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Yadier Molina: Old, overworked, and still hitting

There have been a lot of surprises from the Cardinals’ offense this year. Yadier Molina’s hitting since the All-Star break is the latest one.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s 3-1 loss to the Brewers was the sixth time this season the Cardinals have had a chance to go ten games over .500. They’ve lost all six times. I saw a tweet stating they’ve been outscored 38-15 in those games and while I didn’t check the veracity of that stat, it certainly sounds about right. If there was a bright spot to pull from that particular dull nine innings last night it was Yadier Molina’s solo home run in the top of the 4th.

Forgive me if I assumed in mid-June we were seeing more of the slow offensive decline of Molina. After a hot April, Molina had a dreadful six to seven weeks and at the close of business on June 24, he was hitting .257/.330/.339, good for an 83 wRC+. That Molina had an .877 OPS for the month of April tells you what sort of funk he had found himself in. Or, from perhaps a more pragmatic standpoint, this wasn’t a funk but more what Molina now was. His offensive production had declined every year since 2012 and crashed to an 80 wRC+ last year – his lowest since 2006.

That’s what happens to catchers on the wrong side of 30. Via the Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, going back to 1988, 14 different catchers in their age-30 season who spent at least 90% of the season at that position have been worth at least 3.0 WAR or higher (with Molina’s 5.6 WAR in 2013 behind Darren Daulton’s 1992 season). Contrast this with catchers in their age-33 season and there are only three catchers worth at least three wins in this timeframe (Carlos Ruiz – 2012; Jorge Posada – 2005; Jason Varitek – 2005). It’s a grueling position, last February I wrote how Molina’s mere dependability has been one of his greatest assets.

For the sake of consistency I usually adhere to FanGraphs’ WAR model but for certain searches I find the Play Index to be much more useful. Also, I’m using 1988 as the start date because Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus and the Effectively Wild podcast amusingly believes that’s when modern baseball history began and I see no need to argue.

Molina probably isn’t going to join the 3.0 group, he’s been worth 2.0 WAR thus far and ZiPS and Steamer each have him worth 0.5 wins from here until the end of the season. But since the All-Star Break he’s hitting as if he’s trying to reverse the script of the aging catcher.

With 153 plate appearances in the second half, he’s hit .349/.379/.507, good for a 139 wRC+. By WAR, he leads the Cardinals int eh second half. By wRC+, he’s second only to Jedd Gyorko’s second half slugging terror.

Molina’s done this with an unusually high BABIP in the second half (.369), aided by a big increase in line drives (18.7% first half vs. 26.5%) which smothers the current league average of 20.7%. Perhaps a byproduct, he’s seen a decrease in ground balls (52.4% first half vs. 40.9%) which rarely favor Molina and his lack of fleet-footedness.

Since the break, Molina has also struck out only 8.5% of the time, an exceptional stat when you look at the league average of 21.0%. Putting the bat on the ball has always been one of his underrated strengths, he has a career 9.4% strikeout rate, but it’s also another area where, since 2012 and heading into the season, he had progressively gotten worse (although rather benignly so - his worst season was 2014 when he struck out 12.4% of the time).

All of this has raised Molina’s slash line in 2016 to a respectable .289/.345/.397 for the season, with a wRC+ (101) just above league average for all players across MLB.

For most players, those stats are exactly what I just called it – average. But for catchers it’s a bit more than that. The current wRC+ average for catchers in the National League is 92. When looking at catchers in their age-33 season, Molina’s stats are even more impressive.

Again, returning to the Play Index and going back to 1988, there are a total of eleven catchers in the National League who spent at least 90% of their time at catcher in their age-33 season and accumulated more than 400 plate appearances. Ranked by wRC+, they are as follows:

  1. Carlos Ruiz (2012) – 152
  2. Mike Piazza (2002) – 136
  3. Darren Daulton (1995) – 104
  4. Yadier Molina (2016) - 101
  5. Bengie Molina (2008) – 96
  6. Tom Pagnozzi (1996) – 91
  7. Paul Lo Duca (2005) – 89
  8. Mike Lieberthal (2005) – 89
  9. Brad Ausmus (2002) – 76
  10. Damian Miller (2003) – 75
  11. Mike Matheny (2004) – 62

Molina is no longer the best defensive catcher in baseball. But being an every day, reliable presence behind the plate at Molina’s age is an accomplishment in an of itself. Doing that while still hitting at or above league average is outside of the norm and a luxury in the NL.

The cruel irony is that while Molina has been invaluable lately he’s probably playing too much. He’s caught 117 games this year, the most in baseball and ten more than second place Wilson Ramos. The Cardinals need Molina’s production while they cling to the last wild card spot as backup Alberto Rosario is only four years younger than Molina yet has only 34 plate appearances at this level - 6,017 less than Molina.

The Cardinals know firsthand what it’s like trying to endure a postseason without Molina as well as a suitable backup. It might be smart to get him some rest so he is fresh and healthy for whatever playoff baseball may await, but if he is going to be playing all the time, at least he’s playing like this.