Adam Wainwright’s mesmerizing curveball that froze future teammate Carlos Beltran and ended Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS stands as the iconic image of the Cardinals’ stunning, logic-defying run to the World Series title that year.
But if a play were chosen to represent the unlikely nature of that postseason journey, it might have been the one that set up Wainwright’s tight-rope-walking save. Yadier Molina’s two-run shot off Aaron Heilman in the top of the ninth inning counteracted Endy Chavez’s earlier robbery of Scott Rolen and gave the Cardinals a 3-1 lead.
It’s almost hard to remember now just how atrocious Molina was with the bat that season, his third in the majors and second as the team’s primary catcher. Now that the Cards have added another championship to their collection in a season when Molina produced one of the best offensive performances by any catcher in baseball – to go with his well publicized defense – it’s worth looking back at just how far Yadi has come at the plate and just how unusual of an accomplishment it has been.
Going back to the beginning, this Future Redbirds article from 2008 does a nice job of detailing Molina’s progression as a prospect after he was drafted out of Puerto Rico in 2000. Ranked highly due to his defense, Molina held his own as a minor-league hitter given his position and young age but didn’t display much power or patience. And of course, his speed, even then, could best be described as, “Nope.” The best thing you could have said about Molina the hitter was that he put the ball in play. Combined with his prowess behind the dish, this was enough to move him quickly through the system until he debuted with the big club in June 2004.
In Molina’s first two big league seasons, he hit poorly, but not in an especially attention-grabbing way for a defense-first catcher. His OPS+ those two years were 78 and 70, putting him solidly below average (OPS+ is adjusted for league and ballpark, with 100 being average and every point above/below signifying one percentage point above/below league average for that year).
But 2006 was a different story. Over 461 plate appearances, Molina put up a line of .216/.274/.321, giving him an OPS+ of 53. Molina’s offense was so terrible that even his defense couldn’t mask it – FanGraphs credits him with 0.2 WAR that season, while Baseball-Reference puts him at -0.2.
I wanted to give Molina’s 2006 some context in relation to other young catchers, so I searched Baseball-Reference’s play index for backstops who posted an OPS+ of worse than 60 over at least 300 plate appearances in their third season or earlier. Going back to 1947 (integration), Molina was one of 16, including old friend Eli Marrero.
Molina was one of six, including the still-active Snyder, to rebound later in his career with a season of at least 300 PA of league-average performance (100 OPS+ or better) while still at catcher. None of those other players ever recorded an offensive season as good as Molina’s 2011. At age 28 last year, Molina hit .305/.349/.465 over 518 PA, good for a 126 OPS+ (his OPS of .814 was fifth among MLB catchers). That topped the 121 OPS+ of Clay Dalrymple in 1962, a year after he put up a 55.
I find Molina’s progression as a hitter fascinating and even inspiring.
This isn’t a “toolsy” prospect who “figured things out,” allowing his natural gifts to click at the big league level. This is a dumpy-looking, 5-foot-11, 230-pound catcher who runs like he’s pulling a tractor. If Molina making a snap throw to first base to nab a runner is poetry in motion, Molina swinging a bat is a haiku in motion: short, to the point, and not winning any awards.
But Molina clearly worked hard to turn himself into a capable hitter when he didn’t really have to. We’ve seen time and time again that catchers who can (or are at least perceived to) block pitches in the dirt, throw out runners and call a good game can hang around the major leagues for a long time, even swinging a wet noodle at the plate. And Molina, even as a young player, was better at those things than most. He could have coasted on it but he didn’t.
In 2011, Molina walked at a lower rate than in his career mark while striking out at the same rate, and he doesn’t do either very often. He hit line drives at the same rate. But Molina produced fewer grounders and more fly balls – probably a good thing for a runner of his caliber. He accompanied that change with by far his highest career rate of home runs per fly ball, which helps explain him nearly doubling his career high in homers and topping his career-best slugging percentage by more than 70 points. His BABIP was a career high, but just barely better than his marks in 2008 and 2009.
Molina might have been a little lucky at the plate in 2011, and prudence would demand expecting a bit of a regression in 2012 (ZiPS projects him for .284/.340/.397, 101 OPS+). But there is no reason to believe that at 29 years old, Yadi won’t continue to contribute at the plate as well as behind it. Now Cardinals fans just have to hope that as he enters the final year of his contract, he will continue making those contributions in St. Louis.