For years Yadier Molina has been the gold standard behind the dish known for both his tremendous defense and durability. He has 412 Gold Glove Awards (fine, just seven) and he’s caught at least 1000 innings seven of the last eight seasons and fewer than 930 just once in his 11 full seasons. Of course even he blushes at the workloads that KC is feeding Salvador Perez.
When Molina first started, his defense was the only reason to play him. He logged a .653 OPS in his first 1429 PA through age-24. The reps started to pay off as he started to turn his elite contact ability into some results with a .720 OPS in 1550 PA from ages 25-27. By now we’re looking at almost 3000 PA through his mid-20s and then we finally got a power surge with a .842 OPS in 1622 PA from ages 28-30 including a career-year in 2012 when he hit .315 with 22 HR, 76 RBI, 65 R, and 12 SB. He finished fourth in the MVP voting that year.
Over the last two seasons, he has been a blend of those first two samples with just a .687 OPS in 975 PA. In 2014, a torn right thumb cost him 40 games in the middle of the season. That injury looks like a signifier of his power decline as he returned to post just a .317 SLG in 27 games that year, but his 39 games prior to the injury yielded just a .315 SLG in 145 PA.
Through his 44 games of 2014, he still looked a lot like the very good version of himself with a .330/.360/.477 line and 5 HR (he had 7 for the year). The power stayed away again in 2015 with just a .350 SLG and four homers in 530 PA. He tore his left thumb this year, but it didn’t happen until late-September so it’s not behind his power decline. However, it’s not unreasonable to believe that last year’s thumb injury may’ve had a carryover effect.
Let’s look at the evolution of his skills over the periods we’ve outlined above:
I mentioned in the headline that he’s finding his old form and maybe that’s even inaccurate as his K% and BB% rates over the last two years are worse than either of the first two samples in the chart. The reason I suggested he’s his old self is that if you smash those first two samples together, the triple slash is nearly identical to the last two years. In 2004-10 he was .268/.327/.361, so he has a few extra points on the average in 2014-15, but otherwise just a shuffling of the distribution in his OBP and SLG for identical .688 totals.
It’s worth noting that the ’15 power outage might have some bad luck behind it. He upped his FB% and Pull% from last year, but was stuck with a meager 3% HR/FB rate, the lowest of his career. He did also drop his Hard% by 6%, too, so it wasn’t all misfortune. The real question is, are we just seeing a decline that should be expected from a well-worn catcher in his early-30s or is he some healthy thumbs from at least one last hurrah with his power?
I don’t know for certain, but I’m betting on the former. Even with his career mark of 7% HR/FB, he would’ve only had 10 HR last year given his flyball output. Not exactly a power stud. Sure, he only hit 12 in 2013, but he did that with a .319 AVG and 80 RBI, neither of which are likely to happen in 2016. Additionally, I think it’s more reasonable to associate him with the HR/FB he had when displaying the same skills we’ve seen in 2014-15 which means I’d only look for it to climb back around to the 5% rate he had from 2004-10. That would’ve given him 7 HR last year. He only played 51 games in 2004, but in the full seasons from 2005-10, he hit 6, 7, or 8 HR every single year (mostly 6, which he did four times).
The batting average and guaranteed playing time (I think even Zombie Molina will get 350 PA so any alive version has a great shot at 500+) still give him some value, but the 2011-13 run was his peak and it’s not coming back.