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Matthew Leach

Molina deserves to strike starting All-Star pose

Molina deserves to strike starting All-Star pose

Molina deserves to strike starting All-Star pose

Major League managers sometimes talk about "good problems" when they must allot playing time or assemble their rosters. When you have four quality outfielders to fit into three spots, or six legitimate starting pitchers, that's a good problem.

Now All-Star voters have one of those good problems.

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Two of the best players in the National League -- the 2012 Most Valuable Player Award winner and perhaps the leading candidate to earn the honor this year -- play the same position. The Giants' Buster Posey and the Cardinals' Yadier Molina are running neck and neck in the balloting.

There's not really a wrong answer when you're choosing between Posey and Molina. They're both on the very short list of the best players in either league.

This year, though, there is a right answer. He wears the "Birds on the Bat" on his chest. While Molina remains arguably the game's best defensive player, his offense has caught up to Posey's. A long-term upward trend in his plate performance has hit another level in 2013.

As a result, while Posey is a superstar and a legitimate All-Star, Molina is the better player.

Posey still walks more, and he hits for a little bit more power. He also plays in the tougher ballpark. But Molina's eye-popping .353 batting average and league-leading doubles total make up the core of an offensive game that is as potent as Posey's -- or any other catcher in the NL.

Molina leads the NL in average and doubles. If he were to finish the year atop both of those leaderboards, he'd be the first catcher in history to do so.

"With catching every day, there is an added component that other guys don't have to go through," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said recently. "It's a grind physically and mentally, but he does a nice job of separating his offense from his defense and maintaining a good approach at the plate."

By one quick-and-dirty measure, adjusted OPS+, they're roughly equivalent. On a scale where 100 is average, and performance is adjusted for home ballpark, Posey registers a 153 mark, Molina 149.

That is, of course, advantage Posey. But it's close enough that it doesn't outweigh the defensive difference. What was once an enormous offensive gap is now negligible.

"Each year, he gets better and better as a hitter," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Molina. "Each year, too, you see some other little adjustments he's made in his hand position or his stance or backside. That's a lot of times what hitters need to do is make little adjustments or sometimes big adjustments to get to another level."

As for the other half of the game, much of catcher defense remains a bit of a mystery. But based on what we can measure, Molina is elite.

Baseball Prospectus ranks him one of the best pitch-framers in the game, while not ranking Posey among the leaders in that category. And Molina's throwing arm, of course, is legendary. He's seen 28 steal attempts all year, and cut down 12 of those would-be thieves. Opponents have attempted 50 steals against Posey, and been thrown out 11 times.

That's an enormous difference. Molina also has fewer passed balls and wild pitches, despite catching more innings than Posey. The Giants' backstop is a good catcher, probably better than his reputation suggests. Molina is the best catcher there is.

And that's before you even get to another key difference: playing time behind the plate. Molina is an everyday catcher -- the most everyday catcher in baseball. Posey is less so. He plays some first base and gets more days off than Molina.

The Giants aren't wrong to do this, of course. They want to keep Posey fresh and healthy and effective for a long time. And it's not his fault -- given the choice, he'd surely catch just about every day. Still, Molina has caught 82 more innings than Posey, and 26 more than any other catcher in the big leagues.

They have virtually the same number of plate appearances. Molina has just logged a lot more of his while playing catcher. Posey's time at first base is diminished this year; he's on pace to catch many more innings in 2013 than he did in '12. But there's added value in Molina's amazing durability behind the plate.

Posey is a truly great player. He was a deserving MVP a year ago, and if he gets the start, he'll be worthy of the honor. But Molina is simply better, and deserves it even more.

It's a good problem to have.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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