From 2011 to 2013, Yadier Molina was one of the best hitters in baseball. He hit .313/.361/.481 during those years, and his wRC+ of 132 was ninth in the National League for those hitters with at least 1,500 plate appearances. That level of offensive production combined with his incredible defense made him a Most Valuable Player candidate, finishing fourth in 2012 and third in 2013.
Molina's offense gave rise to the idea that on his "day off" he could head down to first base to keep his bat in the lineup. Keeping Molina's bat in the lineup might have been a defensible argument a few years ago, or even last season when Daniel Descalso was backup first baseman, but given his age, the wear and tear from catching, and the decline of his bat, the idea of Molina as first baseman is a concept that needs to be forgotten. Yet it will not go away. Joe Strauss:
Catcher Yadier Molina did not detail his winter conditioning during a recent autograph signing in St. Louis, but he has reportedly dropped as much as 20 pounds since last season. Benefits should be at least two-fold: Molina will alleviate some pressure from his 32-year-old knees and he may be better equipped for greater exposure, or at least occasional exposure, at first base. (He has four career starts at the position.) Molina appeared in 110 games last season - fewest since his '04 debut season - after requiring summer hand surgery.
This is hardly the only example, just the most recent. The idea did have some merit in prior years. From ages 28-30 Yadier Molina was one of the very best players in all of baseball, but last year he took a step back as he ventured deeper into his 30s. His .282/.333/.386 line with a 102 wRC+ in 2014 is average, making him above average for a catcher, but it no longer means his bat is one that needs forcing into a lineup. His overall line was hurt by injury, but even before he was injured he was not hitting as well as he had been in previous seasons. When he went down with the thumb injury, he was hitting .287/.341/.409 with a wRC+ of 110 in 335 plate appearances.
The injury hurt him at the plate when he returned, bringing down his overall line. However, projections for next season have Molina closer to his first-half pre-injury line. Steamer projects Yadi to hit .284/.335/.418 and a wRC+ of 112 while ZiPS has him at .292/.340/.426 and an OPS+ of 111. Those are very good numbers and combined with his defense, he should have another 4-win season in him and be a relative bargain for the Cardinals at $15 million.
Although Molina should still be above average at the bat and one of the most important Cardinals players headed into 2015, that does not mean the team should look for extra ways to get him in the lineup. Catcher is a grueling position and as Molina ages, he should be getting more rest. From 2011-2013, Molina was incredibly durable, averaging 132 starts at catcher per year. If he plays at least 130 games at catcher in 2015, he will be the first catcher Age-32 and older to accomplish that feat this decade.
If the Cardinals want to get Molina in the lineup, they should be putting him in at his most valuable, playing catcher. Giving him starts at first base takes away much of the positive effect that he has on the game defensively. The extra offense, if any, at first base likely does not make up for the lack of rest the 32-year old catcher needs. The chart below shows the Cardinals production at first base as well as the statistics of Molina, Matt Adams, and Mark Reynolds. Adams' abbreviated 2012 is not included, and the 2015 statistics are Steamer projections available at Fangraphs.
In 2011, Albert Pujols took the bulk of the plate appearances at first base with phenomenal numbers. In 2012 and 2013, Molina outperformed the Cardinals' first basemen, but dipped below them and Adams in 2014. The projections have Adams and Molina as similar hitters in 2015 with Reynolds coming in as average.
Presumably, the argument for Molina getting starts at first base is that Adams will play in perhaps 120-130 games this season, mostly against right-handers, and giving Molina some of the starts against left-handers gives the Cardinals a decent lineup advantage. If we give Reynolds a base of 20 starts, which seems pretty reasonable as a bench bat or potential platoon partner, there are roughly ten starts left that could go to either Reynolds or Molina. Using Molina over Reynolds for those ten games based on the projections would net the Cardinals roughly a single run. One run is not nothing, and an argument could be made that Molina is much better against lefthanders. However, even increasing the gap as hitters still nets the Cardinals maybe two runs instead of one.
Molina to first base is an idea that has made some sense in the past, but the benefit that might have existed a few years ago has evaporated. Taken with the extra toll on an aging catcher, stealing a few extra starts at first base for Molina should no longer be an option. Yadier Molina is an incredible defensive catcher who brings tremendous value to the Cardinals. St. Louis should be looking to maximize his appearances by making sure that every game he plays in is one they can get the most possible value from him. Those games need to happen at catcher. As he exits his prime, Molina should be getting real days off from playing the most taxing position in baseball.