Yadier Molina's curious time off from catching: A break for his mind or body?

Ed Zurga

The Cardinals curiously held their all-universe backstop back from playing the field for three consecutive games in Toronto.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny announced on Saturday that he would give All-Star catcher Yadier Molina a second consecutive day off from playing the field. The reason? As reported by MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, Matheny explained that, while he had considered starting Molina at first base, he ultimately decided to give the catcher the day off entirely because he was in the midst of a slump and needed a break as a mental health day to clear his head:

"I think he's just beat down like a lot of guys are with the fact that we're not playing how we should play, how we want to play and how he wants to play," Matheny said. "I think it's more of just a frustration that is overbearing and overwhelming when you want to win so badly and you want to do your part so badly and none of it is working.

"I see he cares so much that it's beat him down. Anybody is susceptible to just being fried sometimes. … You take a guy with natural leadership characteristics, he wants to be the guy to make it all happen."

*****

"We've been trying to help him push and grind through this," Matheny said. "At some point, you have to take a break and take a breath. It's investing into the future. That adds to his frustration, too, because when things aren't going well, the first thing he wants to do is jump in and keep fighting. "

One of the more difficult tasks in analyzing baseball is determining when exactly a player is in a slump and when he isn't. (Or, on the flip side, when a player begins a hot streak and when such a streak ends.) Molina's recent batting struggles provide an example of this quandary.

There's no denying that Molina hit a rough patch with the bat in his hands. On April 30, Molina was hitting .350/.377/.540 and visions of a batting title and MVP award were dancing in my head like so many sugar plums. Come May 9, though, Molina's hitting line had slid to .300/.328/.454. In the small sample that is the season's opening weeks, a multi-game slump can impact a batter's stats tremendously.

Molina rebounded and pumped up his slash line to .335/.364/.476 on May 21. It was as high as .330/.360/.477 on May 24, but fell to .297/.341/.431 after the club's 8-7 loss to the Royals on June 3. There's no denying that Molina was in the midst of a cold spell.

The Cards traveled down I-70 in the middle of last week to face the Royals for two games in K.C. And Molina's bat seemingly began to warm up. In the Redbirds' 5-2 win in 11 innings, he rapped out two hits in five at-bats and drew a walk. The next night (last Thursday), Molina went 1-for-4. With three hits and a walk in two games, Molina appeared to be climbing out of his slump.

On Friday night, Matheny gave his Gold and Platinum Glove catcher a game off in the field, penciling him as the team's DH in Toronto. Molina went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts. His batting line sagged to .293/.338/.419. Molina's .756 seasonal OPS after Friday's night's game against hte Blue Jays was the lowest it had been this year since after the team's April 7 game against the Reds. For a seasoned veteran, is an 0-for-4 with two Ks enough to wipe out any positives from a 3-for-10 (plus a walk) over the previous two games?

The decision by Matheny gave backup catcher Tony Cruz his second consecutive start in the field for the first time this season. The last time Cruz started two straight Cardinals games as catcher? September of last year, when Molina was day-to-day with inflammation in his left wrist. Cruz tends to make back-to-back starts behind the dish only when Molina has health problems—like when the Cardinals placed Molina on the 15-day DL from July 31 through August 15, 2013, with a right knee sprain.

This weekend, Cruz started three straight games as the St. Louis catcher.

Matheny had planned on giving Molina a second consecutive game entirely off, with no hitting or fielding. But Matt Holliday's back tightness forced the manager to call an audible. Matheny had different options. He could've drawn from the outfield depth on the Cards' roster to fill the Holliday-sized hole in left and at DH. He could've installed Molina at catcher (although, with the game-planning preparation that had already occurred, this seems far less palatable). Matheny ultimately decided to use Molina as the DH, a choice that seems odd for a player he was ostensibly set on giving a mental day off to clear his head because of his hitting troubles, which the manager went into even more detail about during Sunday's explanation, as reported by Langosch:

"Yadi was excited to get in there today," manager Mike Matheny said. "He found a couple things today while he was swinging in [batting practice]. [Having to remove Holliday] happened last minute. He saw that opening and stuck his foot in it, and I'm glad he did."

*****

"We're going to unleash the beast on Tuesday," Matheny said. "When he is going good, it is hard to talk him into having one of those days [off]. I get that. This is a better conversation when things aren't going well, like right now -- because he realizes it. He sees it. He's tried everything else except, 'Let me take a step back and take a breath.'

"He's tried hitting extra. He's tried shutting down hitting. He's tried cage stuff. Once again, I don't think he's being a real good evaluator of how he's doing. He's just had a couple games here where it's more mental, where he's just fatigued -- mentally fatigued from grinding in his mind, and that's just because he cares so much about this team."

This has a similar whiff of bullshit to it as Matheny's explanation for the club's demotion of second baseman Kolten Wong earlier this season—right down to kinks in the swing to be worked out and adversity to be overcome. Admittedly, Matheny wasn't talking about unleashing a beast when the club recalled Wong from Memphis. Of course, the "beast" here is a player Matheny has been asserting needs days off for his mental health because of his hitting woes. This type of language makes the explanation about Molina's days off ring all the more hollow.

Former St. Louis manager Tony La Russa famously said that Molina's defense was so good that any offense he provided the team while in the lineup was a bonus. That was during a 2006 season in which Molina batted .216/.274/.321. If my memory serves me correctly, Molina didn't require and La Russa didn't give many mental days off for the struggling catcher that year.

All in all, Matheny's handling of Molina over the weekend is as concerning as it is strange. It makes one wonder if Molina's struggles at the plate might be tied to an injury. Given Molina's defensive prowess and extensive big-league experience (which includes overcoming the adversity of batting slumps), it is extremely weird that Matheny set out with the intent to give his starting catcher three straight days off from playing the field in Toronto. It's a situation that merits monitoring.

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