Tony La Russa won more games than all but two managers in baseball history -- Connie Mack and John McGraw -- and his teams won three World Series in 14 postseason appearances. But in a recent conversation with a friend, La Russa attributed the success in his last seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals to somebody else.
That era in St. Louis history, La Russa explained, wasn’t about the work of a manager or a particular pitcher or masher. Rather, he said, what distinguished the Cardinals in this time was Yadier Molina, a catcher bearing a set of skills that no other team could come close to replicating for about a decade.
Molina turns 35 in July, ancient for a catcher, but he is still regarded as being among the very best at his position. And after completing negotiations for a new three-year, $60 million extension, he is signed through 2020; he loosely indicated at the press conference Sunday that the deal will cover the remaining years of his career.
Five years after that, he should be elected into the Hall of Fame easily. But he probably won’t be, because his offensive statistics will not be typical of those honored at Cooperstown, particularly the more recent inductees. His path to induction -- assuming it happens -- will be unorthodox.
Molina will soon pass 1,600 hits for his career, fewer than Jose Reyes, Nick Markakis and Melky Cabrera. Ian Kinsler, Jay Bruce and Mark Reynolds have more RBIs than the Cardinals’ catcher, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mitch Moreland have more homers.
But a lot of what Molina has done well, as described by La Russa, coaches and teammates, cannot be wholly defined by statistics. Molina’s mere presence on the field, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels mused the other day, meant that a typical part of a team’s offense was simply inaccessible.
In the NFL, there are shutdown cornerbacks: Those who are so good at enveloping wide receivers that opponents won’t bother throwing in the vicinity. In that sense, Molina has been a shutdown catcher: Opponents often haven’t even bothered to think about running against St. Louis, and the Cardinals have allowed far fewer steals in Molina’s era by an enormous margin.
Paul Hembekides of ESPN Stats & Information dug out some numbers.
Since Molina became the Cardinals' every-day catcher in 2005, they have allowed 651 stolen bases, the fewest in MLB over that span. The Arizona Diamondbacks have allowed the second-fewest with 934, about 30 percent more. In fact, four teams have allowed more than twice as many steals as the Cardinals over that time frame.
Since 2005, Cardinals opponents have attempted 1,020 stolen bases, which is 329 fewer than the opponents of any other MLB team over that span.
Scouts say that Molina’s ability to throw behind runners has seemingly had a dramatic impact on secondary leads -- when baserunners typically move toward the next base. Because of Molina’s arm and aggressiveness in whipping the ball to bases, some runners have remained mostly anchored to the base. Some of those who don’t have paid the price.
Most Catcher Pickoffs Since 2005:
Yadier Molina: 45
Russell Martin: 19
Jeff Mathis: 19
In Molina’s first full season in the majors, then-Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan talked about his catcher’s extraordinary imagination as a pitch-caller and his seemingly innate understanding of how to calm pitchers and coax them through rough innings. Infielders and outfielders tell of how Molina sets the St. Louis defense, moving teammates on the field like a puppeteer, with an understanding of where the ball might be hit next.
Adam Wainwright has had a lot to do with the Cardinals’ pitching success; the same is true of Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia. But the only constant in St. Louis' pitching and defense since 2005 has been Molina, and only one team in baseball has had a better ERA in that time. From 2005-17, the Cardinals' team ERA is 3.79, second-best in MLB over that span. The Dodgers are first at 3.71.
Molina is not entirely responsible for that. But teammates have insisted through the years that Molina has deeply impacted the pitchers and their work beyond just throwing out runners. There are no stats that can reflect the value of Molina counseling a younger Carlos Martinez, or the symbiosis of the St. Louis pitching and defense because everybody in the Cardinals organization -- from his pitchers to his coaches to his managers -- have generally deferred to Molina’s judgment and choices, and thrived. Molina and his teammates have played in the postseason nine times, winning championships in 2006 and 2011.
Molina is nowhere near most of the statistics in the above chart. He may never reach 2,000 hits, and he might need another lifetime to get to 200 homers. But Molina is not the typical catcher, either, and he shouldn’t be assessed as other catchers are. Rather, he should be viewed within the context that opponents -- and La Russa and teammates -- have long viewed him: a player who has provided an enormous competitive advantage for the Cardinals, a defensive weapon who, in most years, has been unlike any other in his time.