Even before appearing in his first media conference as a St. Louis Cardinal, Willson Contreras knew that he had to address the Yadier Molina question up front … one that he’ll have to answer many times in his new career station.

How do you feel about replacing Yadi, one of the greatest catchers in major-league history, and a beloved St. Louis sports icon?

In a first-person story account displayed at The Players Tribune site, Contreras jumped right in. He covered theYadi topic, straight-on, in his opening paragraphs:

“First things first: No one could ever replace Yadier Molina. We all know that.

“It’s impossible. Actually, if there’s some word that means even more impossible than the word impossible … that’s what it is.

“Yadier Molina is a legend.

“He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. One of the best to ever do it. Yadi’s a mentor and an inspiration to people like me. He’s the person we look up to. The role model. I admire everything about him — what he did for his team, for this game, for the community of St. Louis. He’s the guy who set the bar that everyone else is trying to reach. So, yeah, Yadi? He’s not someone you ever replace. And I’m definitely not looking to do that.”

Contreras politely answered various forms of the “replacing Yadi” question multiple times in his introductory media session late Friday morning at Busch Stadium. Which was fine. No problem. This was obvious, natural and expected. I won’t zing anyone who asked about it … not at all. Contreras brought it up himself – right away – in his outstanding “Let’s Do This, St. Louis!” offering at The Players Tribune.

That said, I’d like to make three observations:

1. At what point do we move on? Will the media-friendly Contreras be pestered about this all season? Can this genuine, magnetic, Cardinal-enthralled man settle into his new job and focus on the future without being asked about Molina all of the time?

2. As for the notion that Contreras is “replacing” Molina … well, isn’t it more accurate to say that Willson is succeeding Molina? The Cardinals didn’t give Molina the boot and tell him he was done as the team’s catcher. Molina retired … willingly and happily. In fact, Molina had changed his mind about his announced plans to retire after the 2022 season. He wasn’t feeling up for it, and had to be talked into returning for 2022 — which was why he was late to spring training. Molina was trying to hurry up and lose some weight and accelerate his conditioning. When a player of this magnitude finally calls it a career and wants to get on with his next life-career phase, no one has to “replace” him … simply because he had made the decision to vacate his position. The catcher’s job was no longer Molina’s. The starting job was wide open, and the Cardinals had an urgent need to fill it, and upgrade it. Which they did, with Willson Contreras. This is how it works.

3. I’ll play along and go with the “replacing Molina” characterization. OK, so which version of Molina is Contreras replacing? Is it the younger, magnificent Molina who was exceptional offensively and defensively during his career-peak seasons? Or is Contreras “replacing” the older, less capable Molina who competed in intensifying pain, was breaking down physically, and collapsing offensively?

There’s a huge difference, and so let’s get it right when we start in on these side-by-side comparisons.  Contreras shouldn’t be held to Molina’s best-of-career standards. The older Molina couldn’t match or surpass the criterion, so why would we expect Contreras to do it?

Though not as dominant defensively in his latter seasons, Molina was still a strong presence behind the plate in 2022. Even at his advanced-age catching, Molina was clearly better than Chicago Contreras on the defensive end — but then again, we already knew that.

No one, including yours truly, ever suggested that Contreras had evolved into Molina’s equal, or near-equal, as a catcher during Yadier’s final few seasons. I’ve just pushed back on the ridiculous and lazy narrative that casts Contreras as some  butcher behind the plate defensively.

Contreras is a bat-first catcher who plays respectable defense.

Over the past three seasons combined, Molina was credited by FanGraphs with 26.7 Defensive Runs Above Average, which contains all aspects of catching. Contreras had 13.8 Defensive Runs Above over the same three years. In Defensive Runs Saved (FanGraphs) over the past three years, it was 16 for Molina and eight for Contreras.

That’s an important part to remember: Contreras wasn’t a liability defensively … he just wasn’t as good as Molina. Not even with Molina playing at 38, 39 or 40 years old.

But in recent seasons Molina hasn’t come close to matching Contreras in total value or offensive performance. Molina hasn’t had an above-average season as a hitter since 2018, and that (and baserunning) has created a substantial separation between the two catchers.

From 2019 through 2022:

Baseball Reference WAR: 12.2 for Contreras, second to J.T. Realmuto among MLB catchers. Molina is way down the list with 3.6 total bWAR since 2019 – or 8.6 WAR less than Contreras. All Cardinals catchers have a combined 4.3 bWAR over the past four seasons, which is about eight bWAR less than Contreras has all by himself over that time. (A reminder that Wins Above Replacement takes offense, defense and baserunning into account.)

The Bill James metric, Total Runs: Contreras 302, Molina 211. The Total Runs metric incorporates runs created offensively, baserunning, runs saved defensively and with an adjustment made for positional value … some defensive positions are more important than others.

Bill James Runs Created: Contreras 218, Molina 122. Runs created estimates a player’s offensive contribution in terms of total runs, with an emphasis on getting on base and hitting for power.

Here are each catcher’s individual numbers from 2019 through 2022:

wRC+, which is runs created adjusted for park-and-league effects. Contreras: 20 points above league average offensively; Molin 24 percent below average.

OPS: .816 for Contreras; .654 by Molina.

OPS+, with 100 being league average: Contreras 119 and Molina 79. Translated, Contreras has been 40 percent better than Molina offensively over the past four seasons.

Slugging percentage: .467 for Contreras; .364 by Molina. A difference of 103 points.

Onbase percentage: .349 for Contreras; .290 for Molina. A gap of 59 points.

Home runs: 74-30, Contreras.

RBI: 202-163, Contreras.

Home-run ratio: Contreras, one homer every 18.6 at-bats. Molina, a homer every 42.2 at-bats.

Molina used to be a good hitter. Beginning in 2011 at age 28, he put together an eight-season stretch in which he batted .292 with a .339 OBP, .437 slug and .776 OPS. That equates to 11 percent above league average offensively if we use OPS+.

Molina was at his peak defensively as well, averaging a superb 23 Defensive Runs Above Average over the eight seasons If Contreras had to “replace” the 2011-2018 Molina model, he’d have no chance to come out ahead in the comparison. But that’s my point … Contreras isn’t succeeding THAT version of Molina.

Contreras is taking over for a now-retired catcher, soon to be 41, who was anywhere from 13 percent to 43 percent below average offensively in a season from 2019 through 2022. And Molina staggered to the finish line, closing down his career after hitting .214 with a .233 OBP and .302 slug in his final season.

If Contreras plays to his own established standards offensively, he’ll provide a huge boost to the Cardinals’ lineup. Over the last two seasons the Cardinals got a .594 OPS from their catchers while Contreras was supplying an .800 OPS for the Cubs. Perhaps the Cardinals will be losing a little defensive quality at catcher, but that would be offset (to say the least) by a major increase in offense at a spot that’s been so horrible offensively in recent times.

(And not to pick on No. 2 catcher Andrew Knizner, but he’s one of the  worst catchers in the big leagues, and I don’t recall many delegates from the BFIB having a fit over that. The difference between Knizner and Contreras? Well, there are three differences: Contreras is superior defensively; his career slugging percentage is 171 points higher than Knizner’s, and his OPS is 221 points better than Knizner.)

So when we talk about Contreras replacing Molina, let’s make sure to remember that he’s replacing the old and exhausted Molina instead of the younger and vintage Molina who had the strong bat to go with his famously strong arm.

Or better yet, let’s just allow Contreras to do his thing – hopefully many good things – without putting the ghost of Yadier Molina next to him behind the plate or in the batter’s box. Contreras doesn’t need the extra pressure of trying to win a contest against a catcher, Molina, who now exists in memory, where we tend to remember only the best of Molina instead of the worst of Molina. And that isn’t fair to Contreras.

Give Contreras a chance to establish his own legacy for a franchise that’s historically rich at the catcher spot.

Thanks for reading … and please have a happy weekend.

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.