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The Unsung Hero

Mar 1, 2012; Jupiter, FL. USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) addresses the media during a press conference announcing his contract extension with the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE
Mar 1, 2012; Jupiter, FL. USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) addresses the media during a press conference announcing his contract extension with the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

There's something in the water at Busch Stadium. Lance Lynn is apace of the major league wins leaders. Carlos Beltran is in the top 5 players for home runs. Mike Matheny leads the league in handsome ejections.

But among all that, there's a player who is currently having their best season. Lest it go unnoticed, Yadier Molina is a badass. He leads the team in WAR on the back of plus defense and a critical position. That's not enough to propel a player those heights though. Molina is showing just how well rounded his game is this year by hitting for personal bests.

2012 Previous Best
Average .323 .305 (2011)
On Base Percentage .378 .366 (2009)
Isolated Power .191 .160 (2011)
wOBA .388 .349 (2011)

Molina is also sporting a career high BABIP at .330. (It's hard to understate how slow Molina is when talking about his BABIP.) It's too convenient an explanation to call that luck. His line drive percentage is also the highest of his career at 25%.

If Molina's career path is following traditional arc, then his peak appears to be later than one would have guessed at age 30. Molina broke into the league at age 22 serving as backup to now manager Mike Matheny. He promptly assumed full time duties in 2005 and has carried a heavy workload on a year in year out basis. (I'll never forget him catching the 20 inning game.) Molina serves as a fun lesson in narratives too.

Narrative Number 1: Defense, Defense, Defense (2004-2007)

Molina's bat never earned him a spot behind the plate. That can mostly be attributed to the fact that Yadier Molina was a terrible hitter when he started major league baseball. He wouldn't sniff at league average hitting numbers for his first four seasons. Instead, the stories regaled the reader of Molina's fielding prowess. He made those stories easy to write with lots of pickoffs at first base and locking down the running game.

Molina and Albert Pujols shared an almost preternatural instinct and mutual understanding during their shared time in St. Louis. A shared look, a small signal or just the ingrained mutual reflexes of baseball that looked so uncannily prescient. Regardless, the duo made many an impressive pick off at first base.

Narrative Number 2: Hit to Contact (2008-2009)

Hitting for a .300 batting average, even with your best BABIP to date, does strange things for any player. The psychological relevance of .300 plays an outsized role in characterizing players for fans and writers alike. It's a story line that writes itself. So when Molina hit .304 in 2008, he was no longer just a defensive catcher he was a hitter.

More than that, and this was arguably more relevant to his value, he was extremely difficult to strike out. 2008 was the first year that Molina would walk more than he would strike out. That is less a description of his walk rate than it is of his extremely low strikeout rate. At just 6%, Molina was a battler at the plate. Fouling off pitches and working the count to put the ball in play, was characteristic of Molina's efforts at the plate.

Narrative Number 3: The Decline (2010)

It didn't look as rosy of a picture just 2 years ago. Molina posted his worst wOBA in 4 years sinking below 2007 levels. At 28, he wasn't particularly young and he was known for logging inning behind the plate. Was it the beginning of the end? It wasn't quite that ominous and, in retrospect, looks at least partially attributable to his BABIP. It was also, however, his worst isolated power rate of his career. Worse than his rookie season even.

There was enough meat to the concerns to merit caution.

Narrative Number 4: The Complete Player (2011-2012)

It seams disingenuous to call 2011 a "comeback" when 2010 now looks more like a blip on the radar. Instead, Molina has seemingly completed his transition from defensive player and high average player into a more complete player. Namely, Molina has discovered an additional reserve of power that he hadn't previously displayed. Last season posting a .160 ISO only to surpass it in 60 games of 2012 with a .191.

Molina is still recognized for his defense, though I wonder how much of that is reputation now versus performance, and he is still lauded for his handling of pitchers, though I wonder how that phrase could ever feel smarmier, but now seems an apt time to recognize that Molina is becoming something new again. The power output combined with a high average makes for a potent bat.

When you look at Molina in his totality, in 2012, he appears to be one of the best players on the Cardinals team and the best catcher in the National League. It's scary to think where the Cardinals would be in 2012 without him.