Not too long ago, I wrote an article in which I pleaded with the Cardinals to not rush Yadier Molina back for the start of the regular season. Of course, I did not possess the same intricate knowledge that Molina, the medical staff, and the coaches possessed, so all I was able to work from was the fact that Molina underwent three thumb operations in two years, and due to these thumb injuries, he was unavailable to play at the end of 2014 and 2015 (with both scenarios including valuable time missed in the playoffs). Yet, as 101 ESPN's Bernie Miklasz wrote that same day, Molina was going to play when Molina decided it was time for him to play. Long story short, Molina started catching spring training games soon after I published my article, started on Opening Day against the Pirates, and has started in 14 of the Cardinals' first 15 games this season.
We are now fifteen games into the Cardinals' 2016 campaign, and Molina has made an appearance in each game, starting 14 of them (93.33%). When back-up catcher Brayan Pena was placed on the disabled list immediately prior to Opening Day, it would not have been hard to predict Molina starting nearly every game up to this point. While it has now been exactly 200 days (hat tip to managing editor Craig Edwards for this nugget of knowledge) since current back-up Eric Fryer last made an out in an MLB regular season game, it cannot be denied that he is nothing more than a 30-year-old journeyman back-up with very little MLB experience, accruing only 1.108 years of service time spanning over six years (since debuting with the Pirates in 2011). When Pena returns, Fryer will almost certainly be sent down to Triple-A Memphis.
Regardless, let's take a look at how Molina has performed at the plate thus far in 2016:
First and foremost, I must provide the usual, early-season disclaimer that 60 plate appearances is an extremely small sample size. Not much can be gathered about what to expect from Molina going forward using such a small sample. That being said, given what we saw from Molina last season after just one thumb operation (80 wRC+, .080 ISO), what we have seen thus far in 2016 is a very pleasant, rather unexpected surprise. Taking it one step further, never once in all of 2015 did Molina power his way to a slugging percentage greater than .400, with his very highest being .389 after the 10th game of the season on April 18th, and yet, here we are, on April 21st, and his current SLG is .473. While it is way too early to tell regarding Molina's true power, one should not complain about it being at a level unseen since near the beginning of 2014.
The next statistic to look at is Molina's .413 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Molina's career average BABIP of .298 is right around the league average, so unlike some hitters (often speedy ones), Molina is not generally considered a candidate for a high BABIP. Thus, he has clearly reaped the benefits of small-sample-sized BABIP luck thus far. Early returns seen on Molina's spray chart show a hitter not afraid of going to all fields, so who knows, we just may see a higher-than-average BABIP season from Molina. Either way, per FanGraphs, it takes 820 balls in play before we reach the stabilization point for BABIP. Hence, we can more likely expect what Molina has done thus far in his career (.298 BABIP) than what he has done in a mere 46 balls in play this season (.413 BABIP).
Along with his performance at the plate, Molina's performance behind the plate has been equally impressive. Using Runs Above Average (RAA) over at StatCorner, Molina (+3.2) has been the second most effective pitch framer thus far in 2016, behind Jason Castro (+3.5) of the Astros. And from a pure counting perspective, Molina has successfully transformed 140 pitches out of the strike zone into called strikes, per BaseballSavant.com.
Maybe Molina did not forget how to frame a pitch after all.
Shutting Down the Running Game
A catcher can look unfairly bad with a sample size of five total stolen base attempts. Throw out one runner, and your caught stealing percentage is a measly 20%. Yet, this has not been the case for Molina. Of the five stolen base attempts Molina has faced so far in 2016, he has thrown out three of them and is currently tied for the league with a 60% caught stealing rate. Plus, what's most impressive is that Molina is 14 starts into his season (and 119.1 innings caught), and he has only faced five stolen base attempts. Pitching in the major leagues is hard enough already. Being able to pitch and seemingly not worry all that much about base-runners because of your catcher behind the plate makes pitching just a little bit easier.
Again, it is way too early to draw conclusions on any aspect of Molina's game in 2016. However, given the circumstances, his performance thus far has been one of the team's brightest spots. Here's to hoping he can continue to play well through the end of the season. Some off days when Pena returns from the disabled list will definitely help. Heck, even some off days before Pena returns will be beneficial.