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Examining Yadier Molina’s resurgent second half

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After having the All-Star break off for the first time since the 2008 season, St. Louis Cardinals seven-time All-Star catcher Yadier Molina has slashed .370/.411/.540 over 107 plate appearances, good for what would be a career high 158 wRC+ could it somehow be sustained over a full season (Molina’s highest season wRC+ was 138 in 2012). Given the helplessness of Molina’s bat in May (59 wRC+) and June (46 wRC+), it is safe to say the rest period of four full days was good for the 34-year-old catcher.

Yet, saying Molina has performed better at the plate solely because of the rest he received is, in my opinion, a rather lazy attempt at baseball analysis. In fact, I could have probably stretched out the opening paragraph over 500-600 words and called it a week here at Viva El Birdos, but, as you likely already know, that’s not me. I wholeheartedly agree that the rest has definitely played a positive role in Molina’s resurgent second half, but with the technology made available to the public, we can take the analysis a few steps further.

Launch Angle Comparison

Let’s first get reacquainted with Daren Willman’s amazing launch angle charts readily available at baseballsavant.mlb.com. Areas shaded in red signify base hits while grey-shaded areas represent balls in play that did not result in a hit. Thus, a grey shaded area found within the range of a 10 to 25 degree launch angle (by definition, a line drive) could be considered bad luck. Sure, there is more to the end result of a hit than just the line drive component, but it is a proven fact that line drives lead to more hits than other batted ball types.

Remember, anything below 10 degrees is generally classified as a ground ball. Well, as you can see from the chart on the left, Molina put a great deal of balls in play on the ground during his ice cold months of May and June (highlighted by the grey spike of over 15 balls in play at a roughly five degree launch angle). Since the All-Star break, Molina has done a much better job at limiting his on-the-ground contact, with his largest ground ball spike being seven balls in play at negative five degrees.

Now, for those more comfortable with straight ground ball rate, a statistic that has been around for a while, over the newly-available launch angle charts, Molina’s post-All-Star-break ground ball rate is 44.0%, as compared to 61.4% in May and 49.3% in June. Hence, the raw numbers match up perfectly with what is seen in the launch angle charts.

A final thing to make a note of is the difference between Molina’s line drive spikes. During May and June, Molina’s primary line drive spike took place at 20 degrees, which is a shade under the ideal launch angle for hitting home runs. After enduring two season-ending thumb injuries and their respective surgeries, on top of being 34 years old with nearly 13,000 regular-season catching innings under his belt, home runs don’t come as easily for Molina anymore. That being said, this isn’t necessarily a new development, either, as Molina hasn’t reached the double-digit home run total since he rapped 12 dingers over the fence back in 2013.

By comparison, Molina’s post All-Star-break peak (of over 10 balls in play) at around 10 degrees better suits the approach to shoot balls over the heads of infielders (for singles) and ideally into the gaps between outfielders (for doubles). Sure, he still has a not-insignificant peak at 20 degrees as well which has led to exciting results such as this game-tying double versus All-Star closer Jeurys Familia and the New York Mets:

For those curious about the effect of different approaches from opposing pitchers on Molina’s batted ball profiles, you’ll be somewhat surprised by the following heatmaps, again readily retrievable over at baseballsavant.mlb.com:

With fewer ground balls after the All-Star break, you could reasonably assume that pitchers have been attacking Molina higher in the zone than they did during his ground-ball heavy months of May and June. As you can see, this has not at all been the case as the core approach from opposing pitchers after the break has actually shifted downward from where it was in May and June. Yet, along with the downward shift, pitchers have inched toward the middle of the plate after the All-Star break — coming dangerously close to a zone where Molina has consistently raked over the course of his career.

Spray Chart Comparison

Focus on the yellow dots — representing line drives. In 89 fewer plate appearances (196 in May and June versus 107 after the All-Star break), Molina has only six fewer line drives. In reality, this is really just another representation of what was already seen above through the launch angle charts, but it is clear that Molina is driving the ball with much more regularity since the break.

Bottom Line

I am not sure how long this hot streak at the plate will last for Molina, but the Cardinals need to continue to take advantage of it, especially considering the persisting injuries they have dealt with all season. Should Molina bat fifth in the lineup as Mike Matheny has done lately? Probably not, but given how good he has been, you cannot really blame the manager.