Dancing with Mendoza

The defending National League Champions, St. Louis Cardinals' young catcher is struggling at the plate to the point he has to look up to see the Mendoza Line.

As the Cardinal early surge in the National League Central division standings threatens to inundate the lesser teams, there have been a number of hallmarks to that success. First among the keys to this run is the quality of the starting pitching. Cardinal starters have been dominant with no sign of weakening. With apologies to Lord Tennyson, the offense thundered in Cincinnati as the Reds hurlers blundered.

Most aspects of the Cardinal team seem to be clicking. Perhaps the one exception has been, until now, the offensive output of catcher Yadier Molina. At this writing Molina is batting a paltry .190. In other words, he isn't hitting his weight. His average has yet to cross the legendary Mendoza Line this year, but that may soon change.

The Mendoza Line is named after infielder Mario Mendoza. Mendoza played in the late 1970's and early ‘80's for the Pirates and Mariners among others. He came to personify the concept of the great fielder – light hitter type of player who was historically all glove and no bat. He constantly struggled to reach a batting average of .200 and "The Mendoza Line" – a batting average of .200 – became the standard for basement-level hitting.

Coming in to the season, Molina was expected to be similar in defensive quality to the departed Mike Matheny and to be able to hit for better average. Molina has been a strong performer behind the plate and deserves credit for helping the starting pitching corps mow down opposing batters. His offense has been another story.

As recently as ten games ago, his average was .152. His command of the strike zone as a catcher was impeccable. His understanding of the strike zone as a batter was undisciplined and erratic. Cardinal hitting coach Hal McRae has been working on a very regular basis with Molina and his numbers are trending upwards. That's a good sign that has added some kick to the offensive production of the bottom of the Redbird order.

McRae is said to have worked with Molina on two issues – stance and discipline. Molina's stance is now slightly lower than previously and a touch more open to the pitcher. McRae is clearly hoping to improve Molina's look at inbound pitches. At the same time, McRae is urging Molina to quit chasing pitches out of the strike zone. The results in recent days are demonstrable and speak highly of Hal McRae's ability to teach hitting.

Over the last ten games, Molina's average has gone from .152 to .190. In the last four games, he has hit .428, demonstrated significantly improved discipline at the plate, and is hitting line drives instead of ground-out clunkers. His new approach to hitting was on full display Wednesday night with two very solid singles. One was a sharp grounder into left field. The other was an authoritative line drive that nearly decapitated the ducking Reds pitcher.

It was clear that Molina's offensive slump was troubling the young catcher. His desperation at the plate was notable as he tried anything to scratch out a hit. He was truly in that box from which escape is nearly impossible. Now he is approaching hitting with renewed vigor and confidence. Although not out of the woods yet, Yadier Molina is determined to be a complete major league baseball catcher and may have found just the mentor to help him achieve that in Hal McCrae.

By this time next week, Molina will have ended his dance with the Mendoza Line. His average will be over .200 and he will be well on his way to being the player we hoped for. When he crosses that magical line, we should all tip our StL caps to a young man who through hard work and the intelligence to heed good coaching has overcome an early season slump that was a true albatross around his neck. In the coming days and weeks, perhaps that dead albatross will become a soaring Cardinal.

You can write to Rex Duncan at rdunc221@yahoo.com

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