ST. LOUIS — For years, Yadier Molina has been St. Louis’ iron man. He’s led the league or finished second in games caught six times since 2006. Only A.J. Pierzynski has caught more innings on the list of active players.
Over his prolific career, he’s established himself as the gold standard behind the plate. To go with his Hall of Fame-level defense, he has featured a steadily improving bat. Last year was the first time since 2010 he hit below .300, and he missed seven weeks due to a thumb injury. At 32, Molina is now in the territory where breakdowns become a talking point. He suffered two major injuries last year, and he is perhaps the most irreplaceable player in baseball to his team.
So what to expect in 2015?
If it goes well
Molina returns at full health and stays that way. Despite his protests, he gets more frequent breaks, which preserves and protects an aging body. With less fatigue, he’s once again a .300 hitter. Power numbers rise, with double-digit homers and more than 30 doubles boosting his slugging percentage above .450.
In the field, Molina continues to backstop at an elite level. He takes away opponents’ running games and manages the rotation from both the clubhouse and the field, leading to strong seasons from Carlos Martinez and a still-youthful bullpen. Add another All-Star Game and a Gold Glove to the trophy case.
If it doesn’t
The house that Molina helped build shows cracks in the foundation. Offensively, he comes out hot, but month-by-month, begins to cool. By mid-season, the overall body of work looks respectable but under the surface it’s clear the production is in steady decline.
His defense doesn’t have the same drop-off, but small indicators are enough to make observers nervous. His caught stealing percentage comes in under his career average of 44 percent for the first time since 2009. He misses small stretches with various ailments, never truly playing at full strength after April. His mental game remains sharp, mitigating the decline to a degree, but he finishes without a Gold Glove for the first time in seven years. He hits around .270 with six home runs and slugs .360.
Molina’s season will likely depend on his willingness to rest regularly. No catcher in baseball has caught more innings since 2010 (5,496) and that abuse is adding up. He may be able to stave off the ravages of time for a while because of his incredible work ethic, but how many more innings can a 32-year-old body take? Last year was an education on how fast a serious injury can strike, and how troublesome it can be for the team, especially when Molina is the victim.
He is notorious for wanting to play every day, but if he’s going to maintain his on-field value, he needs to spend a few more days off it. Rest does wonders for the mind and body.
Given his steady offensive performance the last few years, he’s not at the end of the road yet, but you can see it from here.
A rested Molina hits .300+ with 15 bombs and 75 RBIs. An unrested one looks a lot like last year: hot start but slow and battered finish.