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Yadier Molina and Buster Posey were the two best catchers in baseball over the past decade. They’ve combined to win five World Series, five Silver Sluggers, 10 Gold Gloves and have made 15 All-Star teams. The story of the 2010s cannot be told without them, and they both could end up in Cooperstown one day.
But entering this season, it was fair to assume their best days were behind them. After all, Molina was a below-league offensive player in three of the previous four years, and age had mortalized his once other-worldly defense. Posey opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 because his wife had just adopted twin baby girls born prematurely, but the two years prior were disappointments for the former MVP, as injuries sapped his power.
However, so far this season, they both have completely reversed their downward trends. Not only have Molina, 38, and Posey, 34, been the best hitters on their respective first-place teams, but they’re also hitting better than ever before.
Molina, 21 games: .329/.367/.630, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 179 OPS+
Posey, 23 games: .385/.461/.731, 8 HR, 12 RBI, 234 OPS+
First, it’s worth noting that it’s only the second week of May. Posey, with a 234 OPS+, won’t continue to produce at more than twice the level of a league-average hitter. Molina, who has slugged over .500 just once in his career, likely will not maintain his current mark of .630.
That said, their resurgence is certainly notable and appears to be relatively sustainable. Both players have made key adjustments that have contributed to, if not directly caused, their absurd starts to the season.
Molina has always been an aggressive hitter. He likes to ambush first-pitch strikes and typically makes a lot of contact. He doesn’t walk much, but he also doesn’t strike out much. For the most part, his plate discipline remains consistent; if anything, he is being more aggressive in ‘21.
Molina Plate Discipline
|Swing %||1st Pitch Swing%||Chase %||BB %|
Molina’s 10.4% career strikeout rate is the eighth lowest among players with at least 5,000 plate appearances since 2004, his rookie season. This year, he has the worst strikeout rate (21.5%) and contact rate (73.1%) of his career. So, he remains as aggressive as ever but making less contact and striking out more—that doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success.
Except, Molina is making much better contact. He’s hitting the ball harder (90 mph average exit velocity) and making hard contact more often (41.5%) than he has since at least 2015, which is when Statcast began tracking these metrics. More importantly, though, he is hitting the ball hard and in the air more frequently.
Molina Batted Balls
|Hard Hit %||Launch Angle||Flyball %||Groundball %||Barrel %|
While these metrics would signal improvements for nearly every player in baseball, they are especially promising for Molina. Because he is one of the slowest runners in baseball, his groundballs are converted into outs at a higher rate than they would be for someone with average speed. Since 2015, Molina is batting .230 on grounders; the league average for right-handed hitters in that span is .253.
The most basic thing to understand about Posey’s return to form is his improved health. In late August 2018, he had season-ending hip surgery, though he had played through the injury until the Giants fell out of playoff contention. While his batting average (.284) and on-base percentage (.359) that year were still respectable, it was clear his hip injury had drained his power. Isolated Power (ISO) is a Fangraphs metric—calculated as slugging percentage minus batting average—used to measure only a player’s power. Posey’s ISO that season was .098, his worst ever and well below his career mark of .158.
He made it back for the start of 2019, but he wasn’t at full strength following the hip procedure. He missed time during the season with a concussion in May and a right hamstring strain in June. Sitting out the 2020 season allowed Posey to get healthy. He worked on his flexibility and mobility, while also recovering from the various ailments that curbed his performance the previous two years.
But, as is the case with Cubs resurgent slugger Kris Bryant, Posey’s comeback season is about far more than just his health. As MLB.com’s David Adler points out, Posey looks like a completely different hitter in the box.
He has simplified his stance; he’s standing more upright and holding the bat diagonally instead of wrapped horizontally behind his head. This allows him to wait longer on pitches because his swing takes less time to get into the zone, giving him an extra split second to recognize pitches before deciding to swing or take. Posey’s 19.3% chase rate this year is much lower than his mark of 25.7% since 2015, per Statcast.
Posey is also crushing fastballs like never before, which makes sense given his simplified mechanics. He can wait longer to recognize the heat, and when he sees it and decides to rip, his bat doesn’t have to travel as far to get to the point of contact.
Posey vs. Fastballs
The thing is, Posey isn’t just killing fastballs. He’s batting .421 against breaking balls and .333 vs. offspeed. Breaking and offspeed pitches are effective when they are deceptive. Posey, with more time to recognize the incoming pitch, isn’t getting fooled.
Entering play Tuesday, the Cardinals and Giants unexpectedly have the two best records in the National League. St. Louis leading the NL Central isn’t shocking, given the relative mediocrity of the division, but the team wasn’t supposed to be this good. San Francisco, meanwhile, was an NL West afterthought, expected to finish well behind the Dodgers and Padres.
It’s too early to know how long this will last. But, as was the case with their two veteran catchers, maybe we were wrong to rule them out so soon.
• The Mets placed Jacob deGrom on the injured list Monday after he left Sunday's start with "right side discomfort." His MRI showed no structural damage, though he will still be out for at least 10 days. In six starts this season, deGrom is 3–2 with a 0.68 ERA and 65 strikeouts across 40 innings.
• In Baltimore's 4–1 win over the Red Sox, Cedric Mullins legged out a triple on what at first appeared to be a routine popout to the shortstop in shallow left field.
• The Mariners are expected to call up top prospect Jarred Kelenic to make his MLB debut Thursday, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan. Seattle acquired Kelenic, the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball, from the Mets in the trade that sent Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz to New York.
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