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A closer look at Yadier Molina’s hitting profile in 2017

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Yadier Molina isn’t having a lot of BABIP luck in 2017 but he’s not helping himself all that much either.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There’s been three 16-game hitting streaks to lead the National League this season. NL OPS leader Justin Turner has one and Yadier Molina has the other two. Early last month John Fleming took a close look at the first of Molina’s hitting streaks which spanned from May 8 to May 27 because when all was said and done, it wasn’t that great (albeit kind of funny). That can happen with hitting streaks. Like sinking a three-pointer in fifteen straight basketball games or tallying at least one reception per game over the course of a football season, a hitting streak means a player contributed in some fashion but it doesn’t automatically mean that the contribution was significant.

As John pointed out, that was the case with Molina back in May. In 71 plate appearances during that streak, he slashed .275/.282/.464 with a 91 wRC+. Molina in essence was a below average hitter. His most recent streak, which stretched from June 8 to July 1 (expect his next 16-game hitting streak to begin this Saturday), was a bit prettier but not all that memorable either. Over those 65 plate appearances, Molina hit .333/.354/.492, good for a 120 wRC+. That’s certainly a solid line but Molina averaged a 132 wRC+ for three straight seasons over about 25 times the amount of plate appearances from 2011 to 2013. So again, the second hitting streak wasn’t that special.

What’s the problem other than just a random assortment of hits that happen to be pretty spread out over 16 games? Well, for one, Molina wasn’t really getting on base during these streaks any other way besides getting a hit. Just look at those on-base numbers above. During Turner’s 16-game hitting streak he reached base 50 percent of the time (he also hit .433 which helps). Kolten Wong had a 13-game hitting streak earlier this season and with that came a .441 on-base percentage and a nearly 12 percent walk rate.

Molina, meanwhile, combined for 136 plate appearances during his two hitting streaks and took a walk only twice. That’s 1.5 percent of the time. Overall, in 2017, he’s drawing a walk in only 4.5 percent of his plate appearances, easily the lowest of his career (his previous low was 5.5 percent in 2005 and 2013). His .304 on-base percentage is the lowest it has been since 2006 when his offense could best be described as a black hole. Oh, and typically tough to strike out, Molina is now striking out more - 13.8 percent of the time, a career high.

For qualified hitters in 2017, his walk rate ranks 153 out of 166, his on-base percentage ranks 134th, and his walk-to-strikeout ratio ranks 124th. This profile was pretty much on display last night. Of the 13 pitches he saw over the course of the evening, he took three for balls, all in the same at-bat in the bottom of the 5th when he worked the count full and then chased ball four (to be fair, it was a pitch near the plate) for a weak grounder to short. His night ended by striking out on three straight pitches in the 7th.

Let’s be clear, a 13.8 percent strikeout rate is still very good, and Molina has never been great at drawing walks. He’s also exactly one week away from his 35th birthday so he’s at an age where his hitting shouldn’t be getting better. Still, the downward trend is something to keep an eye on, especially for a player who has been batting fifth in the lineup more than 75 percent of the time in 2017.

It’s possible in this fly ball-centric world of baseball we are now living in that Molina is selling out for more power. FanGraphs’ batted ball stats back this up (36.4 percent fly ball rate for Molina compared to 29.7 last season) and in some ways it’s working. His home run to fly ball ratio (10.7 percent) is in the double digits for just the second time in his career, and he’s on pace for his highest home run total since he hit 22 in 2012.

And a player with Molina’s speed, which is basically none, perhaps doesn’t want to be hitting many balls on the ground anyway and he is indeed hitting less - nearly 5.5 percent fewer than last season. Perhaps one positive result here is that he’s only grounded into five double plays this season after hitting into 22 in 2016. Furthermore, like the rest of the league, Molina has a wRC+ right around 30 when hitting the ball on the ground. So up in the air is a good place to be.

To add to that, according to FanGraphs, Molina is making more hard contact this season, his fly ball rate, as noted, is up, and his line drive rate is close to his career average.

So is his underwhelming 85 wRC+ just BABIP luck? Molina’s .284 batting average on balls in play this season would be his lowest since 2010 and well off his career mark of .300. Some positive regression in the upcoming second half of the season would certainly be welcoming. But it’s also worth nothing that Molina is chasing more pitches off the plate (37.6 percent) than ever before and his overall contact rate (82.2 percent) is at its lowest since he barely cleared 150 plate appearances in 2004, his first season in MLB.

Overall, Molina’s 2017 season at the plate hasn’t been great but hardly disastrous. That 85 wRC+ is not ideal but will typically play for a catcher. In a perfect world Molina is not batting fifth - a spot which is averaging a 106 wRC+ across the league - but with the lineup currently banged up as it is, it’s not that indefensible either. (We can revisit this when and if Dexter Fowler and Wong both return from injury.) A deeper dive into Molina’s StatCast data might tell a more complete story, but Molina could probably stand to be a bit more selective at the plate in order to draw more walks while waiting for the BABIP luck to come around.