Yadier Molina is having a power resurgence. To the naked eye, it may just be a coincidence, but there may be more behind it.
From April 1, 2013, through May 13, 2017, Yadier Molina did not hit a lot of home runs. Thirty-two, to be exact, over 2224 plate appearances. On May 14, 2017, Molina went deep twice in the St. Louis Cardinals‘ contest against the Chicago Cubs. Since that game, he’s crushed 22 home runs in 466 plate appearances.* That’s more than three times as often.
Yadi is experiencing what we might call a power surge. In fact, he’s tied with Yasmani Grandal and Wellington Castillo for the fourth most home runs by a catcher in the past calendar year (behind only Gary Sanchez, Mike Zunino, and Salvador Perez). This is a somewhat unusual turn of events for a 35-year-old catcher.
Before we dive into what has changed for the veteran backstop, let’s remember that Molina isn’t a great natural hitter. This is a player who found a place in the majors because of his glove, not his incredible bat skills. His wRC+ has been as low as 54 (that’s 46% below average) for entire seasons. Molina turned himself into a great hitter (with a wRC+ as high as 138) through lots of hard work and dedication. He’s constantly tweaking and adjusting and trying to get better.
So what did he improve this time? For starters, his flyball rate. From 2013 to 2016, Yadi had a 30.7% rate. Since 2017, that number has jumped up to 37.3%. This isn’t exactly shocking, given the league’s recent and well-documented obsession with flyballs (the Major League rate is up to 35.8% in 2018 compared to 34.6% in 2016), but it is interesting to see him adjusting — and the results seem to speak for themselves.
He’s also been pulling the ball substantially more — with a jump from 37.6% of the time in 2016 to 42.6% in 2017 (and a whopping 52.3% of the time so far in 2018). Add to that a jump in his hard-hit rate — 36.4% in 2017 compared to 31.1% the year prior — and you have a recipe for success.
In short, he’s pulling the ball in the air harder than he was before. Not surprisingly, that leads to some extra power, and his HR/FB rate has jumped into the double digits for the first time since 2012 (back when he popped 22 home runs in a season, his career high). So far this year, all of those numbers have been even higher than they were in 2017. As a result, Yadi is off to a strong start, leading all Major League catchers in home runs.
But none of this has really answered the question of what he’s doing differently to my satisfaction. The higher pull rate, flyball percentage, and hard hit percentage are coming from some change that Yadi made sometime between 2016 and 2017. And I want to know what that change was.
As I dug through Brooks Baseball, I found a hint. Here’s a heatmap of Molina’s flyballs per ball in play from 2013 through early 2017:
It’s a pretty even heatmap, all things considered, that’s a little bit brighter on the high and inside portions of the plate. Conversely, not so great low and outside. Now here’s the same heat map from May 14, 2017, through today:
If it’s not immediately apparent, the inside part of that heatmap is lit up like a Christmas tree. Molina has always handled the inside pitch well, but this is something entirely different. He’s hitting inside pitching in the air in a way that he hasn’t before.
This still isn’t answering my question, though. What did he change in his approach that led to this shift in his results? So I dug through video. I think I’ve watched every home run Yadier Molina has hit since 2016 and played them all back frame by frame in an effort to see what’s different. And the answer is that I’m not positive, but I have a theory.
Take a look at these screenshots (sorry they’re blurry, but you can hopefully still see what I’m looking at). The one on the left is from 2016, the one on the right is from 2017.
It’s hard to tell what impact camera angle and pitch location have on what we’re seeing, but it looks to me like Yadi has opened up his stance some. It’s still a closed stance, but at the point of impact, his front foot isn’t quite as far in as it used to be. As a result, his torso looks to have better rotation and he appears to have better leverage on the ball. In the image from 2016, Molina looks a little off balance and awkward. 2017 looks better. More stable.
I’m not a scout, and I’m not positive that I’m right (Molina seems to have different swings for different pitches in different locations and different situations, which makes sense), but a slightly more open stance would certainly explain why Yadi’s getting to the inside pitch better than he was before.
Regardless, I’ve reached the limit of my expertise and research abilities, so I guess I’ll just have to settle for that. And Yadi can hit home runs again, which is good. As the old saying goes, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Too much.
*All numbers used here were current as of 4/12/2018. Before I could get this piece published, Molina had already added another home run in another plate appearance. And I’m too lazy to update the piece. Because that requires math. And math is hard. So the numbers aren’t entirely up-to-date, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s more of the same. Just Yadi hitting dingers.