Tale of the tape: Posey vs. Molina

March 25th, 2020

While we wait, let’s debate. During this difficult downtime, we’re using this space to bring up baseball beefs past and present -- posing the question, exploring the argument from all sides and then letting you make up your own mind. In case you missed it, we began by pitting Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander against each other.

On tap today: a catching conversation. Whenever they’re done squatting behind home plate, the Giants’ and the Cardinals’ will both have an argument to one day squat down permanently in Cooperstown. They are both franchise icons, well-decorated with rings, awards and acclaim.

But when all is said and done, which of these two beloved backstops will have had the more revered career?

Let’s frame -- that’s a catching pun, if you’re scoring at home -- the argument for and against each.

Age: 33 on Friday (Happy Birthday, Buster!)
Debut: Sept. 11, 2009
MVP Awards: 1 (2012 NL)
All-Star selections: 6
World Series titles: 3
Silver Slugger Awards: 4
Gold Gloves: 1
Wins Above Replacement
: 41.8 (Baseball-Reference), 52.7 (FanGraphs)
Defensive WAR (Baseball-Reference): 10.1
Defensive Runs Saved
: 121
Games caught: 987
Career slash line: .302 AVG/.370 OBP/.456 SLG
: 128
Hits: 1,380
Home runs: 140
Doubles: 270
RBIs: 673
Walks: 484
Strikeouts: 634

The case for: After a brief big league stint at the tail end of 2009 (coincidentally enough, to replace Yadier’s then-injured brother, Bengie), Posey arrived for good on May 29, 2010, went 3-for-4 with three RBIs, and, from that day forward, nothing was the same for the Giants. The franchise that hadn’t won it all since the move to San Francisco had a foundational piece behind the plate -- a former Johnny Bench Award winner who acclimated seamlessly in terms of his handling of the pitching staff and his production in the cleanup spot. The Giants won the World Series, and Posey won the National League Rookie of the Year honor.

After Posey missed most of 2011 with a severe leg injury sustained on a home-plate collision, he came back in 2012 to put together perhaps the greatest individual season for a catcher all-time. He led the Majors with a .336 average and 171 OPS+, and his 10.1 WAR (FanGraphs) is the highest ever in a single season by a catcher.

San Francisco won it all in 2012 and then again in ’14. Posey had played a pivotal role on three World Series championship teams before turning 28. That’s a pretty good way to build a legacy.

When his career track record is compared to that of Molina, Posey is quite simply and very clearly the superior offensive player. Even though Posey has logged 2,502 fewer plate appearances than Molina, his homer and walk totals are comparable. His career OPS is 88 points higher and his OPS+ (adjusted for league and ballpark) is 30 points higher. All this while rating positively in Defensive Runs Saved every season of his career. So Posey has been the total package, with the trophy case to prove it.

The case against: While a strong defender in his own right, Posey has not quite reached the level of Molina, as we’ll detail later. So the argument in his favor largely revolves around the gap between their offensive contributions.

But in the last couple of years, that gap has closed. Time seems to have sapped some of the strength from Posey’s bat. His 96 OPS+ from 2018-19, at ages 31 and 32, is four percent below league average and comparable to the 94 mark Molina has posted at ages 35 and 36. Posey has hit just 12 homers in that timeframe to Molina’s 30. Posey has logged 189 games behind the plate to Molina’s 232. Will Posey enjoy the kind of staying power in the catching role that we know for certain Molina has accomplished? That's tough to say right now.

So if you value elite defense and longevity at a physically demanding position, there’s a strong argument for Molina over Posey.

Age: 37
Debut: June 3, 2004
MVP Awards: 0
All-Star selections: 9
World Series titles: 2
Silver Slugger Awards: 1
Gold Gloves: 9 (including four Platinum Gloves)
Wins Above Replacement: 40.1 (Baseball-Reference), 54 (FanGraphs)
Defensive WAR (Baseball-Reference): 25.0
Defensive Runs Saved: 169
Games caught: 1,947
Career slash line: .282/.333/.405
OPS+: 98
Hits: 1,963
Home runs: 156
Doubles: 379
RBIs: 916
Walks: 507
Strikeouts: 782

The case for: Making 10 postseason appearances -- and winning two World Series and four NL pennants -- in his 16 seasons, Molina’s imprint is all over the club. That’s a remarkable success rate that led to Molina passing Chipper Jones last October for most postseason games played by an NL player. It has also led to enormous anecdotal acclaim for what Molina brings to his team in terms of leadership and game-calling.

Unfortunately, the interpersonal elements that go into catching are not measurable. But the statistical tools at our disposal insist that Molina is one of the greatest defensive catchers of all time.

STATS LLC has caught-stealing data going back to 1974, and, in that span, Molina’s 40.2 percent success rate at throwing out opposing runners is the fourth-best among those with at least 10,000 innings caught (only Ivan Rodriguez, Jim Sundberg and Butch Wynegar fared better). Molina is first in this category among active players with at least 4,000 innings caught. Per Baseball-Reference, Molina’s Defensive WAR is fourth all-time among catchers, trailing only Rodriguez (29.6), Gary Carter (26.1) and Bob Boone (25.8), and tied for 19th all-time among players at any position. FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) data goes back to 2002, and, in that span, Molina has accrued the third-most DRS of any player at any position, trailing only third baseman Adrián Beltré (202) and shortstop Andrelton Simmons (193). Only Pudge (13) and Bench (10) have won more Gold Gloves than Molina at the catching spot.

Though Molina does not have the offensive track record that Posey does, he did finish in the top four of MVP voting twice (2012 and ’13) and has remained productive and dependable enough to remain behind the dish into his mid-30s -- something we’re not, as of this moment, 100 percent certain Posey will do. Molina’s total games caught is seventh all-time, and he is just 110 games away from overtaking Carter for fourth -- so in relative durability and in defense, Molina has no equal in this era.

The case against: Though Molina has played more than 700 more games than Posey, he has accrued similar career Wins Above Replacement totals. That is, of course, attributable to the stark offensive discrepancy between the two players.

Molina’s career OPS+ is roughly league average, and only six times in his career has his season OPS+ rated better than league average. Posey, on the other hand, is 28 percent better than league average for his career and had never been south of average for a season until 2019. Though Posey does not rate as well defensively, it’s not as if he’s a liability.

So with catcher defense and leadership so difficult to quantify, you could certainly make the argument that Posey has provided the better overall package.

Now that we’re all caught up (yes, that’s another pun, sorry), which backstop are you backing?