St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 17: Yadier Molina

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 17: C YADIER MOLINA

Benjamin Molina Sr. was a baseball hero in Puerto Rico.

But once afforded the chance to show his skills at second base before major league scouts, he was a no-show — Molina learned his wife, Gladys, was expecting their first child. Putting his family first, he instead continued lacing singles and swiping bases in Liga de Beisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, the top professional league on the Caribbean island.

By the time his playing days were done, he was the league’s all-time hits leader and would, eventually, join the likes of Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda in the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame.

By that time he had three strapping sons — Bengie, Jose and, the youngest, Yadier. After working 10 hours a day as a technician at a Westinghouse factory, the senior Molina would enjoy dinner with his family, then take his boys to the park just across the street to drill them on the game’s fundamentals.

All three Molinas reached the major leagues as catchers, the only brothers who can make that claim. Bengie won a pair of Gold Gloves over 13 years, mostly with the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants. Jose split his 15 big-league seasons among five teams, including several with the Angels as his big brother’s backup.

The best among the catching Molinas, however, was the baby, Yadier, who is eight years his brothers’ junior.

“Superstar,” Bengie told the Tampa Bay Times about his kid brother. “He can carry a team catching and carry a team hitting. He can do everything.”

Scouted right out of Ladislao Martinez High School, the early book on Yadi was that, while his defense was technically refined, his bat lagged behind. Still, the St. Louis Cardinals took him in the fourth round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft.

St. Louis already had a Gold Glover behind the plate, veteran Mike Matheny, whose .997 fielding percentage over five seasons and 4,900 innings remains the Cardinals’ record. In 2004, he set the major league record for handling 1,565 chances without making an error.

But Matheny was 33 years old, had reached the end of his contract with the Cardinals and realized himself that his young understudy was a special talent whose time had come. The Giants took on the free-agent catcher and Matheny yielded his job with the defending National League champions to Molina, who proved to be a worthy standard bearer.

Between the two, St. Louis catchers have accounted for 12 Gold Gloves in the 19 seasons since 2000. In 2011, Rawlings began awarding the Platinum Glove to the single best all-around defender in each league — Molina won four of the first five. He remains the leader among active big-league catchers in the percentage of base stealers he’s thrown out at 40.7 percent. Detroit’s James McCann is second best at 36.81 percent.

Even when he batted a paltry .216/.274/.321 in the World Series championship year of 2006, his plus-2.0 defensive-WAR (dWAR), 79 assists, and 13 Total Zone Runs were the league-best at his position.

True to the lessons his hard-working father taught him and his brothers, Molina never stopped refining his game and improving himself at the plate. Even after that subpar regular season in 2006, he contributed a .322 average in the playoffs. It was his two-run home run in the top of the ninth of the NLCS Game 7 that broke a 1-1 tie with the New York Mets and sent St. Louis to the World Series.

Just two years later, Molina topped the .300 batting mark for the first time. He repeated that level of offensive efficiency three consecutive seasons from 2011 through 2013. In 2012, he hit a career-best 22 home runs and even stole nine bases.

The Cardinals won 97 games and the National League pennant in 2013 and their catcher finished third in the MVP balloting. Molina had a career year at .319/.359/.477 with 44 doubles, 12 home runs and 80 RBIs.

17 Yadier Molina catches.jpg
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) in action in the third inning during an exhibition spring training baseball game agains the Houston Astros on Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) Brynn Anderson AP

Despite years of hand-wringing about mounting innings and lack of rest for his aging knees, Molina hasn’t seemed much the worse for wear. Even in 2018, at age 35, he belted 20 home runs with 74 RBIs and won his first Gold Glove in three years. In fact, his WAR each of the last three seasons is higher than each of his first three.

And this: since 2004, the Cardinals staff ERA is a half run higher on days that Molina doesn’t catch.

When manager Tony La Russa declared Molina the best catcher ever to play the position, he was pointing to both the technical aspects of his game as well as his intrinsic feel for its changing rhythms and ability to adjust, or even manipulate them.

For example, one of the greatest series-ending pitches ever thrown may be attributable to Molina rather than the guy who threw it, Adam Wainwright.

After his dramatic home run in the 2006 NLCS, it was up to Molina and Wainwright, a rookie, to record the game’s final three outs to clinch the pennant. The Mets loaded the bases with two out for Carlos Beltran, who had hit 41 home runs during the regular season and three more that series.

In a meeting on the mound, the battery-mates discussed starting Beltran off with a sinker, but halfway back to his spot behind the plate, Molina changed his mind.

Pitching coach Dave Duncan had always preached against first-pitch changeups, believing off-speed is most effective when throw in sequence with something thrown a little harder. Molina called the pitch anyway, reasoning that a rookie like Wainwright, in a high leverage situation like Game 7 of the NLCS, might be prone to overthrow and leave the ball up where a batter like Beltran could crush it.

Wainwright delivered an 83-mph changeup on the inside corner, freezing Beltran for strike one. Ahead on the count, Wainwright threw consecutive curve balls for strikes, including that hard-breaking hook inside at the knees that fooled Beltran right out of his spikes and ended the Mets’ season.

Both La Russa and Wainwright have credited Molina as the architect of that now iconic Cardinals moment.

“It’s not just instinct,” La Russa told the New York Times in March of 2013. “It’s sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustments based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do.

“That’s art.”

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 2004-present

KEY STATS

.282/.334/.406 | 9x All-Star | 2 WS ring | 9 Gold Gloves | 4 Platinum Gloves | 38.9 WAR

TOP 100 SCORE: 4.31

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