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St. Louis Cardinals set to welcome back Yadier Molina for stretch run

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Yadi Yadi Yadi.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

As you should know by now, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch was in Springfield, Missouri last night, and no, his primary reason of being there was not to witness Sam Tuivailala's fastball in person—though this was likely a nice treat to complement his visit's primary focus. Obviously, Goold's primary assignment was to check in on the second rehab start of Cardinals six-time All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. After going two for three with a double two nights ago, Molina went three for three with two doubles and an RBI last night and was removed, as scheduled, after five innings of play. Before leaving Hammons Field in a car to make the trip back to St. Louis, Molina provided Goold with the following (DG's full article can be found here):

"Ready to go," Molina said. "Everything responded very good. The way I expected. … Right now I don’t know what the deal is, but I’m ready (to start Friday). If not Friday, then it’s this weekend. Soon. I’m ready to go."

Physically, I have zero doubts Molina is ready to go. From the very beginning, I believed the 8-12 week time frame was a pretty conservative estimate, considered the injury he suffered. Yet, given Molina's value to the organization (beyond just this season), I don't question being conservative in the slightest. Sure, many people have pointed out that Brandon Phillips returned earlier despite suffering the "same" injury, but comparing recovery times between two completely different human bodies is not fair in my opinion. Regardless, he's very nearly back, and I don't foresee any physical complications from the injury or surgery going forward.

What Yadi will bring upon his return...

No, I am not going to mention the Cardinals record without Yadi because frankly, I think there are far too many variables that go into the outcome of a baseball game to pin it solely on one player. Nope, I am not going to mention catchers' ERA since Molina went down, either, since again, I think there are too many variables that come into play here as well. Being fans of the Cardinals, we are all well aware of the possibly-overhyped intangibles Molina provides to his ball club. However, since these are intangible assets that we cannot fully grasp at this time, let's focus on the tangible skills Molina brings to the Cardinals upon his return, instead. Three, in particular, stand out to me: 1) better base-stealing management, 2) more consistent hitting, and 3) being a better target for his pitchers.

1) Better base-stealing management:

In Yadi's absence, base-stealers had an 86.2% success rate—as Cruz threw out three runners on 18 attempts, and Pierzynski threw out one in eleven tries. If Molina had enough games to qualify, he would be leading the majors in caught-stealing percentage (49.0% versus 41.0%, the next highest CS%). In the 81 games Molina played prior to landing on the disabled list, a total of 35 baserunners attempted to steal against him—or 0.432 attempts per game. Since he's been gone, there have been 29 stolen base attempts in games started by Cruz or Pierzynski (39 games)—or 0.744 attempts per game.

I believe the running game to slow down upon Molina's return, and I fully expect the team's caught stealing rate to increase from the 13.8% put forth by Cruz and Pierzynski. Also, I cannot wait to see more perfect strikes like this one:

2) More consistent hitting

Tony Cruz, since entering July 9th's game after Molina sustained his injury sliding into third, has slashed .160/.213/.200 with only three extra base hits (all doubles) and an exorbitantly high strikeout rate of 23.5%. A.J. Pierzynski has been considerably better at the plate, slashing .265/.324/.338, but he, like Cruz, has had only three extra base hits as well, with one coming via the long-ball.

Getting his timing back at the plate will likely be Molina's biggest hurdle down the stretch. He hasn't faced live major league pitching in exactly 51 days. The one thing going for him is his propensity to swing at and have success against the first pitch he sees—often a fastball. I don't question his ability to hit a fastball going forward, but picking up big league breaking balls and off-speed stuff will be no easy task. However, Molina will have a good grasp of his potential hitting deficiencies, and I reckon he will set plate appearances up in a way that gives him the best chance at success (intangible alert!).

3) Being a better target for his pitchers

In case you missed Jeff Sullivan's thought-provoking post over at Fangraphs from three days ago, he crafted words, graphs, and GIFs together to form a theory that has been vocalized by fans on Twitter for quite some time now—what if Adam Wainwright just misses his catcher? With reports of Wainwright's "dead arm" surfacing, this theory is all but debunked, but I think it's worth discussing anyway.

To be honest, I had considerable doubts about Sullivan's theory from the very beginning, and to his credit, he made it clear that he had some doubts as well. However, after watching very little of the 3-1 loss on Wednesday afternoon, there is a chance Sullivan just may be on to something. Here is the link to my original tweet, but for comparative purposes, I spliced together a screenshot of Sullivan's Molina GIF and one of my screenshots of Cruz from the game:

Catchersgloves

Admittedly, the sample size cannot get any smaller (1 v. 1 comparison), but if my memory serves me correctly, Molina consistently keeps his glove up and open for his pitchers to target, from the start of their windup through the release. The only times he doesn't do this is when he sets up inside and then quickly shifts outside just before the pitch (intangible alert!), in situations where he perceives the hitter is picking up on his positioning pre-pitch (usually with a runner on second base).

Thus, despite consistently playing inconsistently in 2014 (yep, that does make sense), the Cardinals trail the Brewers by only 1.5 games in the National League Central, with 30 games to play (Brewers have 29 left). Our own Craig summed up the rest of the season perfectly with one tweet from Wednesday:

Will Molina turn into Superman and get the Cardinals back on the track we all expected from them prior to the season? No, probably not, but with 30 games remaining, it is in the team's best interest to have their best players on the field, and it appears as if this is going to be the case very soon.