Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals
Back in July, it looked as if Yadier Molina was probably nearing the end of his career rather than making a case to be the Cardinals’ 2016 MVP. At the end of June, the veteran backstop was hitting .260 with just one homer while struggling through the worst defensive season of his 13-year big-league career. Despite a strong push from loyal Cardinals fans to get him back to the All-Star game for an eighth straight season, Molina ultimately wasn’t able to capture the fan vote and was shut out of the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 2008.
It’s difficult to rebound much better than Molina did during the second half of the 2016 season, though. In 259 plate appearances, Molina hit .365/.398/.529 with six homers. After losing his spot as the Cardinals’ regular No. 5 hitter in June, Molina settled back into that role in early August and stayed there for much of the rest of the season, though he even managed to ascend to the three hole for the season’s final week.
As if that offensive outburst wasn’t enough, Molina also dealt with some unforeseen circumstances–his presumed backup, Brayan Peña, missing nearly the entire season with a knee injury, then Peña’s replacement, Eric Fryer, being lost on waivers to the Pittsburgh Pirates when the Cardinals believed for a short period that Peña was fully recovered–by playing more than he ever had before. Molina caught in a career-high 146 games, starting 142, while also starting a game at first base. That extreme display of durability may have affected his defense (and during the early part of the season, his offense), but it was an admirable showing for a 34-year-old that many believed was on a downward slope during the early part of the 2016 season.
Molina didn’t really improve much behind the plate over the second half, and that showed after the season as he failed to win a Gold Glove for the first time since 2007. Molina threw out a career-worst 21 percent of opposing base stealers, and FanGraphs rated him 14th among 15 qualifying catchers in defensive runs saved and overall defensive rating. He also allowed a career-worst 42 wild pitches.
Nevertheless, he showed over the season’s closing months that his legendary game-calling ability is still very sharp as he guided young starters Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver through some very successful outings.
Despite his slow start, it’s difficult to argue that Molina wasn’t the Cardinals’ most valuable position player in 2016. A fragment of the voting contingent for the National League MVP award obviously agreed, as Molina earned votes for the first time since he finished third in the voting back in 2013.