Yadier Molina's Rise from All-Star to Franchise Cornerstone Post-Pujols

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 4, 2013

Feb 23, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) warms up before the game against the Miami Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium. The Marlins defeated the Cardinals 8-3.  Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

When Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent in December 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals lost a guy who had been their best player for over a decade.

But no matter. The Cardinals have a new best player now, and his name is Yadier Molina. What's more, he's good enough to a point where people find themselves pondering whether "best player on the Cardinals" isn't the only title Molina has inherited from Pujols.

How about best player in baseball, period?

Stan McNeal of The Sporting News found himself asking that question back in March. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe found himself asking it last month, and he spoke to one scout who said you're not going to find an all-in-one package like Molina anywhere else.

That much is definitely true. Molina is easily the best defensive catcher in baseball and is already being considered as the best defensive catcher ever. Meanwhile, he's leading the National League in hitting at .347, and his .388 OBP is on pace to be a new career high. If he keeps it up, he could soon be adding an MVP trophy to his mantelpiece. 

You don't have to buy Molina is the best player in the game today. And to be honest, it's not a point I'm really interested in selling.

All I'm interested in talking about is how amazing it is that we can even begin to ponder whether Molina is the best in the game. It's a question that highlights how far he's come and, indeed, just how hard he's worked.

Provided you're not just now discovering the wondrousness of baseball, you surely remember what Molina used to be like. He could handle himself just fine behind the plate, but the bat just wasn't there.

From his first full big league season in 2005 through 2007, Molina owned a batting line of .246/.302/.348. He made strides in 2008 and 2009, but then fell flat again in 2010 to the tune of a .262/.329/.342 batting line. Among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, Molina's .671 OPS was among the worst (see FanGraphs).

But then in 2011: .305/.349/.465.

And then in 2012: .315/.373/.501.

And now in 2013: .347/.388/.497.

It's times like these when one goes looking for answers. The first thought that tends to enter my brain is, "Aha! He must have an improved approach!"

But that's the thing about Molina. His approach was never really a problem, and it really hasn't changed all that much.

He's not seeing more pitches now than he was earlier in his career. Between 2005 and 2010, Molina saw 3.47 pitches per plate appearance. Since the start of 2011, Molina has been seeing 3.46 pitches per plate appearance. Between '05 and '10, his swing percentage was 50. Since the start of '11, it's increased only slightly to 51.

Molina is also making contact at about the same rate he was before. Between 2005 and 2010, his contact percentage was 87. Since the start of 2011, it's 86 percent. He was also already pretty good at putting the ball in play, as his strikeout rate climbed above 10 percent only once between 2005 and 2010. It's stayed there each of the last three seasons.

Molina is obviously getting better results when he puts the ball in play. He had a .280 BABIP between 2005 and 2010. Since the start of 2011, his BABIP is .327.

But you're not surprised by that, of course, because you're smart and you can tell just by Molina's batting averages that he's getting more hits to fall. So yeah, "Duh!" indeed.

What's fascinating is how Molina has improved his results on batted balls. The best way I can put it is this: He actually hits like a guy who has a clue what he's doing.

Consider the following graph. Using splits data from FanGraphs, it shows the progression of Molina's Weighted On-Base Averages—a FanGraphs specialty that's helpful in this case because it's more all-encompassing than batting average—on balls to left, center and right field ever since 2005.

Here it is:

Notice how the lines were all jumbled there for a while? Notice how they've become less jumbled in the last couple seasons?

That they have. Molina has gotten more consistent hitting balls the other way and sending them back up the middle, and his production to his pull side has increased dramatically. Especially since the start of last season.

That's not a fluke. Molina has gotten better at driving the ball to the left side of the field, a reality reflected by his line-drive percentages on pulled balls:

Between 2005 and 2011, Molina had a line-drive percentage over 20 percent on balls to the left side only once. Suddenly, his line-drive percentage on balls to the left has stabilized above the 20 percent marker.

And though Molina wasn't hitting as many line drives to the left side in 2011 while he was batting .305 with an .814 OPS, he was definitely picking up hard hits in that direction. Take a look at the progression of his Isolated Power to the left side of the field:

I just wrote an article that talked about how Colorado Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez has been tapping into his pull power like never before in 2013. Molina can relate, as he's been doing the same thing the last couple of years.

The explanation for this?

Well, it's a heck of a lot easier to pull the ball with some power if you can get around on fastballs. That's something Molina has gotten drastically better at doing.

I owe a hat-tip to Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for picking up on this last year, but I'm going to go ahead and expound on the point that he made: Molina's production on fastballs has skyrocketed, and it's not something that has happened overnight.

FanGraphs keeps track of linear weights for different pitch types, and they can show us that Molina began steadily improving against hard stuff around 2009 and is now quite good at hitting it. 

Here are some numbers from FanGraphs:

Year FB% wFB wFB/C
 2005  60.7  -2.4  -0.30
 2006  60.7  -14.6  -1.58
 2007  60.8  -9.2  -1.11
 2008  62.3  -14.2  -1.45
 2009  61.2  -3.5  -0.30
 2010  59.1  0.2  0.02
 2011  59.3  2.1  0.20
 2012  57.2  24.2  2.21
 2013  56.5  13.3  2.15

The "wFB" column shows how many runs above average Molina has generated against fastballs. The "wFB/C" column shows how many runs above average against fastballs he's generated on a "per 100 pitches" basis. The "FB%" column shows the percentage of fastballs he's seen.

What you see is that Molina used to get absolutely killed by fastballs. Not surprisingly, pitchers weren't shy about continuing to feed him hard stuff. But ever since he's started hitting fastballs, pitchers have started to ease of. Especially in the last two seasons as his performance against fastballs has approached elite territory. They've gotten the gist.

It's times like these when there's typically a mechanical adjustment to talk about. One that I noticed is the positioning of Molina's hands.

Here's a screen shot taken from an MLB.com highlight of a bloop single to right field that Molina hit in 2010. Note that it's at the moment the pitcher is just about to release the ball:

See how his hands are away from his head and his left elbow is cocked out away from his body?

Keep that in mind and take a look at Molina at the point of release in 2013, with the screen shot coming from an MLB.com highlight of a home run he hit off Trevor Cahill:

Here his hands are behind his head and his left elbow is more tucked in than it is in the shot from 2010. It also looks like his stance in general is more closed and that his leg kick might be a little smaller.

And now here's Molina with the ball halfway to home plate:

The positioning of his hands more closely resembles the positioning of his hands at the release point in the 2010 image, but also not quite at the same time. They're still closer to his head, and his elbow is still tucked in more than it is in the 2010 shot.

Do I know exactly what's going on here? Frankly, no. But it looks like the kind of adjustment meant to alter Molina's timing for the better and perhaps add a little more explosiveness to his swing.

In other words, precisely the sorts of things he would need to improve so drastically against fastballs.

Whatever the explanation, there's no arguing with the improvement against the hard stuff. Nor is there arguing with the improvement in pull production. Or the overall offensive improvement. It all adds up to a portrait of a guy who couldn't hit until he one day decided, "Darn it, I'm going to hit." 

Molina made that call, and then he went out and made good on it.

That his defense hasn't been declining while his hitting has been improving only makes Molina's overall progression more impressive. He's remained a world-class defender behind the plate, and he's valuable to the Cardinals in other ways too.

Molina doesn't neglect his duties with the Cardinals' pitching staff. For that matter, his catcher's ERAs say he takes downright great care of his hurlers. His catcher's ERA has been under 4.00 each of the last four seasons and is at a career-low 3.21 this season.

Yes, it helps to have great pitchers throwing to you, but young right-hander Shelby Miller testified to Ben Reiter of SI.com that he marches to the beat of Molina's drum at all turns.

"Yadi knows everything about every single hitter, exactly what to throw," said Miller. "If you execute your pitches and throw them where he wants the ball, you're going to get hitters out, have a better ERA, win the game. I seriously believe that all the success I've had is totally on him."

Then there's the matter of Molina's effect on the other seven players on the field. ESPN's Buster Olney wrote earlier this year that Cardinals defenders keep their eye on Molina at all times, as he operates as a sort of on-field defensive coordinator.

"It really is amazing that he's able to do that with everything else that he has to think about," said Jon Jay.

Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus took this notion as an excuse to crunch some numbers. What he found was that the Cardinals have indeed tended to be a more efficient defensive team with Molina behind the dish than they are with backups behind the plate.

There's a possibility that's a mirage, mind you. But then again, there's also the possibility that there actually is something to the notion that Molina has an impact on the Cardinals' impact. It could indeed be that he's manipulating the scoreboard even when he's not hitting or catching the ball.

If so, well, go ahead and chalk that up as another thing that makes him a remarkable player who is easily the Cardinals' most invaluable asset and arguably the league's best overall player.

Again, you don't have to buy it. I'm not sold on the idea myself, as guys like Mike Trout, Evan Longoria and Buster Posey, a fellow catcher, are awfully good.

But one doesn't have to buy Molina as the game's best player in order to appreciate the journey he's made. He was about as far removed from that conversation as a player can be, and then he forced his way into it in no time at all.

And in doing so, he's certainly filled some pretty big shoes in St. Louis.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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