Earlier this season, former Viva El Birdos writer Andy Schrag discussed how the timeliness of production shapes our perception of that production. How we view players and seasons is anchored by a simple bias: since we most often view baseball statistics on a cumulative basis with discrete but arbitrary endpoints, usually opening day and today (whenever today is), we notice what happens early in the season most. If a player hits .140 through May 15th, he’s hitting .140 for the season when we look on May 15th. If that same player hits .315 from May 16th through June 24th, he’s only hitting .237 for the season when we look on June 24th. Even though that second stretch was equally as good as the first one was bad, it’s a little bit harder to see or to find.
Put another way, great stretches and poor stretches are easiest to see early in the year when they make up a larger proportion of the season-to-date. When a player has a deep slump or a terrific stretch in the middle of summer, it’s less noticeable than if they had the same stretch in April. That’s relevant today because Yadier Molina just played a terrific stretch of baseball. Judging by the Twitter reactions and Bernie’s latest column, that didn’t go unnoticed. You probably didn’t know, however, that it was arguably the best nine-game stretch of his career.
We’ll start by looking at Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Thanks to Fangraphs, we can download Molina’s total WAR (and all the other stats below this point) for every nine-game stretch of Molina’s tenure. Check out the most recent spike.
The peak at the very end of this graph tops out following the June 23rd victory against Milwaukee. In that win, Molina went 2-for-4 with two home runs and three RBI. After that win, his WAR over the nine games spanning from June 15th to June 23rd was 0.9, nearly a full win. There are 29 catchers who have at least 100 plate appearances so far in 2018 and haven’t accumulated 0.9 WAR all season.
In his entire career, Molina has surpassed that 0.9 WAR threshold over nine games only twice. Neither time was more than five hundredths of a win better than this 2018 stretch, and both of those times came in 2012 when he finished fourth in NL MVP voting. While very few people will call Yadier Molina an MVP this year, he just played like one.
Obviously, WAR isn’t the only lens through which we can view Molina’s hot streak. It might not even be the most useful. For all its utility, WAR relies on defensive metrics. Single season defensive metrics are, at best, incredibly shaky and defensive metrics spanning nine games are basically useless. Given WAR’s deficiencies over such a small period, it makes sense to focus on the offensive side of the ball to judge the streak. Let’s start with slugging percentage (SLG).
In the nine games from 6/15 to 6/23, Yadier Molina slugged exactly 1.000. The second-highest peak of his career was .867 and came last year. He’s surpassed .800 in a nine game stretch only three other times, twice back in 2011 and once (amazingly) in 2004.
We can break it down further. Slugging percentage really tells two stories: how much is a player hitting, and how much are they hitting for power. Blending those two together, however, causes us to miss the components. Isolated slugging percentage (ISO), the difference between a player’s slugging percentage and batting average, shows us how much of a player’s SLG is due to hitting for power.
Yadi just hit for more power than he ever has, registering a .630 ISO in these nine games compared to a previous high of .467. It’s not even close.
Take another step. OPS is a more holistic offensive metric that combines on-base percentage and slugging. Keeping in mind that the league average OPS this year is .736, here is Molina’s nine-game rolling OPS graph. His most recent stretch was his best.
Next up: weighted on-base average (wOBA), which weighs each outcome of a plate appearance according to its run value.
And finally wRC+, which scales a player’s offensive value so that 100 is average after league and park adjustments. By now, you know what you’re going to see without needing this chart, but here it is anyways.
There’s that nine-game stretch from June 15th to June 23rd again, sitting atop the rest of Yadier Molina’s career. In those nine games, Yadi compiled a .370/.500/1.000 triple-slash line, a 1.500 OPS, .595 wOBA and 286 wRC+. He did it with a perfectly reasonable, maybe even unlucky, .263 BABIP. He walked almost twice as much as he struck out and blasted five home runs on eleven fly balls. It was the single best offensive stretch of his Major League career.
Nine games doesn’t tell us much about a hitter. Hitters go hot and cold all the time while their actual ability lies somewhere in between. According to Fangraphs Depth Charts, Molina is still “only” projected for a 92 wRC+ the rest of the way, which falls two points below his mark last season and a few points below his average from 2015 and 2016. Those three seasons inform our expectations significantly more than these nine games. But projections can’t take away what has already been accomplished, and for nine games of 2018 in his age-35 season, Yadier Molina was just better than he’s ever been.