “the next three games” to the Giants … well, you know. A couple of months ago the Phillies swept a three-game series from the Cubs. Let’s just pretend nobody mentioned a three-game sample size.

Doing our level best to figure out the actual, measurable impact of Molina’s absence?

Just looking at Baseball Prospectus – because BP’s got the only comprehensive metric (WARP) that incorporates pitch-framing, of which Molina is a well-known practitioner – we find that he’s contributed a grand total of 1.0 Wins Above Replacement this season.

Granted, Molina’s having an off year for him.

Then again, he also had an off year (for him) last year.

So maybe this is just who Molina’s become: an outstanding defensive catcher who doesn’t hit much. Or in other words, maybe the 32-year-old Yadier Molina is basically the 22-year-old Yadier Molina. Hey, it happens to (most of) the best of them. But let’s not pretend that Molina’s still an elite, MVP-caliber player. Because he pretty clearly is not.

Of course, comparing one player to a “replacement player” is less interesting and informative than comparing a player to his replacement, who in this case is Tony Cruz. And with all due respect, Tony Cruz isn’t a replacement-level player; he’s actually well below replacement level.

Let’s say WARP doesn’t “get” catchers, or at least doesn’t quite recognize the uniqueness of his skills. Let’s assume that WARP is wildly wrong: 100 percent wrong. That would make Molina a 2 WARP player. Let’s assume that Cruz is actually a minus-2.5 WARP player, which is almost unbelievably awful for a major leaguer who’s actually on the field for significant action.

That’s obviously a big difference over a whole season: between 4 and 5 wins, which is often the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs.

If the Cardinals max out the postseason – five Division Series games, seven National League Championship Series games, seven World Series games – they’ll play 19 games.

If they play 19 games and Tony Cruz starts every postseason game instead of Yadier Molina – and again, if BP is wildly underestimating Molina’s unique contributions – the difference between Molina and Cruz pencils out to one-half of one win.

Which is, in this context, actually quite a lot!

It’s just highly unlikely to make the difference. It’s highly unlikely that the Cardinals will max out their postseason games, and it’s also likely that Tony Cruz will chip in here or there with a big hit. Anybody remember Pete Kozma, for Odin’s sake? Brian Doyle? Cody Ross? Billy Hatcher? Al Weis?

No, Tony Cruz probably won’t bat .400 in October, or even in just one October series. But in the course of one or even three postseason series, just about anything might happen, and there’s just not a huge difference between Molina and Cruz. Again, not unless you give Molina an immense amount of credit for the success of the Cardinals’ pitchers.

But if the Cardinals don’t win the World Series with Cruz behind the plate, regardless of the actual specifics, the failure will be widely attributed to Molina’s absence. Because we so desperately crave easy answers.

In the short term, Cruz will probably share the catching duties with Travis Tartamella, a defensive standout with a .197 career batting average in the minor leagues, while the Cardinals wait for Molina’s thumb injury to heal; the early prognosis is positive, although we might reasonably wonder if the Cardinals will shove Molina back into the lineup before he’s actually healthy, just because.

In the long term, the Cardinals can afford to lose Yadier Molina at least as much as they could afford to lose Adam Wainwright, and before him Chris Carpenter and Carlos Beltrán and Albert Pujols. Molina’s valuable and the Cardinals will no doubt miss him, for however long he’s out. But we’re not talking about Babe Ruth here. We’re talking about a player who probably won’t figure into the MVP balloting at all this season, and probably doesn’t deserve to.