Those who are reading this, hoping for a clear answer to the title’s question will be disappointed. Despite covering the St. Louis Cardinals, I have no explanation for the decline in catcher Yadier Molina’s offensive performance. That doesn’t mean we won’t look at the numbers and potential reasons why, however.
First, let’s set the stage. After replacing his current manager, Mike Matheny, as St. Louis’ every-day catcher in 2005, Molina found his way defensively almost immediately, although it took until 2008 for him to receive the first of his now seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
It was a different story with the bat. By 2006, Molina’s average dipped to .216, but the then-23-year-old eventually worked his way to respectability as a hitter. By 2008, Molina logged his first .300 batting average, especially impressive considering the every-pitch wear and tear on catchers over the long haul. It was the first of his four seasons as a .300 hitter, the most recent occurring in 2013.
The power came later in Molina’s career. His first season with double-digit home runs was his eighth year in the Major Leagues, 2011. When the right-handed hitter launched 14 long balls that summer, it was more than his two previous seasons combined.
In his age 29-30 season in 2012, Molina swatted a career-best 22 long balls. In addition to that being his first and only season slugging over .500 (at .501), he also set a new best in on-base percentage (.373).
Though he dropped to 12 home runs the next season, Molina’s production was better. His 80 RBI not only established a new personal high-water mark, but also represented his fourth consecutive year of RBI growth.
Then came 2014.
At the time he suffered a thumb injury sliding into third base on July 9, Molina’s season slash line was .287/.341/.409/.751. All four were better than his career averages. He had seven home runs and 30 RBI over those 82 games and 303 at-bats. Again, they were not career bests, but were respectable.
Molina returned to action on August 29. For the remainder of the season, he struggled. In 101 at-bats over 27 games, he had no home runs and eight RBI. Molina’s line during that time was a relatively powerless .267/.309/.317/.626.
His hitting woes continued into the post-season until an oblique injury prematurely ended his 2014 playoff participation. In six October contests, Molina was a non-factor offensively, going 5-for-21 (.238 AVG) with no home runs and no RBI.
Over the 2014-2015 off-season, Molina underwent a physical transformation, losing an estimated 30 pounds. A very private person, he did not offer insight into his motivation or the process he followed any more than he explained what was behind his distinctive neck tattoos that appeared several years earlier.
Any baseball fan knows the two sides of trying to rationalize a significant change in weight. One argument goes that a player may better handle the rigors of a long season if he is carrying less of a physical load. The other side says a thinner player may not be as able to handle the grind of a 162-game schedule without becoming worn down.
Of course, in reality, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation. It is fair to note that Molina will celebrate his 33rd birthday next month and has already caught in 1,357 games, including 1,118 from end to end.
Though no one takes spring training results seriously, the rested, recovered and thinner Molina did not hit then, either. In 46 at-bats, his 2015 Grapefruit League line was .217/.234/.239/.473. In 17 games, he had one double and one RBI.
At 55 games into the 2015 regular season, Molina has no home runs and 20 RBI. His current line is .279/.327/.330/.657, numbers not unlike how he finished 2014 after his DL stint. If the season ended today, his batting average would be his second-lowest mark since 2007. His on-base percentage, slugging and OPS would be his low points since that dreadful summer of 2006.
Putting together all of Molina’s results since returning to action last August offers a concerning picture of a former power source who has seemed to turn into a singles hitter.
In aggregate, his batting average is .266, not terrible, but not up to his usual standards, either. Worse is that 80 of his 97 hits in his last 365 at-bats were singles, with the other 17 all doubles. No Molina hit has left the park since last June 27, a period of almost 12 months. During that time, his slugging percentage is a mediocre .312. That would be even worse than 2006. Molina’s RBI count during the period is just 29.
Is it his thumb or his oblique? Is it his weight loss or the combined wear and tear of 12 years of catching in the Major Leagues? Is it a combination of these factors or none of them?
No one knows, but it seems pretty clear that if Molina continues his performance over the last 10 months into the future, his fantasy value will no longer be that of an elite catcher.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.