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Growing old with Yadier Molina

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Yadier Molina, as people tend to do, is aging. How will the team adapt?

Milwaukee Brewers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Yadier Molina is 35 years old, though for MLB record-keeping purposes, he is in the midst of his age-34 season. Molina is on pace for 557 plate appearances this season—only seven catchers in Major League Baseball history have accumulated more plate appearances in their age-34 or later season. Four of the seasons occurred for players in their age 34 season: Jason Kendall, Ivan Rodriguez, Sherm Lollar, and Terry Steinbach.

Two of the seasons came in age 35 seasons—courtesy of Yankees backstops Elston Howard and Jorge Posada—the age season in which Yadier Molina will begin his three-year contract extension. No player has accumulated so many plate appearances at age 36, and the one anomaly post-35 came courtesy of the 1985 version of Carlton Fisk, who accumulated 620 plate appearances in his age-37 season with the Chicago White Sox. And this was coming off of a season in which Fisk batted just 395 times.

Yadier Molina has been notable throughout his career for his durability. Since inheriting the role as St. Louis Cardinals starting catcher in 2005, Molina has tallied nearly 1500 innings more than any other catcher (the current #2, Blue Jays backstop Russell Martin, began in MLB in 2006, but even excluding 2005, Molina leads Martin by over 500 innings). His usage has not slowed down as he has aged: of the 20 heaviest single-season catcher workloads in the majors this decade by innings behind the plate, Molina has six of them in his seven completed seasons. 2016 was his busiest season yet, trailing only Royals catcher Salvador Perez’s 2014 for most innings caught since 2010.

It would be a reasonable hypothesis to believe that there is something fundamental about Yadier Molina which allows him to remain healthier than most. But it would also be unreasonable to assume that Yadier Molina will, until his contract’s expiration following the 2020 season, be the most durable mid-30s catcher in history. Sure, he could be—somebody has to be—but it would be in the best interest of the Cardinals to have a backup plan.

The good news: the Cardinals have Carson Kelly! Kelly entered 2017, by some accounts, as the best catching prospect in baseball, and Kelly has done nothing to quell the excitement surrounding him this season. While his MLB results have not been great, he has just 11 plate appearances with St. Louis this season and 25 plate appearances at the MLB level in total; with AAA Memphis, Kelly had 280 plate appearances, hitting 10 home runs, walking at a very respectable 11.8% clip, and producing a wRC+ of 118, indicating that he was hitting 18% above league average—not bad for a well-regarded defensive catcher in the midst of his age-22 season.

With the July designating for assignment of Yadier Molina’s sporadically used backup, Eric Fryer, the Cardinals made a seemingly defiant assessment that Carson Kelly is ready for the big leagues. Kelly could act as a more viable backup than Molina has had in at least the last half-decade or so, and he could immerse himself slowly into his future as a Major League catcher, if not with the Cardinals than with somebody.

But signs point to Yadier Molina not being particularly interested in having a legitimate backup. It appears as though Molina has grown accustomed to being the guy behind the plate. In a since-deleted Instagram post chronicled by many outlets, including last Friday in Viva El Birdos’s Hunt and Peck section, Molina wrote,

This came the day after Carson Kelly got a start and Mike Matheny made some comments implying that Molina, the most frequently deployed catcher in baseball at an age when many catchers are unable to handle the position at all, looked tired the game before.

While Molina seemed to take offense to the implication that he was fatigued as a slight on his conditioning or his age, and perhaps Matheny could have handled his words better, the manager’s actions were typical of most managers—a day off for his starting catcher every week or so. As much as we tend to criticize Mike Matheny around these parts, this was a case of the Cardinals preserving a catcher they hope to avoid burning out down the stretch while allowing a backup in whom they had increased faith to play.

It is not concerning that Molina wanted to play—professional athletes are intense competitors and a borderline irrational ego can give one the confidence needed to perform at such a high level. It’s fine if (that) Yadier Molina believes he could play 162 games per regular season because he’s not the person making the decisions (side note: I really hope that the occasional people I see suggesting that Yadier Molina should be player-manager are saying so tongue-in-cheek).

It is the responsibility of Mike Matheny to make the cold, correct decision for the betterment of his team. Last Thursday, he did just that—while the Cardinals lost that game to the Arizona Diamondbacks, it is very unlikely that Molina would have swung the pendulum from loss to win in a game decided by four runs, and Molina was able to conserve some energy for, say, two-homer outbursts the next week against the Milwaukee Brewers in a game decided by one run.

But, as with Dexter Fowler insisting on playing in center field, Molina’s insistence on starting games at will at catcher seems to be a case of players managing the team. The situations differ somewhat—while the case could easily be made that Dexter Fowler is already an inferior defensive center fielder than at least one of Tommy Pham or Randal Grichuk, Kelly has probably not yet passed Molina, a 2017 All-Star who may not have deserved the honor but who is still probably an above-average MLB catcher.

But with Molina on the decline—not done, but not playing the MVP-caliber levels of 2012 and 2013—and Kelly ascending, the odds that Kelly will surpass Molina as the superior overall player by the end of the 2020 season are...let’s just go with “material”. The odds that the wear and tear of Molina logging so many innings at baseball’s most grueling non-pitcher position will necessitate more off-days to keep him playing at his best are even higher.

Eventually, the onus is on Mike Matheny to do the thing which is often purported to be his greatest strength—juggling player egos and leading them to play as their best selves despite his occasional lapses in tactical judgment. As with explaining to Fowler that his longevity in the Majors may be dependent on his willing to play in a corner outfield spot, explaining to Molina (as a former catcher whose career was shortened by concussions, this should be right up Matheny’s alley) that giving Carson Kelly increased playing time is less a referendum on Molina and more having enough trust in Kelly that the team can afford to take steps to prolong Molina’s career.