Yadier Molina has never hit the ball like this. The St. Louis Cardinals’ catcher has a 142 wRC+ and .283 ISO in his first 99 plate appearances this season. Both of these numbers would represent a career high for the 38-year-old if he could maintain them for the entire season. Molina’s best offensive season came in 2012 when he posted a 138 wRC+ and .186 ISO. So far, in 2021, Molina’s ISO is nearly .100 points higher than his career high, while his wRC+ is a bit higher as well. This kind of offensive production for the 38-year-old catcher is certainly unexpected, but what stands out the most is his increased power to start the season.
A couple things have changed so far for Molina this season. To begin with he is hitting the ball much harder. His average exit velocity of 91 mph is the highest of his career, since Statcast began recording in 2015. Additionally, Molina is also hitting more fly balls than normal. In fact his fly ball rate of 36.1%, according to Baseball Savant, is significantly higher than his fly ball rate in any other season. Such a combination of increased exit velocity and increased fly ball rate is ideal for increased power. With these numbers in mind, it is clear how Molina has posted an ISO nearly 100 points higher than his career high.
However, with a sample size of just 99 plate appearances, it is unclear if Molina will be able to maintain his increased power over the course of the full 2021 season. It is unlikely that he will maintain his .283 ISO, but it is still possible for him to maintain his power surge this season.
There are reasons for skepticism. One notable statistic is that he is swinging more freely. The catcher has posted a career high swing rate of 58% to start the season, as well as a 44.4% first pitch swing rate, which would be the second highest of Molina’s career. This kind of aggressiveness has led to a career high strikeout rate of 22.2%. For someone whose strikeout rate has hovered between 10.2% and 13.6% from 2013 to 2020, it seems unlikely that Molina’s new approach will last the entire season. Additionally, his swing rate has generally stayed between 53% and 55%, so an increase to 58% this season is certainly notable.
There are a couple possibilities for the change. Molina could have made a concerted effort to change his approach this season and become more aggressive. If that is the case, then he is certainly doing that and seeing good results. He could also be on a hot streak and simply be seeing the ball really well right now. This would cause him to be more aggressive, as most pitches would appear to be more hittable. It would also explain his increased production.
There could also be a mix of these two options. Molina could be making an effort to be more aggressive while also being on a hot streak. However, since Molina is in his 18th season and has an established approach at the plate that he has used consistently for quite a few years, it seems more likely that Molina is simply seeing the ball well right now.
This does not mean that his production is going to fall off, but it does mean that a 142 wRC+ and .283 ISO are unsustainable, especially since Molina’s last above average offensive season came in 2018. It will be interesting to see how well Molina can hit as the season progresses because he has been a key player for the Cardinals, and he has done more than his fair share to help the offense.
It is nice to see a power surge from Molina, but the Cardinals lineup needs to be ready for when he cools off. He may still be able to produce more power than he has in the last few seasons, but he should not be expected to continue hitting like a middle of the order force. Regardless, it is incredible that Molina has been able to hit this well at the beginning of his age 38 season, and it appears that Molina still has plenty left in the tank.