YADI SMASH! Molina's Newfound Slugging Powers St. Louis Cardinals Lineup

April 13, 2012; St. Louis, MO. USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) follows through on a one run single in the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium. Chicago defeated St. Louis 9-5. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

When the St. Louis Cardinals inked catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million extension during spring training, many did a double take. The lucrative extension seemed to be based at least in part on Molina's best season with the bat. In a must-read article on stlcardinals.com, Matthew Leach summarizes the critical view of the Molina extension and provides the Cardinals' defensive-centric defense of the extension:

Molina had his breakout offensive performance in his age-28 season, a more common age for career years than for true increases in [talent] level. It all added up to a school of thought that the Cardinals were paying Molina to be the player he was in 2011, and ignoring the risk that he's not really the hitter that he appeared to be last year.

According to a club official, though, that's not the case. In the team's view, it's still a good deal even if Molina regresses some at the plate. That's how much they love his defense and his presence.

"Trying to really quantify these things that aren't traditionally done in our industry is difficult," general manager John Mozeliak said Thursday. "We did the best we could and ultimately did what we felt was fair for both sides."

The concerns regarding Molina's atypical 2011 season with the bat are understandable as his career-high .814 OPS and .349 wOBA were fed by an significant increase in extra-base hits.

Before clubbing 14 dingers in 2011, Molina had never hit more than 7 home runs in a season. Molina ripped 32 doubles in 2011. Before that, he averaged 17 doubles per season. Given this extra-base hit barrage, it's no surprise that Molina's slugging percentage (SLG) of .462 was 73 points higher than his previous career high in 2008 and 101 points higher than his average SLG from 2004 through 2010. Molina's Isolated Power (ISO) also was significantly higher than one would expect. At 160, his ISO was 54 points higher than his previous career high and 67 points higher than his average ISO from 2004 through 2010.

Even though this 2012 season will predate the start of his five-year contract extension, Molina's April has been the best offensive month of his career. If the Cardinals based their contract with Molina on continued defensive excellence coupled with offensive regression, they must be thrilled at Molina's offensive production during the season's opening month. Not only has Molina continued his 2011 hitting, he has put together the best offensive line on the club, when one considers playing time.

Through play on Saturday, Molina had totaled 80 plate appearances (PAs). In those 80 PAs, Molina has posted a wRC+ of 181, which is fourth on the team behind three players who have managed far fewer PAs: Shane Robinson, 205 wRC+ in 34 PAs; Lance Berkman, 188 in 30; and Jon Jay with 184 in 50. While wRC+ is a good overall stat, to further flesh out how great an offensive force Molina has been through April 28, here is a look at where Molina ranks on the Cardinals in counting and rate offensive statistics.

STAT

MOLINA

RANK

R

14

2nd (T)

H

23

3rd

2B

9

1st

HR

4

2nd (T)

RBI

15

2nd

BA

.324

6th

OBP

.380

7th

SLG

.620

1st

OPS

.999

3rd

wOBA

.430

4th

ISO

.296

1st

Obviously, it's still very early in the season. Take batting average, for example, where Molina places sixth on the Cardinals, behind a collection of players with far fewer ABs than Molina has taken. As the season's month nears its end, Molina is tied for second on the team in homers with renowned slugger Matt Holliday and just one behind Carlos Beltran and David Freese. Molina's four homers amount to two-thirds of the home run total of six he averaged from 2004 through 2010. During that same time span, Molina averaged 17 doubles per season. He already has nine in 2012 and is on pace to surpass the career-high doubles total of 32 from last season.

Molina's .296 ISO is very impressive. For comparison, Albert Pujols has a career ISO of .286. While a lot of the commentary on the post-Pujols Cardinals has understandably focused on the first baseman's free agent replacement, Beltran, Molina's power hitting has done a lot to fill the power void.

The ZiPS projection system has taken notice of Molina's torrid start. Before the season, ZiPS foresaw a regression from Molina. It still does, but less so. Based on information freely available at Fangraphs, the following chart compares the preseason ZiPS projection for Molina to the updated ZiPS projection (ZiPS(U)) for the catcher.

Projection

H

R

2B

HR

RBI

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

ZiPS

136

44

25

9

63

.284

.340

.397

.737

.113

.322

ZiPS(U)

144

57

34

13

74

.292

.349

.444

.793

.152

.346

Difference

+8

+13

+9

+4

+11

+8

+9

+47

+56

+39

+24

In an article from early in the season by Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch (that is also a must-read), Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire commented on Molina's 2011 and hot start to 2012.

"I think it's just the start of what Yadi is as a hitter. It's just neat as a hitting coach to see this developing and the confidence that has come for him. The future is just unlimited now for him offensively."

Molina is unlikely to maintain his current pace at the plate. The sober projection system ZiPS foresees this and in our hearts we know that Molina will not finish the year with anywhere close to a .296 ISO. He isn't going to have a Pujolsian season but the Cardinals don't need him to. If the new norm for Molina is an OPS of around .800 with an ISO around .150, that is incredibly valuable offensive production from the catcher position. Throw in his platinum defense and you have a cornerstone franchise player worth every penny of his $75 million extension.

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