Yadier Molina is Compromised, and it is a Big Problem

Yadier Molina is an institution. He is a generational Cardinals player, the catching version of Ozzie Smith. So, I write this with all due respect.

Yadier Molina is a major problem, right now.

As stated in the title — and I want to be sure to state this fact early — it is largely because he is playing compromised. It is not necessarily that his skills have completely eroded or that Father Time finally caught up. He is playing hurt, and hurting the team in the process.

The Injury

You may remember in late May when he went on the IL for a hand injury. This is how Mike Shildt described the injury in a report from the Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel.

Manager Mike Shildt, calling the ailment a “little unprecedented” from a medical standpoint, said, “He’s got a slight tear . . . between his thumb and forefinger.

Molina offered the same description in a later report from Hummel.

Molina said the hand specialist who examined his injured thumb area Friday evening did not find anything more substantial than a slight tear of the tendon in the web between the thumb and forefinger of Molina’s right hand.

The injury occurred following a hit-by-pitch on May 22nd against Kansas City and progressed during the weekend series against Atlanta, capped by a few one-handed at-bats in the series finale. He would succumb to the IL by mid-week. It didn’t affect him defensively, only while swinging the bat.

Rest was all that was prescribed, per reports, and surgery was not necessary.

That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t change the results. This lingering injury — and a torn tendon, however slight, doesn’t heal overnight — has caused Molina’s offense to crater, before and after the IL stint.

The Splits

I broke Molina’s season into 2 parts. March 28th thru May 22nd (pre-injury), and May 24th thru July 3rd (post-injury). The first comparison is Molina from 3/28 to 5/22 vs. the MLB average offensive numbers for catchers in 2019.

Molina 3/28-5/22 STAT MLB AVG Catcher
.269 AVG .239
.297 OBP .311
.411 SLG .405
.709 OPS .716
84 wRC+ 87
.299 wOBA .305
.270 BABIP .284
10.88 PA/XBH 12.85
7.6% K% 23.5%
3.2% BB% 8.4%

As you can see, Molina was generally a league average offensive catcher for the first 2 months. Considering he still plays solid defensively, is still a deterrent for the opposing running game, his pitch calling, and his role as the unofficial team captain in combination with his age, league average offense from Yadi is an acceptable level of output. The issue is that when he is playing with a compromised swing, the drop off is dramatic.

The next comparison shows Molina’s pre- and post-injury.

Molina 3/28-5/22 STAT Molina 5/24-7/3
.269 AVG .244
.297 OBP .267
.411 SLG .280
.709 OPS .548
84 wRC+ 45
.299 wOBA .239
.270 BABIP .313
10.88 PA/XBH 28.67
7.6% K% 22.1%
3.2% BB% 3.5%
87.4mph Avg Exit Velo 84.7mph

As you can see, the fall-off has been substantial.

Yadi has had, unsurprisingly, no power since the hand injury occurred. His 3 extra-base hits have all been doubles that, I would venture to guess, relied more on ideal placement than on being a wall-banger. Prior to the injury, he was collecting a double or home run approximately every 11 plate appearances, or at least once, maybe twice, per 3 game series (on average). Since, it’s nearly 29 plate appearances between doubles, which is roughly 6-7 games worth. He has been reduced to a singles hitter, and not a very good one.

In addition to the loss of power, Yadi has continued to walk at a career low rate. His previous career low BB% for a full season was 5.2% in 2017. His 3.3% rate this year is nearly 2 full percentage points lower than his previous low. Couple his continued refusal to walk with a strikeout-rate that has nearly tripled since the hand injury occurred and you have a recipe for a bad offensive player.

How bad?

Remember Francisco Peña? Of course you do.

This is Yadi 5/24-7/3 vs Peña’s career numbers (202 PA’s, most of which came in 2018):

Molina 5/24-7/3 STAT Pena Career
.244 AVG .216
.267 OBP .249
.280 SLG .311
.548 OPS .560
45 wRC+ 45
.239 wOBA .237
.313 BABIP .290
28.67 PA/XBH 25.25
22.1% K% 31.2%%
3.5% BB% 4.0%

Are you seeing this? Molina is getting singles at a higher rate (pushing the higher AVG and OBP) but for all intents and purposes, the current version of Yadier Molina is no better than Francisco Peña.

Now, imagine letting Francisco Peña take 93% of his plate appearances in the 5th or 6th spot in the lineup during one of the franchise’s biggest offensive droughts on record.

That is what Mike Shildt is doing right now. Out of the 86 plate appearances Molina has since May 24th, 80 have come while hitting 5th (18 PAs) or 6th (62 PAs).

This is crazy, right? I mean, hitting Molina higher than 7th when he is producing at an average level is questionable AT BEST (even though both of our recent managers have hit him higher on the regular), at least his RISP numbers were good early on. I can forgive that. But continuing to do so when he is hitting like a bad back-up catcher AND your team is allergic to scoring runs is borderline criminal.

Excuse the hyperbole, but it is awful.

Salt in the wound time, here is what that Molina has been doing with RISP, in the pre-injury period and over his last 86, compromised, plate appearances:

RISP 3/28-5/22 STAT RISP 5/24-7/3
.375 AVG .125
1.022 OPS .243
27 RBI 2
2.04 PA/RBI 8.5
162 wRC+ -44

Granted, a 17 plate appearance sample with RISP post-injury is super small. But when you consider it relative to the full body of work, it fits, and it’s alarming. One of the most clutch hitters on the team through the first 2 months is now an easy out when the opportunities arise.

What To Do

Here’s the thing, this is clearly related to the hand injury. I don’t know if a month long IL stay would heal him to the point where his power would return. I don’t know if this is something that will even heal fully this season. I do believe that continued use will only prolong the healing, leaving him in this pit of offensive ineptitude for the foreseeable future.

The bare minimum that needs to happen is for Molina to be shifted down in the batting order. Forget about his speed and sacrifice bunts, he should be hitting no higher than 8th until he shows himself to be a capable hitter again.

The middle-ground option is to bat him no higher than 8th — when he starts — and start him no more than 60% of the time. There is a former All-Star and gold glove winning catcher as your back-up, there is no excuse to play a bad version of Molina 90% of the time. If he starts showing improvement in this arrangement, then you can adjust.

Finally, the ideal situation would be to stick Molina on the IL for most, if not all, of July to allow the tendon to heal. It needs to rest far past the point of “ok, I don’t feel it anymore.” Use Wieters. Use Knizner. Give Molina a chance to be something closer to himself in August and September.

Now, do I believe any of these things will actually happen?

No. Not at all.

In years past, we would have believed that a playing-hurt Yadi was still better than most catchers. In some ways, that may have been true. It isn’t true this time. While Yadi is not to blame for the entire offense being bad, sticking a 45 wRC+ in the 6 spot isn’t helping.

Something’s gotta give.

Thanks for reading.

Stats courtesy of FanGraphs. Exit Velocity data from StatCast.

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Last updated: 07/21/2019

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