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Yadier Molina’s bounce back at the plate

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A look at how Yadi bounced back when few were expecting it.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It’s that time of year. At least for the Cardinals, the Hot Stove is cooling down. Different outlets are working on their top prospects list, and here at VEB we’re no different. One prospect that figures to get a lot of attention is Carson Kelly. For a few years now, he’s been the only catching prospect Cardinals fans could hope to take over for Yadi. Last year he played at both Double-A and Triple-A, and finished things up in the AFL. He held his own at all three levels in just his age 21 season (he just missed the cutoff for it to be called his age 22 season, but still impressive).

Last year at this time, we might have been hoping for Kelly to play the way he eventually did, because time seemed to be running out for Yadi. After some tremendous seasons from him from 2011 to 2013, he posted a 102 and 80 wRC+ in back to back years while dealing with injuries. Just when we started to get used to weak-hitting Yadi again though, he answered back in 2016 with a 113 wRC+, based mostly on a strong batting average.

Of course, Molina is celebrated for his defense. I’m by no means an expert on catcher’s defense, so I’ll let someone else write that article. Today, we’ll focus on his work at the plate, not behind it. First, let’s look at his standard stats over the last three years:

You probably know Yadi by now. His signature is that low walk, low strikeout profile, a feature of a high likelihood of chasing pitches out of the zone and a strangely strong ability to hit them well anyway. After some middling years on balls in play, he broke out with a .335 BABIP last year. With so much of his success at the plate built on results on balls in play, that looks like the thing to concentrate on. Did Yadi just benefit from a few extra balls falling in, or did he earn that mark?

Fortunately, we live in the Statcast Era, with new information we didn’t have a couple of years ago at our fingertips at BaseballSavant.com. We’ll examine Yadi’s collection of Statcast-recorded batted balls by their Exit Velocity and Launch Angle, to get an idea of how much of his results were due to luck, and how much was expected based on his contact quality.

Using the aforementioned Statcast data, I built an xBABIP calculator, and a few other neat stats that tell us stuff about Yadi’s contact we didn’t know before. Here’s those results:

If you haven’t read any of my Statcast pieces before, HRPBB stands for Home Run Possible Batted Ball, and represents any batted ball that leaves the bat between 18 and 44 degrees, inclusive. The large majority of homers have a Launch Angle in that range. The underlying numbers think Yadi is well below average at generating homers, but not as bad as the results.

He was a little lucky on balls in play though, as you might have expected. .317 is an above-average mark, but not quite as good as his actual results. Still, since he was unlucky in terms of power, it mostly evens out. This method doesn’t penalize Yadi for being a very slow runner (which limits his ability to leg out infield hits) but it also doesn’t give him credit for hitting to all fields well enough to not be target against the shift.

“NC wOBA” stands for Non-contact wOBA, or how the player performed in terms of walks, strikeouts, and hit by pitches. Yadi was well above average thanks to his minuscule strikeout rate. “OC wOBA” stands for on-contact wOBA, and represents his wOBA on balls in play and home runs. Overall, he’s below average on contact, but his strong numbers in non-contact appearances make him an above-average hitter. “OC xwOBA” or his expected wOBA on-contact based on the Statcast data, is strikingly similar to the results.

Let’s get a better idea of what makes Yadi good at getting hits on balls in play, using BaseballSavant.com ‘s neat angle graphics:

If you’re not familiar with how angle relates to type of batted ball, here’s some rules that Statcast uses:

Grounders: below 10 degrees

Line Drives: 10 to 25 degrees

Fly Balls: 25 to 50 degrees

Pop-ups: 50 or more

For a full breakdown of how likely each angle and velocity is to be a hit, check out this graph.

The left shows how Yadi’s batted balls distributed by angle. The right shows the average Exit Velocity at each angle. While velocity is important when it comes to hits, angle is more important. Yadi avoids high-angled pop-ups, as well as low-angled grounders. His largest spikes occur at 20 and 15 degrees, great angles for hits.

Unless you’ve seen a lot of these graphics though, you might not have much context for how this compares to league average. Here’s a breakdown of how often the league as a whole hits the ball in various angle buckets compared to Yadi, as well as the average BABIP in that range and his average Exit Velocity in each bucket:

The first and last row of this chart give you the most information: He hit a fourth less batted balls than average under -10 degrees, and about a third less pop-ups than average. The very best range for hits shown here for hits is the 10 to 15 degree range, and Molina topped the league average mark considerably, and hit those balls hard as well. He also hit much more batted balls than average in the 25 to 30 mark, which isn’t great for BABIP but likely represented most of his power, as those are great angles for home runs (for a full breakdown of which angles and velocities are best for homers, check here).

Going just by angle, Molina’s batted ball distribution is very similar to Dexer Fowler. Both scored an Angle-based xBABIP (the expected BABIP when just using angle) of .331. Fowler hits for around a league average velocity though, whereas Yadi is below average. Fowler’s Velocity-based xBABIP (the expected BABIP just using velocity) comes out to .299, whereas Molina is only .279. In the end, Fowler holds an 11 point lead in total xBABIP, before considering the ridiculous difference in foot speed between the two. Still, Fowler is one of the best in game at BABIP. That Fowler is better doesn’t make Yadi a slouch in that department, it’s just interesting how similar they are by Launch Angle.

It sure looks to me like this analysis verifies Yadi’s 2016 performance. He did get a little lucky on balls in play, but was unlucky in terms of getting the ball over the fence. His great strikeout/walk profile gives him a strong floor, so despite being below average on contact, he profiles as an above-average hitter overall, especially for someone who more than handles the toughest position on the diamond. This doesn’t look like one last good run from Yadi in his later years. Expect another average to above-average performance in 2017.