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What Yadier Molina is doing is absurd and amazing

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You’d think Molina would be playing worse when he is playing everyday. You’d be wrong.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

Yadier Molina recently turned 36-years-old. He has had to kneel down and catch baseballs thrown to him by pitchers who throw harder than any time in baseball history for over 15,108 innings. It places him 7th all-time. If Molina plays for only the two remaining years of his contract at an average of 120 games, plus finishes this season with 32 games played, he will finish his career 3rd all-time in innings caught, only behind Bob Boone and Ivan Rodriguez. Boone retired after his age-42 season and the man known as Pudge played his last season as a 39-year-old. If Molina retires after his contract runs out, he will technically have played his last season in his age-37 season. All of which is to say, he’s pretty much played more innings thus far in his career than anyone except for a Hall-Famer and Jason Kendall, who ended up retiring around Molina’s current age, most likely due to playing over 2,000 more innings than Molina has so far.

Age catches up to everyone eventually. This is true no matter the sport. Age will eventually catch up to Yadier Molina. It hasn’t yet. Last night, Molina caught his 23rd consecutive game, which is a major league record for catchers who are 35 and older. (I’m sure the record for all catchers will be harder considering Kendall once played 157 games in a season). He has had two off-days during his streak, but it is also worth pointing out that his streak is only 23 games in a row, because the game before his streak started, he sat because it was the second game of a double header. The last time Molina did start on a day where the Cardinals played at least once was July 8.

Logically, this has to have affected his play right? An older player who never sits, especially at a position as demanding as catcher, will surely see his play suffer a little by playing so much. I can’t speak to the defensive component of his play, seeing as there is no quantifiable way to judge any player’s defense in the span of a few weeks, much less catcher defense, where we aren’t even sure we’re fully capturing the value of a catcher’s defense over an entire career.

I can speak anecdotally, which doesn’t mean much as I am not a scout. His defense doesn’t really seem to be affected. As a whole, I am of the opinion that is defense is noticeably worse than it used to be - which probably grades out as something like an average or better catcher as opposed to the elite defender he once was. Like I said, just my opinion. He has the occasional wild pitch or passed ball that I think he used to get and doesn’t now only because he doesn’t put his full effort into stopping it, presumably as a way to save energy. His pop time is slower and his arm is weaker. Barely anybody tests him but his success rate on catching runners is lower too. This is not a criticism. He’s 36. This is all to be expected. I’m saying this because anything I happen to notice with his defense recently, I also noticed in April. I don’t think his defense is being affected by playing everyday and even if I did, I couldn’t tell how.

But we can learn how his offense has fared. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m including his stats since the All-Star break, not when his consecutive games streak started. There isn’t really a good reason to not include the previous three games before the second game of the doubleheader, because he still played in consecutive days. Plus, I can compare his numbers to his first half, which included a heavy workload, but still included some scheduled off-days when the Cardinals played.

1st half: 64 G, 251 PA, 5.1 BB%, 14.3 K%, .274/.315/.474, .269 9BABIP, 111 wRC+

2nd half: 26 G, 118 PA, 5.1 BB%, 11 K%, .318/.373/.467, .344 BABIP, 130 wRC+

The 2nd half stats do not include yesterday’s game, but even an 0-4 game would not appreciably change the fact that Yadi is hitting considerably better once he stopped sitting than before. Now there’s one huge necessary disclaimer, which is that Molina missed a month of injury in the 1st half and there’s no telling how that affected his play. His 2nd half stats benefit from him already being fully recovered from his “groin” injury. However, I’m less interested in comparing his 1st and 2nd half stats and more on if never sitting affects his offense. As you can see, the answer is clearly no.

But I do want to delve a little deeper into this question, because theoretically, his stats may get worse the farther away from an off-day he gets. A normal catcher of Molina’s caliber plays three straight days at catcher and then has an off-day on the fourth day. Occasionally, it will be two or four games, depending on trying to strategically pick the best way to utilize your star catcher, but the point is that, past Game #3 is where I would expect his numbers to dip. Let’s see what his stats are in the first three games following an off-day.

9 GP, 41 PA, 9.8 BB%, 9.8 K%, .400/.512/.600, .452 BABIP, 209 wRC+

Well I can say without a shadow of a doubt that his post-Game 3 numbers are going to worse than this, but I’m also not sure how useful that is. Molina is not a 209 wRC+ hitter, so just because he’s not doing that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s suffering by playing past game 3. After all, those 9 games include 3 HBPs - Molina got hit a total of four times last year. It also obviously includes a .452 BABIP. The increased walk rate is notable except it’s mostly because he got walked four times in three games following the All-Star break, not because he becomes a much more patient hitter if he has rest. He walked once the other two three-game series.

After the All-Star break, he has played 7 straight days, off-day, 13 straight days, off-day, and just played on his sixth straight day yesterday. So if there’s evidence of tiring, it will probably be found somewhere in those 13 days. Let’s see how he did in the games following the first three games, which is about the normal amount of consecutive games played if your catcher isn’t a machine.

(7/22-7/25): 4 G, 19 PAs, 0 BB%, 15.8 K%, .368/.368/.579, .400 BABIP. 157 wRC+

(7/30-8/08): 10 G, 49 PA, 4.1 BB%, 10.2 K%, .239/.286/.349, .250 BABIP, 74 wRC+

(8/13-8/15): 3 G, 13 PA, 7.7 BB%, 15.4 K%, .250/.308/.250, .300 BABIP, 58 wRC+

Not really a consistent trend we’re dealing with here, which isn’t surprising given the sample of games. The first sample suggests no dropoff at all, the third sample suggests a huge dropoff, and the larger sample of games is somewhere in the middle, because the BABIP is low enough that you can blame it on that. What happens if you go game-by game to see if he gradually drops off - and I think if he’s truly affected by the lack of rest, that his stats would gradually decline.

4 Days After Rest (3 G) 3-15, 2B, 2 Ks

5 Days: 2-12

6 Days: 5-13, 2B, BB, 3 Ks

7 Days (2 Games): 3-9, HR, K

On the eight straight game, Yadi went 1-6 with two strikeouts. The next day, he went 3-5 with a walk. He followed that up with two singles out of five tries on his 10th straight day played. His next two days were not particularly promising, as he went 0-8 with a walk and one strikeout. However, he went 2-5 with a double and a homer on his 13th straight game. He had great games on 6 days without rest, 7 days without rest, 9 days without rest, and 13 days without rest. He had a pretty good game on 10 days without rest as well, when he went 2-5.

Also for what it’s worth, he didn’t seem to be affected on the 11th or 12th days either, when he went 0-8. He made contact 7 times in those two games. According to Fangraphs batted ball data, Molina made hard contact on the ball 4 times, medium contact twice, and soft contact just once. His hard hit percentage for his season is 45.6%, which basically means he was making more hard contract in those two games than he has on average for the season. The balls just found gloves.

I can’t find any evidence that Molina’s play has been negatively affected by playing literally everyday. The disparity in the numbers between a well-rested Molina and one in the middle of a consecutive days streak can be explained by the fact that the well-rested Molina was hitting the ball better than Bryce Harper’s best season. The games where he is theoretically tired, he’s still playing at or above how he has all season, with some normal baseball variance give or take.

This is utterly incomprehensible and unbelievable. I have no idea how he’s doing this. He may eventually get rest, but as long as Francisco Pena is the backup, it’s not coming anytime soon. I may argue for Molina to get more rest going forward, but I cannot honestly argue to sit him for performance-related decline from overwork as I once assumed I could.