No matter how you look at it, 2019 has been a rocky season for Yadier Molina. He is on pace to finish with his worst year at the plate since 2006–so much so that according to FanGraphs, Yadier Molina has been a sub-replacement level player thus far. Of course, Molina has never been an offensive stalwart, but as his defensive skillset continues to deteriorate he’s likely going to need some sort of rebound as a batter to remain a productive player.
The evolution of Molina the hitter has been marked by him increasingly swinging for the fences. In fact, two of his three highest fly ball rates were in 2017 and 2018. And sure enough, two of his three highest home run counts were in 2017 and 2018. That has traded off with plate discipline though, underscoring the broader trend of his swing rate on pitch’s outside the strike zone rising well above his career average from 2015-2019.
Although he may have been able to somewhat buoy his lowered walk rate and elevated strikeout rate with a resurgence in slugging percentage in the past, his aggressive swings have not bore the same home run fruit this time around. Per Statcast, his average exit velocity on batted balls is the lowest it’s been over the past four seasons and his expected wOBA when he makes contact (xWOBAcon) in that same timeframe reads: .355, .372, .353, .325. This isn’t just the BABIP gods exacting revenge on an all-time great–Molina’s .282 BABIP is actually 18 points up from his 2018 figure–he’s continued to roll with an approach predicated on hard-hit fly balls without actually resulting in many hard-hit fly balls. Even as he focuses more on power than past renditions of him did, his isolated power (ISO, or slugging percentage minus batting average) has actually fallen below his overall career mark in 2019 to pair with the worst walk-to-strikeout ratio of his career.
How much of this is a byproduct of a campaign in which Molina has already landed on the injured list twice with thumb injuries is difficult to determine from afar. One thing that is clear is that Matt Wieters has earned the lion’s share of the playing time in Molina’s abscence while Andrew Knizner sits on the active roster as the backup catcher. While Wieters might have the proverbial hot hand (see: a 143 wRC+ since June 29), if nothing else I would like to see Knizner receive more experience at the MLB level. We’ve likely seen the last of prime Yadi, and it just might be time for the Cardinals to start pondering their backstop future accordingly.