Much can be said about the defense of Yadier Molina. Despite being 33 years of age and well into his twelfth major league season (think about the math there for a second), Molina remains one of the league's very best defensive catchers, despite what some told us early in 2015. Molina's sustained durability is uniquely impressive as he has caught 1045.2 innings thus far this season, with Salvador Perez being the next closest at 964.1 innings (a difference of just over nine games worth of innings). Of course, Molina's ability to shut down the running game is already well documented, and it does not appear to have slowed down much, if at all.
Yet, what I find particularly interesting regarding Molina's defense is his ability to "steal" outside strikes—a not insignificant component to his pitchers' sustained success. Take a look at the two graphs below (please note that they were pulled from BaseballSavant.com prior to last night's game). I explicitly sorted "called strikes" in the two outside zones respective to batter handedness (each graph is from the catcher's point of view). In short, Molina has already "stolen" 711 outside strikes for his pitchers, and this does not even include any of the strikes he is gaining on the inside portion of the plate.
So, what makes Molina special? I must admit that there are at least four components to consider, but the one I will focus on most is Molina's technique, especially with left-handed batters at the plate. First, one must consider that big league umpires generally have a wider strike zone than the rulebook zone, with the outside corner to lefties being the most significant extension (just ask Matt Carpenter). Second, Cardinals pitchers are known for a good mix of command and control, so it would not be surprising if umpires were more liberal with their zones with St. Louis pitchers on the mound. Third, Molina has a reputation as being one of the best defensive catchers of his generation, and this, alone, can have an impact on home plate umpires' decision making, whether they consciously know it or not.
Finally, the fourth to consider is Molina's technique, or how he presents each outside pitch on a platter for the home plate umpire. As you will see in a few still shots below, Molina is methodical in the way he catches outside pitches with left-handed batters at the plate. By now, you have probably heard of a few framing techniques taught to catchers at a young age, such as "catch it in" or "catch the outside of the ball." Well, Molina takes this to a whole new level because both of the techniques I just mentioned mainly apply to the actual catching of the ball. While Molina does "catch it in" on occasion, much of his success comes from his positioning and footwork.
Molina gains outside strikes by setting his base wide of the back corner of the plate with his left foot planted closer to the pitcher than his right so that his chest protector (meaning his whole body) is facing inward toward the heart of home plate. Thus, when he catches a pitch that is hunting for the outside corner, he is often extending his glove ever so slightly to backhand it. Because of his positioning (as you can see in the still shots below) on the catch, Molina is deceiving the umpire into thinking that the pitch looks much better than it really is. Instead of going away from the strike zone to catch an outside pitch, he is catching an outside pitch into the strike zone, and it all looks completely normal simply because of his pre-pitch positioning angling toward home plate.
Let's now take a look at a few visuals to help understand what I just attempted to explain...
Called Strike to Bryce Harper
When you extend the edge of the plate upward (shown by the technologically-advanced Microsoft Paint yellow line), along with this strike zone plot on BrooksBaseball (scroll down if you click the link), you see that this pitch by John Lackey was indeed a strike. However, given that only a portion of the ball actually clipped the zone, not every umpire would give Lackey the strike here. This is where Molina's technique pays real dividends.
Called Strike to Jay Bruce
The pre-pitch positioning makes an appearance once again, and while it is not nearly as pronounced as it is in the Harper image, he makes up for it by seemingly collapsing his lower body toward the center of the zone, making the pitch look like a for-sure strike even though it was actually a ball.
Strike to Justin Maxwell
Now, I cannot fully explain Molina's success with right-handed batters at the plate, but as shown by the two graphs at the beginning of the article, Molina has had ample success with righties as well. Much of it is likely due to his pre-pitch positioning once again as he consistently plants his right foot somewhere behind the left-handed batter's box, setting his base to naturally catch the ball inward toward home plate, without making it obvious by pulling the pitch in with his glove.
I have four more words left to type: Yadier Molina is awesome.