A Look At How St. Louis Cardinals Catcher Yadier Molina Has Evolved As A Hitter

Kevin C. Cox

Yadier Molina broke into the majors as a light-hitting defensive specialist. Entering the first season of his five-year, $75 million extension, Molina has evolved into one of the best all-around players in baseball.

During the last Hot Stove, the St. Louis Cardinals signed Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million contract extension that begins with the 2013 season. It was a move that raised some eyebrows around the game as Molina was coming off a career year with the bat and seemed likely to regress. In the final year of his old contract, Molina put up a career year at the plate that made him a part of the MVP discussion. Today I thought we might take a look at how Molina got to this point.

Molina's evolution as an offensive player is quite striking. In 2004, he was anointed the backup catcher by Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan at the age of 21. The move was somewhat surprising as the organization had typically sought veteran catchers for the backup role. Molina's defense was so impressive that he made the MV3 club in 2004 and was named the starting catcher in 2005, after the Cardinals allowed Mike Matheny to leave via free agency.

One cannot stress enough that Molina earned his starting job and kept it because of his defense. In 2004, he hit like backup catchers hit, posting a .684 OPS and .297 wOBA*. His production dipped in 2005, his first season as the starter, and in 2006 his offensive production was dreadful. In part due to a career low BABIP, Molina's .595 OPS and .263 wOBA were amongst the league's lowest. For batters with 450 or plate appearances, Molina's 54 wRC+** was the fourth-worst in all of baseball.

*For a primer on Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), one can go to the Frangraphs Glossary here.

**For a primer on Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), one can go to the Frangraphs Glossary here.

Since the lowly 2006 season, Molina's offense improved at a pretty steady rate, as shown in the chart below.

YADIER MOLINA OFFENSIVE STATISTICS

Year

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

wOBA

wRC+

2004

151

.267

.329

.356

.089

.684

.297

77

2005

421

.252

.295

.358

.106

.654

.285

71

2006

461

.216

.274

.321

.106

.595

.263

54

2007

396

.275

.340

.368

.093

.708

.313

86

2008

485

.304

.349

.392

.088

.740

.326

97

2009

544

.293

.366

.383

.089

.749

.336

106

2010

521

.262

.329

.342

.080

.671

.300

84

2011

518

.305

.349

.465

.160

.814

.353

125

2012

563

.315

.373

.501

.186

.874

.375

139

From baseball's fourth-worst wRC+ in 2006, Molina's wRC+ rose steadily and, for the 2012 season, it ranks in the top 25 in the majors. Today, I thought we might take a look at how Molina profiles as a hitter in order to gain more of an appreciation for how it is he puts up the numbers he does.

Molina is an aggressive hitter. The catcher swings at the majority of pitches that he sees. For his career, Molina has swung at 51.3 percent of the pitches thrown to him. In 2012, he swung at 51.9 percent of the pitches he saw, a swing rate that ranked him nineteenth in the big leagues.

The wonderful Pitch F/X hitter profile charts at Baseball Prospectus give us a pretty good indication of just how often Molina swings. The charts show the strike zone from the catcher's point of view and divide the hitting zone into areas. Here is a chart showing Molina's swing rate in 2012:

YADIER MOLINA'S 2012 SWING RATE

As you can see, if it is in the zone, Molina is very likely taking a hack at it. If it's low and out of the zone, he is still probably going to swing. If the pitch is off the plate and in, same thing.

Now, here is that same chart, normalized for righthanded hitters. Molina swings more often than the average righthanded hitter in just about every area of the hitting zone.

YADIER MOLINA'S 2012 SWING RATE NORMALIZED FOR RHB

Molina's free-swinging approach works because he is highly skilled at putting the bat on the ball. Molina has a career Contact Rate of 87.3 percent. In 2012, Molina made contact 85.5 percent of the time, which was actually the lowest Contact Rate of his career since his rookie season. That rate of contact ranked him thirty-fourth amongst qualified hitters for the season.

Unfortunately, the Baseball Prospectus Pitch F/X hitter profile charts do not have a chart for contact. They have several satisfactory proxies, however. One of those is Whiff Rate. For his career, Molina has swung and missed 6.2 percent of the time; in 2012, that rate was 7.2 percent. The following chart shows Molina's Whiff Rate for 2012.

YADIER MOLINA'S 2012 WHIFF RATE

Molina's swinging strike rate in 2012 is the second-highest of his career, behind only his rookie season. Even so, it is still below the MLB average for the 2012 season of 9.1 percent. Here is that chart normalized for a comparison to all righthanded batters.

YADIER MOLINA'S 2012 WHIFF RATE NORMALIZED FOR RHB

Clearly, Molina has a skill for striking the ball with a bat. He's a contact hitter. His batting average of .315 was a career best, led the Cardinals, and was the ninth-best in the majors amongst qualified batters. Thus, it follows that Molina enjoyed success in 2012 when putting the bat on the ball.

The following Baseball Prospectus Pitch F/X hitter profile chart shows Molina's batting average in different areas of the hitting zone for 2012.

YADIER MOLINA'S 2012 BATTING AVERAGE

Lastly, I wanted to look at Molina's power. His Isolated Power (ISO) for 2012 was by far a career high. ISO takes a players Slugging Percentage (SLG) and subtracts his batting average (BA). This removes the singles and leaves us with the player's extra-base hits, which allows us to see how much power he hit for. The Pitch F/X hitter profile charts at Baseball Prospectus allow us to look at ISO. First, let's look at Molina's ISO chart for 2007.

YADIER MOLINA'S 2007 ISOLATED POWER (ISO)

Since Molina only slugged for a .093 ISO in 2007, which is about on par with Skip Schumaker in 2012, it is not surprising that there is an awful lot of blue in this chart. Molina didn't hit for any power in 2007. After 2007, Molina's ISO actually fell to .088 in 2008. In 2009, it stayed steady at .089 before dropping to .080 in 2010. Then, in 2011, Molina's ISO doubled to .160. Here is his Pitch F/X ISO profile from that season.

YADIER MOLINA'S 2011 ISOLATED POWER (ISO)

After doubling his ISO from 2010 to 2011, Molina again saw it rise from 2011 to 2012. In 2012, he posted a career high Isolated Power of .186. Here is Molina's ISO chart for last season.

YADIER MOINA'S 2012 ISOLATED POWER (ISO)

Molina has improved greatly as a hitter. He has used his high level contact skill as a foundation and built himself into an extremely productive hitter in terms of both average and power. Entering the first year of his five-year, $75 million extension, this is an excellent development for the Cardinals.

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