Yadier Molina’s Superstar Season

In “Year of the Pitcher: Part 3”, the headlines are being grabbed by R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Brandon Beachy before his injury, Stephen Strasburg (and actually the Nats rotation as a whole) and whoever is six-plus innings into a no-hitter or perfect game on a given night.  And rightfully so given how incredible those guys have been.  Apart from the wunderkinds (Bryce Harper & Mike Trout), Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp before his injury, hitters aren’t really getting as much run as individual story makers.

This attention on pitchers isn’t a problem, but it has left some hitters in the midst of great seasons off the radar including the brilliant season that Yadier Molina has had thus far.  The 29-year old backstop signed a five-year, $75 million dollar extension in early March that includes a mutual option for a sixth year that would keep him in St. Louis through 2018.

Instead of signing Albert Pujols, they essentially doled the money out to Molina, Carlos Beltran (2/$26mm) Rafael Furcal (2/$14mm) and Lance Berkman (1/$12mm) with Molina as the obvious centerpiece to be paired with Matt Holliday through the 2000-teens.  They are hoping that Molina can be their Jorge Posada in terms of longevity.

The challenge in that comparison is that Molina was up at 21-years old and full-time by 22 while Posada first saw significant time at 25-years old and that lack of wear and tear applied in his early 20s allowed him to remain an offensive force through his 30s with only two seasons below 101 OPS+ and zero below 90 (he was at 90 last year w/a .714 OPS).

However the story worthy of attention right now is that present-day Molina has become the best all-around catcher in baseball.  He has long been the league’s gold standard when it comes to the defensive discipline of catching, but he took a major step forward offensively last year and has not only continued it in 2012, but amped it yet another several notches.

When I saw Yahoo!’s Scott Pianowski tweet on the matter, I found myself nodding in agreement as I had just recently looked at Molina’s stat line over the weekend and marveled at the fact that he is ridiculously close to career-highs almost across the board in only 276 plate appearances.

He achieved career-bests in home runs (14), RBIs (65), runs (55), batting average (.305) and slugging percentage (.465) last year in 518 plate appearances.  He is already exceeding both rate stats (.319 and .512) to go with his 12 home runs, 44 RBIs and 33 runs scored in just 53% of last year’s plate appearance total.  His .369 on-base percentage is also tracking to be a career-best.  After an embarrassing 4-for-9 (44%) stolen base rate last year, he is just two away from his career-high with seven so far in eight attempts (88%).

It is a generally accepted fact that catcher’s develop later offensively speaking because the early part of their career is spent learning the finer points of handling a pitching staff and taming a running game, but that development is usually confined to a power spike.  Molina’s entire game is reaching new heights.

He is currently on pace for 26 HR, 95 RBI and 15 SB with his .317 batting average.  Only one catcher has ever reached or exceeded all four of those marks: Ivan Rodriguez in 1999 when he had 35 HR, 113 RBI and 25 SB with a .332 batting average en route to an MVP.  Of course the offensive environment was much different back then so while Pudge’s dream season netted a 125 OPS+, Molina’s carrying a 142 so far.

None of this offensive explosion is coming at the expensive of the defensive work that made him famous in the first place and earned him four Gold Glove Awards.  GGs aren’t a perfect measure of defensive prowess so you can’t just use them blindly, but I think it is universally agreed upon that Molina has deserved every single one he has earned.

In fact, a major & valid complaint of the awards is that they are often offensively driven for some ungodly reason, but Molina bucked that trend with his 2010 win as he was rather putrid at the dish netting a meager 84 OPS+, but even voters couldn’t ignore his MLB-best 49% caught stealing rate as he threw out a career-high 33 runners (against 35 steals).

So far this year he is popping runners at a 37% clip (13-of-35), but that doesn’t even tell the full story.  He is so good that he stops the running game before it even starts.  The opposition is running at a clip of nearly once per two games, easily baseball’s best rate.  There is currently an attempt once every 16 innings against Molina.  Compare that with San Diego’s Nick Hundley who doesn’t see six innings pass without someone attempt larceny on his watch.  Molina’s rate was even better a year ago when base runners ran just once every 17.7 innings.

The closest catcher to Molina this year is John Buck who is two innings behind (1 every 14 innings) and right behind him is Yadier’s brother, Jose Molina (13.8).  Yadier remains the most feared catcher in the game defensively speaking and with good reason.  The other bias usually associated with Gold Gloves is that multiple winners seem to get favored and ties usually go their way.  Arizona’s Miguel Montero is having a helluva year cutting down runners (22-of-42, 52%), but that might not be enough to trump Molina’s reputation.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Carlos Ruiz is another catcher also having a truly brilliant year at the dish (and behind it).  His .361 average is the best in baseball and his 10 home runs are already a career-best while his 41 RBIs in 67 games have already topped the 40 he amassed in 132 games last year.  He has been no slouch behind the dish, either, with a career-best 39% caught stealing rate stopping 22 of the 56 would-be thieves.  Runners are testing him exactly once per game, but he is meeting the challenge.  At 33 years old, his 171 OPS+ is fourth in baseball behind just Joey Votto (198), David Wright (180) and Mark Trumbo (174).

When I was first gathering data and thinking about this piece, I was thinking of suggesting that Molina could be a longshot MVP candidate based on his excellent all-around season and he may be, but if he is then Ruiz definitely has to garner some consideration and likely even more than Molina as he is out-hitting him and playing sharp defense that is at least in the county of Molina’s, if not in the same ballpark.  I still give Molina the edge as baseball’s best all-around catcher both now and going forward.

What is clear is that these two plus the out-of-nowhere breakout from A.J. Ellis, the insane offensive surge from A.J. Pierzynski, the emergence of Jonathan LuCroy before his hand injury and the continued dominance of guys like Buster Posey, Miguel Montero, Joe Mauer (not 2009 levels, but still very good) and Matt Wieters, perhaps we are in the midst of “The Year of the Catcher” as well as the third edition of TYotP.  Given the return to earth by Mike Napoli and the struggles of Carlos Santana, Brian McCann and Alex Avila, who’d have thought we would be talking about superlative catchers this year?

For the Cardinals, it is still very early (in fact, the extension for Molina hasn’t even kicked in), but it certainly looks like he is trending in the right direction (improved OPS+ in five of the last six years) offensively without losing anything in the defensive game that went a long toward earning him the contract in the first place.

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