In 2011, Yadier Molina had his first really good hitting season. He was a three-time All Star and a world-class defender, but last year was the first time he cracked a .750 OPS or a 100 OPS+. His offense had been pretty good for a few years, but you always had to add the "for a catcher" caveat. In 2012, Molina had a 125 OPS+ and an .814 OPS, which wouldn't have been bad for a first baseman.
On March 1, the Cardinals signed Molina to a five-year, $75-million extension. It didn't supersede the final year of his contract, so the extension starts in 2013. In simpler terms, this is what happened:
- Player had a career year that's miles ahead of anything he'd ever done before.
- Team signs player to lucrative extension.
You usually know how this ends, whether it's with Gary Matthews, Jr. or Carl Pavano. The odds are great the player will regress back to the player he was before the career year. It's not cynical; it's just what usually happens. The good news for the Cardinals was that Molina could still regress to his old self and be ridiculously valuable. They had a safety net for when he stopped hitting like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Which he was going to, surely.
He got better.
That means we are in Phase 3 of Molina's career. In order:
The youngster with preternatural ability behind the plate who hit like he wore his catcher's gear to the plate. It wasn't pretty:
The Cardinals doggedly stuck with him, living with his weak offense to get his stellar defense. His comp on Baseball Reference for his age-22 and age-24 season was Ivey Wingo, which actually seemed a little generous. He was young, sure, but there was nothing in his minor-league line that hinted at future success, other than a low strikeout rate and okay batting average. His career line in the minors was (and is) .278/.335/.368.
This is where the caveat for a catcher became necessary. Because he started hitting well … for a catcher. He never cracked a .400 slugging percentage, and his on-base percentage from 2007 through 2010 was .347, which was good but hardly great. This lasted until he was 27, so there was a great chance that Molina had peaked. It sure beat Phase 1.
Apparently, there's a Phase 3 now, and we're supposed to get used to it. It consists of Yadier Molina enjoying one of the better stretches of behind-the-plate offense in recent years: Over his last 1,012 plate appearances, Molina has hit 58 doubles and 32 homers, with a .312 average, .360 on-base percentage, and a .481 slugging percentage.
And all that up there has to do with his offense. The reason I was even thinking about Molina in the first place was because he did this last night:
He's a rare creature: a Gold Glove-winning machine that no one complains about. Of course he deserves the Gold Glove.
His aptitude behind the plate is one of the reasons why he's fifth in the NL in wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference, and eighth according to FanGraphs. The offense from Phase 3 combined with the defense that's been there all along makes Molina one of the game's best players.
I haven't fleshed this one out yet, but I think it's Molina floating in the heavens, calm, as Thus Spake Zarathustra swells before the credits roll.
With another season of hitting success behind Molina, the Cardinals' extension doesn't look nearly as risky, especially considering that the Dodgers (A.J. Ellis is good, but have you seen what he makes? Like, nothing), Tigers (with Alex Avila moving to shortstop), and others would have pushed to sign him for big money. Whereas his ceiling seemed to be good-for-a-catcher with a floor of Brad Ausmus, it looks like his floor in his early 30s is something like Phase 2 up there.
Not every contract after a career year is a disaster, and it looks like the Cards made out with the Molina extension. We're in year two of the new Yadier Molina. And, man, what a fantastic player that is.