Yadier Molina has been the constant in the Cardinals lineup since they won the 2006 World Series. At that time, Molina was a defensive minded catcher whose offense was a bonus. As time has worn on, Molina turned into a 2-way threat; his defense was second to none while his offense was above average for a catcher.
The 2012 and 2013 seasons might have been the pinnacle of his career. He had slash lines of .315/.373/.501 and .319/.359/.477, hit 22 and 12 homers while driving in 76 and 80 runs. He placed fourth and third in the National League MVP race those years.
2014 has been different. Molina has a slash line of .289/.343/.409 with only 7 homers and 31 RBIs. If he continues at this pace, he’ll have 12 homers and 51 RBIs. Not only that, his hits will fall to 143, his doubles will drop to 25, and his strikeouts will climb to 68.
While it mirrors the Cardinals offense as a whole, are we beginning to see the decline in Molina’s career?
According to Baseball Reference, Molina’s ten best comps at age 30 are:
1. Tim McCarver
2. Thurman Munson
3. A.J. Pierzynski
4. Frankie Hayes
5. Benito Santiago
6. Jack Clements
7. Terry Kennedy
8. Michael Barrett
9. Russell Martin
10. Tony Pena
In looking at the post-30 careers of these players, we might be able to see a glimpse of whether Molina is slumping or if he’s truly declining.
McCarver played for 8 more seasons after his age 30 season, although he never caught more than 100 games in any of them. He was pretty much limited to a bench role at this point of his career and gradually saw a decrease in his numbers. For those 8 seasons, he averaged .266/.368/.378, 2 homers and 20 RBIs a season and had a total WAR of 4.8.
Munson would probably be a big help for Molina, if not for the fact that he died during the 1979 season (at age 32). Munson looked like he could have been on the decline since his numbers dropped from age 30 to 31, then appears to be again at age 32. The good part for Molina is, outside of his homers, there wasn’t a drastic drop. He did see a decent drop in WAR though, from 4.9 to 2.9, to 2.0 at the time of his death; this was mainly an offensive drop since his defensive WAR went from 0.7 to 1.1 to 0.9.
Pierzynski could make for an interesting comp. Since his age 30 season in 2007, his batting average has exceeded his 162-game average 3 of 7 times. His age 35 season was probably one of his better seasons in his 17 years career; he hit 27 homers, scored 68 runs, and drove in 77 (all single season highs). That season was his final in Chicago, so some might chalk it up to a walk-year performance. He’s had a WAR of 8.8 since 2007 and most of it is from offense.
Hayes played in the 1930 and ‘40s, but only had 2 seasons after turning 30 (1946 and 1947). While he was an All Star in ’46 at age 31, he posted a slash line of .233/.332/.331, below his 162-game average. He hit a total of 5 homers those two seasons and only drove in 35 runs.
Santiago might be the saving grace for Molina projections. He had a solid pre-30 career, but really disappeared for a couple of seasons after turning 30. His age 35-36 seasons really revived his career, bringing his average up over his 162-game average. From 1996-2005, his slash line was slightly higher than his 162-average (career slash: .263/.307/.415; 1996-2005 slash: .265/.312/.422). His power numbers declined (his double digit homer total prior to 30 was 9; that dropped to 4 after 30, although he hit his career high of 30 at age 31), but that is typical with age. His 2002 season was his first All Star appearance in 10 years and he was 20th in the NL MVP voting.
Clement played during a much different era, with most of his games coming before 1900. After his age 30 season, Clement only had 5 seasons in him and he only averaged 46 games a season; his last two seasons were limited to 4 and 16 games. His slash lines were pretty much in line with his career averages, so the limited play helped to preserve his offense.
Kennedy was another player that was limited to 5 seasons after he turned 30. Like Santiago, his double digit homer power dropped after his age 30 season; he hit 18 as a 31 year old, but never hit above 5 in the next four seasons (he hit a total of 14 those four years). That age 31 season was also his last All Star appearance.
If Santiago was the saving grace, Barrett is the worst case scenario. Barrett played 2 seasons after turning 30 and his games dropped drastically (101 as a 30 year old, to 30, to 7). In fact, his games dropped starting at age 27. Those last 2 seasons saw Barrett scrape by to keep a job.
Martin would be excluded from this exercise, as he’s the same age as Molina. Based off this season’s numbers, he’s pretty much in line with what he did last season, except his slash lines have all increased.
Pena should at least give Molina fans hope that he can play for a while; he played until he was 40, but his last 4 seasons were in a backup capacity. His offensive numbers were never all that good, but after 30 he did see a slight decrease across the board.
It’s safe to say that decline is definitely coming for Molina; based off his closest comps, it might be sooner than Cardinal fans like. As long his defense and pitch calling stay at the same level, there should be no reason to worry that his time in St. Louis will end badly; judging by his brother’s Jose’s defense (this is the worst defensive year he’s had), the team should be OK.
The bigger issue is the high work loads that Molina is known for; Molina has been showing more wear and tear over the last couple of seasons. The best thing for the Cardinals is giving him an extra night off here and there.