Molina's hard work has paid off at the plate

2012-05-05T00:10:00Z 2012-05-06T02:14:55Z Molina's hard work has paid off at the plateBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist

The Cardinals' Gold Glove catcher, Yadier Molina, has developed into a fine hitter. If we're to view Molina's offense a bonus, then he's paying out by becoming one of the most productive hitting catchers in the majors.

Since the start of last season Molina leads all MLB catchers in batting average (.308), hits (172) doubles (42). He's second among catchers in slugging percentage (.481), extra-base hits (60) and runs created. He's sixth with 79 RBIs, and seventh among catchers in onbase percentage (.352.) He's also homered 18 times. That's a nice hitting profile for the game's top defensive catcher.

How did Molina get here? Well, I can tell you what he's doing. He's swinging at fewer first pitches. He's swinging at fewer pitches, overall. But when Molina does swing, he's making contact at a higher rate than before. And when Yadi makes contact, he's hitting the ball harder. Of the balls that Molina has put in play so far this season, 33 percent have been line drives. And his fly balls are traveling an average distance of 303 feet, a career best.

I asked Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to explain why Molina has turned into a plus bat.

• Matheny said Molina always had the basics down, and that begins with good plate discipline. "One of the things that made it pretty obvious was his lack of strikeouts in the minor leagues," Matheny said. "So even in the development system he was a guy who put the ball in play. You either have that hand-eye coordination and bat speed or you don't. And he showed that."

• Early in his career Molina put most of his effort into becoming an elite defensive catcher. That's what the Cardinals wanted from him. Molina was asked to scout opposing hitters, help formulate strategy, run the game and take on a leadership role for the pitching staff.

"There was so much thrown on a young catcher," Matheny said. "We knew there was so much more in there, and I remember Albert (Pujols) saying that same thing — that Yadi was going to be a .300 hitter some day. He had to get comfortable with who he had to be behind the plate. And then being able to separate (the offense from the defense) and all the strain that comes from the game-calling and working with your staff. And then finding your own thing (offensively.) And that's what I think he's done in the last couple of years."

• As Molina tried to improve as a hitter, he tinkered with batting stances to the point of excess and confusion. One phase included Molina's attempt to emulate Pujols' stance. Molina has finally settled into a hitting posture that works well for him. The approach includes waiting back and then suddenly "throwing" his hands into the swing for enhanced bat speed.

"He's found his own swing," Matheny said. "And now he's not trying to be like Albert. Early on in his career I saw him with a lot of different batting stances. I've been there, I've done that and it stinks. And he found what works and he's sticking with it. So I just thing he's just getting going."

Molina hit 32 doubles last season and already has 10 this season. That gap power wasn't there earlier in his career. And the doubles — more than the homers — are evidence of Molina's dramatic progression.

"He finds the barrel, even his outs," Matheny said. "He's not a guy up there trying to hit home runs. If you watch his batting practice, nobody is going 'Oooh, and aaah.' But watch what he's doing. He's working on things.

"Yadi knows exactly what he's doing and he stays with it. That's really what it is. Finding that approach and sticking with it and being disciplined enough in the game to trust that approach that's going to work. That turns into good things, doubles and even home runs."

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Free Ryan Reaves.

Our condolences to the Musial family, and their friends, on the passing of Lil Musial at age 91. She was a beautiful and charming woman with a vibrant personality that remained bright until the end of her life. Lil and Stan Musial were married for nearly 72 years, and their remarkably enduring romance is an inspiration to us all. When we talk about Stan Musial's numbers, we usually reference his extraordinary baseball stats. But the number 72, a symbol of a lifelong love affair, may have been Stan's greatest achievement. That's because he truly shared it with his beloved Lil.

Given Brian Elliott's meltdown in the Blues' series against the Los Angeles Kings, Ken Hitchcock's decision to use a two-goalie system has been validated as the correct call. By making extensive use of Elliott and Jaroslav Halak during the regular season, Hitchcock was able to prevent the goalies from tumbling into prolonged slumps.

I'm still finalizing my Kentucky Derby wagering strategy, but my tickets will be heavy on combinations featuring Bodemiester, Daddy Nose Best and Gemologist. I'll mix in assorted off-the pace candidates. Rain and mud could change the strategy. El Pedrino likes the slop. Good luck.

In search of weapons for quarterback Sam Bradford, the Rams drafted two wide receivers last weekend, Brian Quick (second round) and Chris Givens (fourth round.) Picking wide receivers is tricky; the drafts have been filled with busts. But smart teams have found good, or productive, receivers in the NFL draft.

Between the 2000 and 2010 drafts, here are some of the better wideouts chosen in the second round: Chad Ochocinco, Anquan Boldin, Greg Jennings, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Jordy Nelson, Sidney Rice, Chris Chambers, Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney and Devery Henderson. Eight of the second-rounders have made it to at least one Pro Bowl.

Here are the top WR picks who entered the league in the fourth round: Brandon Marshall, Brandon Lloyd, Jerrico Cotchery, Jason Avant, Austin Collie, Mike Williams and Justin McCareins. Only three have made it to a Pro Bowl. There aren't as many success stories in the fourth round, which is understandable. We'll have to wait and see if Quick and Givens are true players or busts.

Congrats to St. Louisan David Phelps (Hazelwood West HS), a talented rookie righthander who has moved into the New York Yankees' starting rotation. Phelps, promoted from a long relief role, made his first major-league start Thursday in Kansas City. Phelps has a 3.74 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings pitched this season. Pujols went 0 for three against Phelps on April 14.

Speaking of Pujols, his early-season troubles with the Los Angeles Angels can be attributed primarily to two areas: a lack of plate discipline and a flawed approach that has him pulling pitches to the left side at a rate much higher than his career norms. Pujols' walk rate has dropped because he's chasing too many pitches out of the strike zone. And he's going pull crazy; through Thursday, 70 percent of the baseballs put in play by Pujols have been yanked to the left side. Pujols has never pulled to this extent; last season his batted balls went to the left side only 40 percent of the time. Because Pujols is pulling so much, pitchers are killing his timing with offspeed pitches and breaking balls. Give Pujols a call, Jose Oquendo.

The Nice Section

The Greater St. Louis Base Ball Historical Society will hold its annual Vintage Wine and Vintage Base Ball benefit from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 12, at 33 Wine Shop and Tasting Bar. Address is 1913 Park Avenue in Lafayette Square. Admission is $10 and includes sampling of a wide variety of wines and complimentary crackers, cheese and other finger foods. Tickets will be available at the door. Plus there's a raffle of baseball items, wine items, gift certificates, etc. For information call Chris Duggan at 636-544-1191.

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