Every great to play sports reaches a point where their game starts to pass them by. That time has come for Yadier Molina.
Year after year, Yadier Molina has proved baseball critics wrong by consistently defying Father Time and out-performing his age. Much like other greats around the sports world in the 21st century, such as Brady, Duncan, Jeter, and more, Yadi has continued to get better with age, much to the chagrin of sports analysts everywhere who have continuously bet against him. So what’s going to make this year different?
Whenever we talk about decline, the key word is age. Molina, in 2017, will be playing in his year 34 season. While this doesn’t seem terribly old for a future Hall of Fame talent, we must remember, 34 is really getting up there for a catcher. The numbers are extremely few and far between for guys in history who have caught past their age 35 season, a mark which the Cardinal backstop is creeping up on.
Even the great Johnny Bench couldn’t make it past his age 35 season, and even so he only caught 13 games in his last three seasons combined. So, really, he only made it to 32. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as Yogi Berra catching all the way into his age 37 season, in which he caught the entirety of a 22-inning game. But these are things you just simply don’t see very often. The fact is, Molina is already well past the average life span of a catcher. If you want more proof, just look at the young great in our game today, Buster Posey, who, at age 29, is already beginning the transfer to first base. What Molina has done behind the plate in his long career is remarkable, but the odds of it lasting more than a year or two more are extremely slim.
We can pretend that previous years don’t have implications on those that follow, but the truth is, they do, especially in the case of an aging veteran. While Yadi did hit .307 in 2016, his production was all but mediocre. The Cardinals’ backstop hit just 8 homers and drove in only 58 runs in almost 600 plate appearances, continuing a trend of declining productivity which started in 2014, in which he knocked in just 38 runs with 7 big flies.
Perhaps more telling, however, was the fact that this was the first time in the last 9 years that Molina missed out on the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, losing out to, yes, Buster Posey of the Giants, who collected his first such award in 2016. As well, 2016 was the first time in the last 8 years Yadi was not voted into the mid-summer classic. And I can tell you one thing-it wasn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm from the Cardinal faithful.
In addition, Molina played in a career high 147 games in 2016, catching in 146 of them. That is a lot for a 33 year old in his 13th season, and I expect for it to, understandably, take a toll on him in the upcoming year.
A Young, Building (and Possibly Struggling) Ball-Club
Let’s face it. There is a very good chance that the Cardinals don’t go anywhere this year. The way I see it, their ceiling, barring a miraculous year, is slipping into the Wild Card game. But even that doesn’t necessarily seem likely, with so many legitimate powerhouses in the National League, and the Cardinals in a quasi-rebuilding phase, with a lot of young stars not yet having quite come into their own.
This type of season for the Cardinals is a recipe for Molina to not necessarily struggle, but to focus more of his attention toward building the younger players toward a future, rather than exerting all of his efforts into his own play. If he knows the Cardinals have little chance of achieving greatness in 2017, he will sacrifice his own stats to help build the organization for the future.
Especially if he is worn out from overuse in 2016, and perhaps he sees his playing time go down a little in 2017 (although Matheny has given no indication to such a move), he will be more interested in helping the talented young crop of Cardinals build toward a future, rather than himself having a great year. While this isn’t a decline in and of itself, it could begin the transition in Yadi’s career which most of us have been expecting, that is slowly moving out of his playing days, letting the youngsters of the Cardinals take his spot, and sliding into some sort of managerial position.
Yadier Molina has seemingly defied the test of time, as well as the opinions of many sports writers, staying consistent through his battle with age as he moves into his mid 30s. However -and I realize I may be falling into a common trap- I expect this to be the year in which he declines. Molina has already exceeded the age that most great catchers call it quits, and he’s shown over the last few years a decrease in production, despite his defensive consistency and his ability to hit for average. 2016 was perhaps Molina’s most physically trying year, catching in a career high 146 games at age 33. Moving into 2017, I look for this to take a toll on him, and I as well look for him to assume a new roll on a ball club that is not expected to reach any high levels of success, perhaps starting Molina’s transition away from his playing days.