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What was up with the hitting of Yadier Molina in 2014?

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Statistics show that Molina had a down year at the plate in 2014. Sure, he missed a significant portion of the season with a thumb injury, but even prior to getting hurt, his power bat was down compared to the last three seasons.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It is clear that St. Louis Cardinals six-time All-Star catcher Yadier Molina has come a very long way at the plate since the years when Tony La Russa claimed Molina would have still been his starter even if he had a .000 batting average. However, Molina took a significant step back in 2014—posting his lowest ISO (.104) and wRC+ (102) since 2010. Of course, he spent a significant amount of time (40 games) on the disabled list due to a torn thumb ligament, and understandably, Molina was not the same type of hitter after returning from such a crucial injury However, there was a noticeable decline in his pre-injury production as well:

Year PA ISO wRC+
2011 518 .160 126
2012 563 .186 138
2013 541 .158 133
2014 (Overall) 445 .104 102
Pre-Thumb Injury 335 .122 110
Post-Thumb Injury 110 .050 78

Molina's .104 ISO in 2014 was the second lowest among MLB catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. This is a stark difference from 2011 through 2013 as he found himself near the top ten in each of those three seasons (13th in 2011; 9th in 2012 and 2013). In terms of wRC+, his 102 in 2014 put him just barely above average and ranked 12th among catchers, a drop-off from being in the top four from 2011 through 2013. Had Molina maintained his pre-thumb-injury wRC+ of 110, he would have cracked the top ten, but this would have still been a disappointment given his ranks in each of the previous three seasons.

Some descriptive statistics

Year XBH on 93+ MPH Pitches % BIP to LF % BIP to CF % BIP to RF
2011 7 23.4% 41.9% 34.7%
2012 8 31.2% 39.1% 29.7%
2013 8 29.8% 29.1% 41.1%
2014 4 31.4% 30.9% 37.8%

I don't intend to draw any definite conclusions from this table, but I included a few things that I found interesting regarding Molina's hitting over the last four seasons. The number of extra-base hits he had on 93+ MPH pitches were cut in half in 2014. Factoring in 96 less plate appearances in 2014 than 2013 and his thumb injury, this probably shouldn't bee seen as that big of a deal. The reason behind looking at this in the first place was to see if available data could provide any results-based evidence behind a possible performance-affecting decrease in bat speed as he has aged. He will turn 33 years old in 2015 and given that he has logged almost 11,000 regular-season innings at catcher in his career, physical and mechanical wear-down is inevitable. There's a reason why so many natural catchers get moved off the position in the latter stages of their playing careers.

In regard to his balls in play by outfield location, his opposite field percentage is higher than his pull percentage in three of the four seasons listed (2011, 2013, and 2014). In 2012, his best hitting season as a big leaguer, he essentially cut the outfield into thirds and basically hit each location an equal amount. Now, are these percentages a result of the way he was pitched in each of those four seasons? Possibly (and something I may look at later in the offseason), but either way, his power (particularly his home run power) is limited to pulling the baseball as 70 of his 96 career home runs have been to left. In fact, he hasn't hit an opposite field home run in the regular season since August 24, 2012, with Mat Latos on the mound.

Should the Cardinals ask him to pull more baseballs in 2015 or are they content with him shooting singles the other way? It obviously depends on his body's health (especially his hand), but a team that was starved for home runs in 2014 would probably choose the former, especially considering the lineup is already full of high-OBP guys like Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, and Jason Heyward.

So...that was interesting, but what was up, then?

Of course, one can always use the "he's kind of old and is a catcher" reasoning, but that just wasn't good enough for me. Does his increasing age play a factor into his overall decline, especially at the plate? Absolutely, but being the only factor that made him fall as much as he did in 2014? I don't think so. Well, over the course of Molina's career, he has been notoriously dangerous when attacking the first pitch of an at bat. Just over 17% of Yadi's career plate appearances (879 of 5,046) have lasted only one pitch, and on this first pitch, he is slashing .313/.320/.456 with 22 of his 96 career home runs (23%). Season-by-season graphs and tables regarding Molina's tendencies on the first pitch can be found below:

2011 on the first pitch

Yadi 2011

2011 92 3 .352 .356 .523

Despite taking 19 first pitches right down the middle for a strike (see the graph on the right), the graph on the left shows that Molina jumped on (and subsequently put in play) first pitches that were right down the middle (12) and middle down (11)—two zones, that, combined, have accounted for 13 of his career home runs. Initially, it's interesting to see that he attacked 13 first pitches that were inside, down, and out of the strike zone completely. Upon further review, however, this zone, despite being out of the strike zone, appears to be a particularly dangerous one for Molina as it's the pitch location in which he has hit the most doubles (28) and home runs (13) in his career. In 2011 alone, he hit three doubles and five home runs from this pitch location.

2012 on the first pitch

Yadi 2011

2012 112 7 .380 .382 .648

As you can see by the numbers in the above table, Molina was especially active and dangerous on first pitches in 2012. A quick count shows that he put more balls in play (111) than he took for strikes (96) on first pitches seen. Up, away, and out of the zone is a weak spot for him (1 career home run versus 44 strikeouts), and his selectivity to have put zero balls in play located here is promising. Instead, the vast majority of his balls in play came from zones that have been lethal for him—anything touching the middle of the plate and then, of course, his already-discussed favorable bottom left zone, of which he hit seven doubles and three home runs in 2012.

2013 on the first pitch

Yadi 2013

2013 97 2 .347 .340 .505

As with previous seasons, Molina was especially active on first pitches that touched the middle of the strike zone. 19 strikes were called on pitches down, away, and out of the strike zone compared to just nine balls put in play from this zone. Given that this zone is his most problematic area in terms of production (low BIP success, high whiff rate), it's probably a good thing he laid off so many of these, even if he was unfairly given a strike on 19 of them.

2014 on the first pitch

Yadi 2014

2014 61 1 .203 .217 .271

As already mentioned, Molina had 96 less plate appearances in 2014 than he had in 2013, but the fact that he only had 61 plate appearances last one pitch (13.7% of his PAs) is down from his career percentage of 17.4%. Plus, his first-pitch slash line fell off a cliff completely. So, what was up? As you can by the very light shade of pink, Molina put only one ball in play on a first pitch right down the middle, as opposed to taking nine for strikes. The bright red zones in the graph on the right show that Molina was particularly conservative on first pitches that were in the strike zone last season. In fact, he took 76 first pitches in the strike zone while only putting 43 of them in play. That bottom left career hot zone? He only put three of those pitches in play as well, while taking five.

Bottom line

Can all of Molina's hitting decline in 2014 be attributed to his relative inactivity and ineffectiveness on the first pitch? No, because the age-related decline is a very real phenomenon (especially for a catcher), but as you can see from his production in 2011-2013, attacking the first pitch is an integral part of his production. In 2015, I hope to see Molina more active on the first pitch, particularly on pitches in zones that he has been successful with in the past (i.e. right down the middle and the bottom left corner).

Credit to the PITCHF/x search on Baseball Savant for the data and graphs used in this post.

You can follow Daren Willman, Baseball Savant's creator, on Twitter: @darenw.