A lot of things have changed in baseball since 2004. After all, it has been 14 years. Everything from the technology players use to speeding up the game to the style in which players hit and pitch has evolved to fit to the modern 2018. On the Cardinals, the names left from the 2004 team have come and gone…except for one. He is the only catcher left from 2004 that is still the everyday starting catcher for any team, and he is among the only players left from 2004 that hasn’t retired. It is no wonder that Yadier Molina has cemented himself as one of the best in the game and has also played so long. On the last day of the 2018 Winter Warmup, Molina announced that after three more years, he would finally hang up his jersey for good, and that he wanted to spend time with his family after those three years were up. Cardinals baseball without Molina seems scary, so we won’t discuss that here. Instead, we will focus on how Molina has changed the game for catchers forever, and why his story is one worth telling for ages.
When Molina made his debut on June 3, 2004, he was a chubby, short catcher with a weak bat and a cannon for an arm. It did not take long for Molina to gain the starting spot over Mike Matheny, then the Cardinals catcher. Matheny was a free agent at the end of the 2004 season, and when he was offered a 3-year contract by San Francisco, he took it and cleared the path for Molina to become the starter. At a time when Molina was not the defensive or offensive force he is today, fans were skeptical. They didn’t really know what this kid was capable of, and they doubted that Molina would make a consistently good starter. However, he did throw out 9 of 17 baserunners in 2004 in his short time in the majors, a caught-stealing of over 50%. This high caught stealing percentage would help Molina maintain his starting position, even when he hit just .216 in 2006 as the Cardinals’ starting catcher. Tony LaRussa was criticized for this move, as he refused to keep Molina out of the lineup despite his inability to hit. This is a critical key here: LaRussa established then that defense can mean more than offense when it comes to a catcher when he continued to play Molina despite the complaints and his weak bat. Even though he hit so badly, Molina still threw out 41% of baserunners and had 7 pickoffs, a few of which came at very crucial times in the Cardinals’ season. When the Cardinals barely scraped into the postseason, Molina proved that he could be just as good with his bat as with his glove. Molina is now notoriously a better hitter in the postseason than the regular season, with an all-time postseason batting average of .286 and the most postseason hits in Cardinals history. However, possibly Molina’s most important postseason hit was his home run in the top of the ninth against the New York Mets in the 2006 NLCS that would put the Cardinals ahead late. The Mets were not a team that the Cardinals were supposed to beat, but Molina showed once again that LaRussa had made the right choice by believing in his young catcher when Adam Wainwright got into a bases-loaded jam with 2 outs and Cardinals killer Carlos Beltran up to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Here is another crucial moment where Molina changed the course of the game: Wainwright and Molina had met at the mound and agreed on a sequence, but on his way back behind the plate, Yadier saw something that changed his mind and he instead called a changeup for the first pitch, which was frowned upon by the Cardinals pitching coach. Even though Wainwright knew that this move was risky, he trusted Molina. This was the first time that Molina established the importance of a pitcher trusting his catcher and how this trust can move mountains. Wainwright threw the changeup, and Beltran watched the pitch, then followed Molina as he called for two curveballs on the next two pitches. The last one froze Beltran, also solidifying Wainwright’s 12-6 curve as one of the best in the game, but that’s another story. The Cardinals won the game and went to the World Series, and Yadier Molina stood among the greats for the first time with a new record under his belt. He was just the third catcher at or under the age of 25 to play in 2 World Series, and his only company is Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench. Those two are pretty amazing names to be compared with, but the comparison to Berra and Bench wouldn’t end with the Cardinals winning the 2006 World Series. In fact, that was only the beginning.
Another thing that Molina changed was the strike them out, throw them out and he brought back pickoffs. When Molina made his first pickoff in 2006, it was the first successful pickoff attempt by a catcher in 4 years. From then on, Molina and Pujols developed a code for pickoffs. When Albert Pujols thought that a runner was straying too far off of the bag, he would send his signal to Molina, who would use his accurate gun to fire a shot down to first base, and Pujols would always be ready to tag out the unsuspecting runner. This kept many base-stealers on the bags, fearing that if they strayed too far, Molina would gun them down anyway. This was the first time that any system of picking off players was ever recorded and discussed, and Molina’s arm had become an intimidating factor. There had been catchers before that could do this, but not to the extent of Molina, and other younger catchers would try to mimic this style of catching. It is arguable, but perhaps Molina’s arm was an ultimate end of the base-stealing era. Molina was also notorious for the strike them out, throw them out play. When a player took off running on a 2-strike count and the pitch looked like a strike, Molina would throw down after the pitch crossed the plate and throw out the runner as well. The hitter and the runner would be called out, a double play that did not occur that often before Molina arrived in the MLB.
Then there are the intangibles of Molina that are to be considered. There are a lot of factors that go into Molina’s HOF case, but perhaps the most important aspects of Molina’s game have been things that cannot be measured. For instance, his ability to control the game, the trust his pitching staff has in him, his leadership, and the way he can ‘see into your soul’, as former Cardinals pitcher Shelby Miller would say. These things are not able to be measured, and when considering Molina’s HOF case, they could be very influential. Molina is on the doorstep of being given his red jacket and being tossed aside like the rest of the remarkable defensive catchers before him have been. If Molina makes the HOF, two things will evolve from it that will change the course of HOF voting forever: 1. Molina will get in mostly because of his defense, which is usually not the prevailing factor when looking at an HOF profile, which seems unjustifiable given that defense is the most important facet of a catcher, and 2. It would establish that intangibles exist…and they count for something. HOF voters would have to look back on other candidates and examine their intangibles rather than looking at a stat sheet and deciding which one is better, and it would also establish the theory that statistics aren’t everything. In the case of Molina, he has very good defensive statistics, decent offensive statistics, and his HOF consideration could go either way. However, it has already been said that Molina’s intangibles would have to be taken into consideration before the decision is made on his HOF status, and that could alter the voting significantly.
The last thing that we plan on discussing here is how Molina has shown that age is just a number. Molina will be turning 36 in July this season, and he is still going strong. There are not that many catchers who make it past the age of 35 and do not at some point change their position to a less-taxing one. Molina, once again, is the exception. Molina has actually played better in his last two seasons than he did in the previous two seasons. Molina showed what he is capable of when he played in the WBC in 2017, his last WBC, for Team Puerto Rico. Molina was named the MVP of his pool, and most likely would have been named MVP of the entire Classic if the USA hadn’t defeated Puerto Rico in the Gold Medal game. In the WBC, Molina played some of the best baseball he has ever played, all in the midst of conflict on his contract with the Cardinals. Molina’s play in the WBC may have been what drove John Mozeliak to offer the 14-year veteran a 3-year contract for after the 2017 season, making Molina the highest-paid catcher in baseball. Molina’s defense only got better in 2017 than in 2016, and though his offense decreased, his power increased, and he still lead the Cardinals in RBIs. There are not many 35-year-old catchers who could become the highest-paid catcher in baseball and also the MVP of a WBC the same year, and even though Molina is not getting any younger, he is still playing the way he did when he was 29, but now he is “old.”
Even though in three years, we will have to find some way to say goodbye to a catcher that two generations grew up watching, the best way to deal with facing a Cardinals team without Molina is to remember what he has done, and to never let it be forgotten. Molina has gone from being one of the worst hitters in the game to being an offensive power, and from being some kid from Puerto Rico to one of the best catchers to ever walk on a baseball diamond. After all that Molina has overcome, it is hard to believe that there could be a greater catcher out there, and even harder to believe there is one out there that works as hard. Whatever these last three years with Yadi hold, one thing is for certain: his reign in St. Louis may come to an end, but his legacy will live on so that even when he is gone, people will still talk about the catcher who took people’s expectations and blew them completely out of the water.