Last year, Yadier Molina played a career-high 147 games. What adjustments, if any, should Mike Matheny make to his Yadi Usage Plan?
Usually, it’s a bad idea to play a 33 year-old catcher more games than he ever has in a season. Even the all-time greats should be playing a little less than they were in their primes. Nevertheless, Yadier Molina delivered one of his top five offensive seasons while playing so often at such an age. Despite the results, many Cardinals fans questioned manager Mike Matheny’s thought process. After crunching the numbers, though, there is nothing to suggest that Matheny was wrong to play Molina so often.
Conventional baseball thinking would say that this strategy is absolutely wrong. Molina is at an age where he could use a couple of extra days of rest. He has an injury history, and playing more games won’t help that. And playing extra games puts him at risk of cutting his career shorter by a year. That last argument might have some validity to it, although I wouldn’t know how to test it. What is clear to me, is that playing Molina more often and on more consecutive days, will not affect him negatively in terms of his overall offensive production.
Cardinals C Yadier Molina had amazing numbers vs pitches 95.0 MPH or faster pic.twitter.com/QHUvXeerDm
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) January 2, 2017
In order to carry out this analysis, I went through Molina’s career game log, and split his stats into buckets based on how many consecutive days he played. There are certainly a fair number of problems with this strategy. For starters, not every game has an equal wear on a player; some go into extra innings, some are quick games, and some might feature an early exit. Unfortunately, there is no metric that tells us exactly how Molina felt on a given day. In other words, there is no way to tell if Molina was at 80, 85, or 100 percent for a game. Therefore, I just used consecutive playing days as the split.
There is also the issue of how to count double-headers. On occasion, Molina did play two games in one day. I continued sorting those by consecutive days played, not games. My logic was that if there was an 18-inning game, I would have treated it as any other day where Molina played, and there isn’t much difference between that and a double-header.
Finally, I am not looking at defensive metrics. Molina’s defensive is very important, but there is no game log for defensive metrics. You can get caught stealing rates like that, but you won’t get the important metrics, like pitch framing and blocking. There will just be too much missing information if we are only looking at steals and nothing else. Thus, I settled on only looking at offensive metrics, and the results are somewhat surprising.
Molina Doesn’t Go Down Much
Now that all that’s out of the way, let’s dive in to the fun stuff. My goal was to measure Molina’s wRC+ by consecutive days off. I did this for three different time frames: career, since 2011 (when he started being an offensive force), and since 2014 (when he stopped being an offensive force). Ultimately, the three didn’t show very different results, but I was curious if they would.
Molina’s career wRC+ is an even 100, meaning he is almost exactly a league-average hitter. When broken out by consecutive days played, here is what his wRC+ looks like:
I added a trend line in there, but the correlation is terrible. The point was really to just show the lack of a steep decline. You will actually notice that he even goes up after one or two playing days. We can’t conclude that a day off actually hurts Molina, but it doesn’t really appear to help him either.
As Molina goes up in consecutive days played, the number of plate appearances in such scenarios decreases. In order to see if it was just a stabilization point issue, I took all of Molina’s PAs with at least six consecutive playing days and calculated his wRC+. After six straight days, we notice some oddities in the graph, but combining all of it doesn’t really do much. His wRC+ with at least six straight playing days is 113, the same as it is after two straight gamedays.
I haven’t looked at any other catchers for this analysis, so maybe this is actual somewhat normal. However, I didn’t expect it. With all we hear about the strain catching puts on one’s body, I expected Molina’s offensive output to have a larger negative correlation with the number of consecutive days played. After looking at the graph above, I am not comfortable concluding that. Just to show you the numbers, here is what that graph looks like for 2011-16 and 2014-16:
While less conclusive, we see the same trends (or lack thereof) here. We can’t reasonably conclude that playing many days in a row has a large effect on Molina’s offensive output. While it probably doesn’t help him, it’s unclear how much good a day off will do the Cardinals’ backstop.
Was Mike Matheny right?
All of this begs the question: did Mike Matheny handle his catcher the right way by playing him in 147 games? I would say that yes Matheny handled Molina the right way, but not because he played the catcher in 147 games. Part of a manager’s job is to realize when his players are and are not tired. The fact that Molina’s output does not decline with more games played in a row does not mean that he doesn’t tire from it. Perhaps Matheny had a better gauge on it than any of us do, and he did a great job of using that information.
In other words, if Molina went through a stretch of ten straight games that wasn’t so taxing on his body, maybe he played game number eleven while still at 97 percent of his fully-rested self. On the other hand, maybe he is getting a day of rest after five straight long games. If that is the case, then La Russa and Matheny rested him at the appropriate time. Molina’s stats stay the same because they can’t go down if he doesn’t play.
#stlcards Mike Matheny to KMOX on starting Yadier Molina at 1B tonight: "He gets a day off for his legs, We still get his bat in the lineup"
— Mark Tomasik (@retrosimba) May 4, 2016
The point is that Molina may not go down much on average, but only in the games he does play. When he rests, it’s possible that his numbers would decline if he did play. Essentially, the fact that we don’t see a large decline is a tribute to how La Russa and Matheny handled the catcher. Matheny played his star backstop in 147 games, but we saw no noticeable decline after long stretches of consecutive gamedays. That means that Matheny nailed it. He got more games out of his catcher without hurting his production. In terms of optimizing a total, there are few things more beneficial.
For next season, this does not mean that Molina should play 147 games again. There might be more situations in which he plays a taxing string of three, four, or five consecutive games in as many days. In this case, Matheny might still have to get him out. If such a thing does not happen, though, there is no magic number for Molina. There is no point at which you say “rest him after X number of games played in a row.” Instead, Matheny can push the longtime Cardinal. The numbers indicate that he can play many games in a row without declining, so unless there is an obvious reason to rest him, Molina should continue to play as often as possible.
I know bashing the manager is a baseball fan’s favorite hobby, but in this case, Matheny got it right.
Photo credit: Robert Hanashiro – USA TODAY Sports