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Evaluating the idea of a smaller workload for Yadier Molina

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He has been a rock behind the plate for the Cardinals for quite some time, catching two World Series titles for the club and serving as a mentor for several pitchers. Now in his mid-30s, with so much work already under his belt, should Yadier Molina ease off the gas in 2017? Would it really make sense?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most popular Cardinals offseason narrative across the last few years has regarded catcher Yadier Molina, more specifically the idea of a slimmer workload.

That narrative has been just that — a narrative — as Molina, now 34 years old, has seen his playing time steadily increase over the previous seasons, so it’s easy to figure why this idea is presented at the dawn of every campaign. Coming off a career-high in innings caught and games played by sizable margins, it would seem logical that 2017 would be the year we finally see Molina catch a few breathers.

Well, maybe.

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

First off, it’s worth remembering that it appeared the Cardinals had some sort of plan in place last year to rest Molina a little less sparingly, signing free-agent catcher Brayan Pena to a two-year deal. It was thought that Pena would catch a game a week or so as Molina’s backup; nonetheless, that wasn’t the case, as Pena couldn’t get healthy and appeared in just eleven games, leading to the Cardinals’ decision to designate the veteran catcher for assignment.

Molina’s health was a key factor in the signing of Pena, as Molina was recovering from two surgeries at the end of 2015 to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and only another year removed from the same procedure on his right thumb. Molina was not projected to do much with the bat in 2016, and those projections were accurate, for the first half, anyway: he batted .259 from the beginning of the season through July 9, with 38 punchouts and just over 25 percent of his 75 hits in the span going for extra bases.

And amidst the dead heat of summer, Molina’s bat caught a spark.

From the All-Star break (Note: Molina actually got a break this year, as he was not elected to the National League squad by fans) through the end of the year, Molina notched 22 doubles, a .365 batting mark, and a .926 OPS that was the tenth-highest in the NL for the final half of the year, only trailing the likes of those such as Joey Votto, Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, and comparable hitters who reside in the Senior Circuit.

His second-half turnaround at the plate was definitely notable, but the most impactful trait Molina brings to the table is the stellar work he does behind the plate, and an increased regimen of fieldwork with complementary glimmering numbers and accolades attest to that. Last year, Molina logged 1,218 13 innings as the club’s backstop, leading all catchers in that department and surpassing his previous personal high — 1,176 23 frames, set in 2009 — by over 40 and his 2015 accumulation of about 1,150 innings by nearly 70.

Trending in a direction opposite to that of Molina’s work time are his defensive measurements, such as caught-stealing rate and defensive runs saved, two metrics that over the course of his thirteen-year tenure have seemingly always been in his favor. In 2016, Molina nabbed just eighteen of 85 runners attempting to steal, accounting for a 21 CS%, his lowest since his rate of 29 percent back in 2011. Molina’s two DRS in 2016 account for a much lower mark than we’re used to seeing from the eight-time Gold Glove Award recipient, who saved 59 runs between 2012 and 2013 and has combined for only eighteen across the last three seasons.

With a decline in those departments comes a rise in the argument that Molina is losing his once-awed keenness as a catcher. And while there could be truth to that (that is another story topic for another day), it’s hard to argue against Molina’s intangibles, which really can’t be measured with any modern defensive statistic, but perhaps by the performances of those he’s receiving.

MLB: New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Take into consideration one Carlos Martinez, who is entering the 2017 season as one of the most important pieces of the club. With his emotions on his sleeve and fewer than 500 big-league innings to his name, Martinez has been known to get visibly flustered on the mound when the game isn’t playing out favorably. And when the tension begins to heat up, Molina takes a trip to the mound to ease the right-hander’s thoughts before they boil over.

And subsequently, Martinez’s earned run average is well over a run-and-a-half greater (4.87) when he’s being caught by someone not named Molina, and the mark lowers to a respectable 3.14 when he’s being handled by the perennial All-Star.

Molina is set to become a free agent come season’s end, and Ben Markham and Craig Edwards have previously written about their different outlooks on the topic. Most players heading into their free-agent year are given utmost opportunities to showcase their worth, and it would seem odd to think the Cardinals would want to treat Molina any differently as he plays toward that this season.

Whether the Cardinals opt to re-sign their long-time backstop is up in the air. Either way, the team needs to continue letting Molina do what he does best: providing, catching, leading, producing everyday in a manner that appears effortless.

Besides.. why try to fix something that isn’t broken?