Yadier Molina is not the Cardinals MVP this season. Those honors should probably go to Jhonny Peralta. Molina is not the Cardinals best hitter. Matt Holliday once again put up a monster second half to lead the team. Yadi is not even the most important player on the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLDS against that Dodgers. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright will have the greatest impact on Friday, but Yadier Molina has been the best player on the Cardinals since Albert Pujols departed for the Los Angeles Angels and despite missing a decent part of the season to thumb surgery, he will be the player to dictate the Cardinals' chances of advancing.
Prior to his injury, Molina was having a season below the high standards he set from 2011-2013, although at 32, some decline is expected. Before he hurt his thumb sliding into third base on July 9th, Molina was hitting .287/.341/.409 with a wRC+ of 110. Molina was solidly above-average, excellent for a catcher, but below his three-year average from 2011-2013 of .313/.361/.481 and wRC+ of 132 when he was a perennial MVP candidate.
While Yadier Molina was gone, the Cardinals did manage to stay afloat, going 21-19 while Molina was out. The bats of Jon Jay and Matt Holliday kept the Cardinals offense going, but Molina's replacements at catcher, Tony Cruz and A.J. Pierzynski, did not provide much help. As Joe noted when Molina came back, Cruz and Pierzynski combined to throw out just four of 29 attempted basestealers. The 25 stolen bases allowed in those 40 games is just one less than Molina allowed in all of 2013. In 152 plate appearances the pair combined to hit a pitiful .207/.264/.264 in Yadi's absence.
When Molina went down, he was expected to be absent 8-12 weeks. With just eleven weeks in the season left at the time, the injury and subsequent surgery could have knocked Molina out for the rest of the season. Yadi returned after just seven weeks. His return may have left his timing at the plate off a bit, hitting .267/.309/.317 and a wRC+ of 78, clearly lacking the power he has shown over the past few seasons. His struggles at the plate did not hurt his playing time. Molina started 26 of the next 28 games at catcher plus another game at first before getting a rest the last day of the season when the Pirates' loss to the Reds clinched the division for the Cardinals.
Despite missing time and having an offensive season below his standrards, Molina's 3.1 fWAR still ranked eighth among major league catchers. His overall hitting line ended at .282/.333/.386 and a 102 wRC+. Those numbers are above average for all hitters, and above the league average wRC+ for a catcher at 94. While every spot in the lineup is important, getting Molina some rest and perhaps getting his bat back would do wonders for a lineup that has struggled to score runs. In Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, and recently struggling Matt Adams, the Cardinals are likely to have five players in the lineup with a solid bat. Adding a vintage Molina would make it that much harder to turn over the Cardinals' lineup.
Molina's greatest benefit to the Cardinals comes behind the plate. With Dee Gordon's 64 stolen bases and Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez all in double figures, Molina will once again be called upon to shut down the opponent's running game. Baseball Prospectus keeps track of catcher framing and once again, Molina has shown to be an asset at getting his pitchers extra strikes. As I wrote before the season started, Molina does a lot for the team that cannot be quantified.
If a hitter is slightly bothered by Molina peering into his soul, that is worth something. If his pitcher thinks Molina is gaining an advantage through a staredown, that is worth something. If a pitcher gets more confidence because he believes that Molina will call a pitch that will get the batter out, that is worth something.
I said in the spring, and I will repeat, I have absolutely no idea how much those intangibles are worth, and anecdotal evidence of Adam Wainwright struggling while Molina was out or Shelby Miller having his best stretch of the season when Molina came back is not going to convince me that the these intangibles are somehow quantifiable. There are too many variables, but I do believe Molina's non-quantifiable assets are worth something. In a short series, a play or two could prove the difference in advancing or cutting October short. Molina has been the difference-maker before and starting tomorrow, he will have the opportunity to do it again.