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Yadier Molina’s Prowess

The Cardinals have plenty of heroes to thank for their late charge into playoff contention. Albert Pujols‘ .388/.463/.626 slash line since August 11th. Jamie Garcia’s dominance since August 25th. And so on. One of the unsung heroes of this season has been Yadier Molina. Molina has had a down year defensively but has made up for it with a career year at the plate.

During Thursday’s game Molina knocked in his 62nd and 63rd runs on the year, the latter setting a new personal best for RBI in a season. Since RBI are more a measure of how well the hitters ahead of you in the order get themselves into scoring position, let’s also look at his OPS+. Molina has posted a 121 OPS+ this season, his best by 21 points, and fourth on the club among those with 450+ PA, behind the usual subjects (Lance Berkman (169), Pujols (156), Matt Holliday (154)). A big part of that has been newfound power – his 13 HR this season is almost double his previous high (7, in 2008).

His batting average is also up, sitting right at .300 going into yesterday. That is a bounce-back from the .263 he posted in 2010, and in line with the two seasons before that (.293 and .300, respectively, for 2009/2008). Sometimes when a player’s batting average ticks up we see a corresponding increase in Batting Average on Balls In Play, indicating the player is having a little better luck than other hitters. Not so with Molina – his BABIP in 2011 is .307. Yes that is the second highest he’s ever posted, but not out of line with his last 5 seasons, where it hovered between .281 and .310.

So what has changed? Well, his ground ball rate is down and his fly ball rate is up as compared to his two previous seasons. He is getting more loft on the ball, meaning he is driving the ball better. Both rates are right where they were in 2007, his previous best season. It appears he has re-discovered what he did well at the plate 4 years ago, with excellent results.

Molina’s year also puts him on the short list of current catchers who can hit. His wRC+ 0f 117 is almost identical to Miguel Montero‘s (119), the cleanup hitter for the pending NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks. His fWAR of 3.7 places him in a virtual dead heat with Carlos Santana of Minnesota (3.7), Brian McCann (3.8), and Matt Weiters of Baltimore (4.0), three guys who came into the league with well-deserved reputations for superior offense.

It’s been a long time since St Louis had a catcher who put up this kind of offensive season. Since 1901, only 6 Cardinals have played 130 games or more at catcher and posted an OPS+ of 110 0r better. Molina is the first to do it since Darrell Porter in 1983. The other 4 names are a who’s who of great Cardinal Catchers: Ted Simmons, who did it six times; Tim McCarver, Bob O’Farrell, and Frank Snyder.

A lineup featuring Berkman, Pujols, and Holliday is imposing enough. Having a threat from behind the plate is a welcome luxury. Yadier Molina is having a fantastic year with the stick. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge it.

Mike Metzger is a life-long Cardinals fan still with his fingers crossed in San Diego. He also blogs about the Padres. Follow him on Twitter.

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