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Yadier Molina's Bounceback Season

His Gold Glove streak was a casualty of 2016, but Yadi was the best he’s been at the plate since 2013.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In August, I wrote about Jayson Werth’s comeback at the plate after a less-than-stellar 2015. Looking back on the 2016 season, the Cardinals had their own resurgent player: Yadier Molina. The 2016 season saw a decline in his defensive prowess, which is the primary part of his game. The New York Times reported in 2013, “Gold Gloves, not bats, are prominently tattooed on Molina’s upper left arm.” He did not win the Gold Glove award this year, much to the chagrin of both Cardinals fans and his tattoo artist. However, while his defensive stats declined, he maintained his value by substantially improving his performance at the plate.

To demonstrate the downturn in his defense, look at how his FRAA_ADJ declined from 2012 - 2016:

Year FRAA_ADJ
2012 23.5
2013 24.5
2014 3.00
2015 10.5
2016 9.90

One aspect of FRAA_ADJ is pitch framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, Molina added 22.1 runs with his framing in 2013, but that declined to 9.4 this past season. FRAA_ADJ also incorporates the value of a catcher’s throwing arm and blocking skills. Molina is good at these things, and at framing, but he was less capable in 2016 than he was in, say, 2012 or 2013.

What does that mean for Molina’s future? How does a superstar past his prime maintain value? The answer might be changing focus to another aspect of the game.

Yadi’s offense declined substantially in 2014 and 2015, but this year saw him rebound. Molina shifted the focus from his defense, where he will always be solid, to offense. He increased his playing time; leading all catchers in games played (146) and innings caught (1218). He was able to drastically increase his workload while also increasing his success in the following categories:

Year PA K% AVG SLG
2014 445 12.4 .282 .386
2015 530 11.1 .270 .350
2016 581 10.8 .307 .427

Over the course of three seasons, Molina simultaneously increased his plate appearances and lowered his strikeout rate. His average dipped 20 points in 2015, but rebounded 37 points in 2016. In fact, he led all qualified catchers in batting average (tied with Wilson Ramos) in 2016. He also led the Cardinals’ everyday players in BABIP (.335). On that simple premise, Yadi provided great offense at his position.

This past season, he was especially good at putting the ball in play. That only does so much good because he’s about as fast as a turtle riding a Segway. His baserunning metrics will always be suboptimal because, quite simply, he’s not fast. Because of his lack of speed, Yadi’s increase in average and power is critical to his continued success. FanGraphs agrees:

Year Off
2014 -1.2
2015 -14.7
2016 .700

The “OFF” metric is based on batting runs + baserunning runs. As previously mentioned, Yadi’s baserunning scores are not great. He oftentimes makes good decisions and knows his own limitations, but his speed just isn’t there. If you look at every catcher in baseball with 200 or more plate appearances, Molina’s BsR is ranked 43rd out of 43. He registered a -8.9, meaning his legs cost the Cardinals about nine runs. Given how terrible his baserunning scores are, it’s amazing that his OFF score is positive. Not only is it ever-so-slightly above-average, it jumped fifteen points from the previous season.

Year 2B wRAA
2014 .317 2.40
2015 23 -11.1
2016 38 11.4

This past season, Yadi increased the amount of doubles he hit by 65%. His wRAA is the biggest jump and best example of how important Yadi’s comeback at the plate was to the Cardinals’ success. In 2014, Molina’s offense was worth a couple runs more than the average player. That took a nosedive in 2015 when his bat was worth eleven runs below average. This past season, instead of being worth eleven runs less than the average player, he was worth eleven runs more.

A 22 run swing like that was because of better plate discipline and an increase in power. While he is no longer in his prime, Yadi made himself into a different player by focusing on his offense, rebounding at the plate in his age-33 season. He plays more often than any catcher in baseball and his bat has some sneaky power. If he maintains his 2016 level of defense and continues to improve at the plate in 2017, the Cardinals will certainly want to pick up Molina’s $15 million option in 2018.

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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.