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Yadier Molina continues to defy expectations at the plate

As the Cardinals struggle to find consistency in 2016 Yadier Molina remains as steady as ever.

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It's May 16th which means we've put in a near month and a half of service time of following this maddening Cardinals team. As the Red Baron alluded to yesterday, what we're seeing can probably still be classified as early returns, but we're probably past the point of it being easy to casually dismissing anything. Even after last night's 5-2 win against the Dodgers, the Cardinals are an atrocious 3-12 versus teams projected by PECOTA to finish this season with a winning record. CBS Sports scribe Dayn Perry noted that there are many facets of baseball and the Cardinals seem to excel at exactly one of them. That's hitting, remarkably. As a team they're batting .272/.343/.472 with a wRC+ of 117, which leads the National League and that includes the Cubs who seemingly get to start each inning with a runner on first and third and Anthony Rizzo at the plate.

That hitting has been a pleasant surprise just made it all the more frustrating for the pessimists when Matt Carpenter came to the plate on Saturday night during a 0-0 tie in the third and one out and runners on first and second and inexplicably decided to bunt, thereby helping kill whatever rally the Cardinals had in the making, and helping kill whatever chances the Cardinals actually had at winning. This is the same Matt Carpenter who heading into Saturday was hitting .308/.444/1.000 with three home runs in the previous four games. It was a sure-to-be forgotten moment - 0.017% of the approximate plate appearances a Cardinal will see this year - but all the more amplified when it's May 16th and the team is already facing a near-double digit deficit to a behemoth in the standings.

But here's a more pleasant thing about it being May 16th: Nearly a month ago Joe Schwarz detailed Yadier Molina's quick start out of the gate and Molina, today, is still hitting at a level few of us expected. Not expected for a guy of his age. Not for a guy whose stats had naturally regressed the last few seasons. And certainly not for a guy who's coming off two surgeries on his left thumb.

Following last night's game, in which Molina went 1-for-2 with a pinch-hit double and two runs knocked in, here are his season stats:























With the injury to Brayan Pena, the load put on Molina has been characteristically heavy this year and he leads all catchers in plate appearances. He's also leads catchers in batting average, on-base percentage, wRC+, wOBA (.375) and fWAR. His wRC+ is tied for 19th overall in the NL with offensive luminary Giancarlo Stanton. Molina has yet to loft a ball into the seats but he's fourth in MLB in slugging for catchers. As Joe noted, Molina .298 career BABIP suggest that he's been a bit lucky thus far on balls in play, but that he's slugging at a rate not seen in a few years with 150 plate appearances behind him is nothing but a welcoming sign.

Molina 10.0% strikeout rate - currently his lowest since 2012 - leads all catchers with at least 100 plate appearances (Buster Posey is second at 11.3%) and is 12th in all of baseball. He's also the only catcher currently drawing walks more often than strike outs, which overall puts him in a select list in the NL with Bryce Harper, Brandon Belt, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, and Denard Span.

Why it was necessary to check back in on Molina's stats less than a month after Joe detailed his hot start is because this has been mostly unexpected but certainly welcoming. In a February column on how immeasurable Molina's career has been to the Cardinals, I wrote this:

Following a thumb surgery, his hitting didn't rebound in 2015 and following a few more surgeries on his other thumb that trend likely won't reverse this year.

I was breaking zero ground with that opinion. In this year's Baseball Prospectus Annual, the players' comments had this to say about Molina:

But we have to ask, is this the beginning of the end? Molina's offensive numbers looked more like those from a decade ago, when he paired an empty average with emptier on-base and slugging percentages, than the last few seasons, when he was a legitimate above-average hitter. Another factor is that he's not just 33 years old, he's 33 years old with more than 12,000 regular-season innings behind the plate, as well as another 86 postseason appearances. Add it up and he's caught more innings through age 32 than Bengie and Jose had combined. We're not saying Molina is definitely done or shouldn't start - again, he's a brilliant defender - but we're bearing on an offensive rebound, and it's probably time for the Cardinals to work on Plan B.

Molina has put the need for a Plan B on hold for now, and for all I know maybe forever. He's doing this in his age-33 season - an age when the grueling nature of the catcher position usually shows its toll. According to FanGraphs Leaderboards, if Molina were to not play another inning in 2016, his 1.3 WAR would be the 23rd best season in the NL for catchers in their age-33 going back fifty years. Someday the world as we know it will end and all that will be left of baseball is a league comprised of cockroaches and Yadier Molina playing catcher for the Cardinals.

Again, it's only May 16th, the fact that the Cardinals as a team look plainly imperfect doesn't mean everything but it means something. But so does the offensive output thus far from Yadier Molina. Down the road his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame is going to be a hill, rightly or wrongly, that I will gladly die on. Until then, this season has just been another reminder to enjoy and appreciate him while we can.