72 games into the 2013 season, yadier molina has a narrow lead over buster posey and smilin' joe mauer for best catcher by fWAR and best hitting catcher in major league baseball. he's hitting a stunning .361.402/.506, or a 155 wRC+ and .392 wOBA, for people who like that sort of thing.
this is a stunning turn around for a catcher who started out as a defensive specialist, when the nicest thing you could say about his batting in 2005 was to quickly change the topic to his caught stealing rate. he batted .216/.274/.321 in 2006. he didn't have an ISO over .106 until 2011. somewhere in there, he started hitting for average and then for power. and then for even more average again.
infamously a free-swinger, one way he's not making headlines is by taking walks. he still has a below average 6.2% nB% (statcorner's slightly more informative equivalent of walk percentage includes unintentional walks and hit-by-pitches, while excluding intentional walks), versus a league-wide rate of 8.0%.
but yadi's free-swinging ways are not a product of a bad eye; instead, he has a strikeout rate that runs less than half of the major league average, at 9.1%, versus a league-wide 20.3% K rate.* he just has a phenomenal ability to make contact.
*statcorner numbers; fangraphs has him at 9.2% versus a league average of 19.9%. i am not sure what gives us this minor disparity. now that i look around, i see other minor disparities: stat corner has his line thus far at .359/.401/.504. anyone smarter than me know why the numbers don't match either his fangraphs numbers before or after last night's game?
some of his current contact ability is probably illusory. we shouldn't expect him to hit for a .388 BABIP all season. but, notwithstanding his lack of speed, he has a great skill at hitting that makes his BABIP much more skill than luck.
among other things, he's hitting for a line drive rate of either 26.3% or 29.6%, depending on whether you believe the statcorner or fangraphs assessments. while you should approach less than half a season of LD numbers with some skepticism, it's worth noting that last season, his line drive rate was assessed at 24.8% and 24.0% by the various systems, meaning that his average line drive rate is around 25% over the last season and a half, which probably represents something close-ish to his true talent level. ZiPS thinks he should have a .322 BABIP for the rest of the season, which sounds right to me.
his swing rates and contact rates bear out his reputation as a great contact hitter. he swings at slightly more pitches out of the zone than the average batter (33.4% v. 30.6%) and a lot more pitches in the zone than the average batter (74.3% v. 65.2%). he's also better at hitting what he swings at in the zone (90.3% contact v. 86.7% average) and out of it (a stunning 81.4% v. an average 66.6%).
long, number-intensive story short, we should expect him to maintain a high average, though probably not one this high, because he makes really good, solid contact when he hits.
lost in the astonishing hitting-for-average story is that he's actually not hitting as many home runs as you'd expect him to. the typical league-average hitter should see a ball go over the fence about 7.5% of the time when he hits the ball in the air to the outfield; yadi is seeing that happen about 4% of the time. and yadi has the muscle to put the ball out of the park; he hit almost 7% of those outfield flyballs and line drives out of the park in 2011, and 9% of them out in 2012.
his power numbers show this. he has a .135 ISO for the year compared to .180 last year and .165 in 2011. so, look for him to trade some of these hits for more dingers as the year goes on. (note: many of these numbers did not include last night's home run).
his defense shows little sign of slipping. even working with a host of rookie pitchers, who are notably not good at keeping runners on, he has caught 11 runners stealing in 27 opportunities (for a 41% CS rate, to the extent expressing that as a percentage is meaningful).
while we can't articulate his value at some of the intangible parts of the catching job, the loud and frequent encomiums from the rookie and veteran pitchers who work with him probably deserve a fair amount of credence. he has long had an elite reputation as a game-caller.
and honestly, i can't remember the last time someone criticized the pitch selection of a cardinal pitcher. pitchers may miss their spots or hang a curve or throw a too-flat fastball, but i can't think of one time any commentator has criticized the choice of pitch.
yadi is easily among the best, but joe mauer and buster posey deserve some mention among elite catchers. note, particularly, that posey's current stats are almost comparable to molina's, even though he carries a more sustainable .337 BABIP. posey also closely follows molina by overall WAR, even though he has an improbable negative defensive WAR behind the plate. i think we can give molina his due without looking at other catchers with a homer glasses.