Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
12. Edgar Renteria
11. Ray Lankford
10. Matt Morris
7. Mark McGwire
5. Scott Rolen
3. Jim Edmonds
Through the 2020 season, according to FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Yadier Molina is tied for tenth on the list of the greatest catchers of all-time. Among catchers in the top 30 (the default page size if you do the search yourself), he is the only one who was a below-average hitter (though barely–his wRC+ is 99, and some other players, such as Ivan Rodriguez with a 104, aren’t dramatically above-average), and no matter how large you make the list, he is at the top by Defensive Runs Above Average. In fact, by Defensive Runs Above Average, the seventeen-year St. Louis Cardinals veteran is the second-most valuable defensive player in baseball history, and if he matches his 2021 projections, Molina would pass Ozzie Smith to become the most valuable defensive player of all-time. It is an imperfect metric, as all defensive ones in particular are, but it’s still quite the accomplishment.
And yet evaluating Yadier Molina’s career primarily through the lens of the most famous thing about him–his defense–fails to capture how interesting his career has been. And as great as Molina, who repeated media litigation suggests will sail into the Baseball Hall of Fame the moment he is eligible, has been, I consider him to be a far more compelling baseball figure than Johnny Bench or Gary Carter, despite the fact that I believe both of these catchers were probably better overall baseball players. In Johnny Bench’s thirteen full MLB seasons as a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, he was an above-average hitter in each of them with defense ranging from good to excellent up until the point, at 34, when he became a full-time third baseman. While Gary Carter had a sophomore slump, his career more or less followed the same path. Yadier Molina took a much longer road to get where he arrived.
A fourth-round draft pick in 2000, Molina arrived in St. Louis in 2004 with some hype, but relative to what he would become, it was fairly mild. He was highly regarded defensively, which made him a logical heir apparent to incumbent starter and his eventual manager Mike Matheny, but he never cracked national prospect lists for a very simple reason–he couldn’t hit. In 2003, with the AA Tennessee Smokies, Molina hit two home runs in 397 plate appearances and his OPS of .660 ranked below the likes of teammates Bucky Jacobsen, Corey Erickson, and Papo Bolivar. And this was considered a good offensive season for Molina. He hit sufficiently in 2004 with the Memphis Redbirds, and once called up to St. Louis to serve as Matheny’s backup, Molina had a .267/.329/.356 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage triple-slash–hardly outstanding, particularly in what was still a high-offense era, but acceptable if he were to become a Gold Glove-caliber backstop. Not long after Matheny departed in free agency, manager Tony LaRussa famously claimed that Molina would still be the team’s starting catcher even if he hit .000. Molina tested that hypothesis more closely than LaRussa probably would have liked.
In 2005, his first season as a starting catcher, then-#41 for the Cardinals was already a defensive stalwart. He was a good pitch framer and was already developing a reputation for developing a rapport with pitchers, most notably Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. But what truly stood out was his suppression of would-be base thieves. 39 men attempted to steal a base on Yadier Molina, and only 14 were successful. Eight catchers accumulated more runners caught stealing, but each of them had dozens more attempts against him. For instance, Jorge Posada tied for the MLB lead in runners caught, but ninenty more runners dared to try. Molina was immediately building a reputation.
Unfortunately, his reputation for offense was at least as strong, but in reverse. In 421 plate appearances, Molina had a 71 wRC+, which made him one of the ten worst hitters in baseball with as many plate appearances. Molina’s offensive profile was shaky–he didn’t hit for much power, and while he didn’t strike out very much, he also didn’t walk very much; a plate approach built on putting the ball in play can work for speedsters, but for the already glacially slow at 22 catcher, it wasn’t working. In 2006, Molina more or less repeated his defensive performance, allowing a few more stolen bases but making up for it with solid pitch framing, but his offense was reaching a breaking point. Only three batters in baseball were worse offensively than Molina, and the next season, each of those three were relegated to backup duty. Sure, a .226 batting average on balls in play was horribly unlucky, even for a runner as slow as Molina, but a .274 on-base percentage with just six home runs sent Molina’s Wins Above Replacement underwater.
And yet 2006 also produced Yadier Molina’s greatest highlight, and it was at the plate, when in the top of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the NLCS, against Aaron Heilman of the New York Mets, Molina belted a two-run home run over the left field wall at Shea Stadium. Half an inning later, he caught Adam Wainwright’s curveball to strike out Carlos Beltran and give the Cardinals the pennant. While he didn’t have the same spectacular heroics of his Game 7 blast in the World Series, he had at least one hit in every game of the series, including three in the deciding Game 5. And while David Eckstein won World Series MVP, Molina outperformed him by batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Oh, and Molina could play a bit of defense, too.
It seems asinine to credit Molina’s 2006 postseason as the thing which caused him to turn a corner offensively, but statistically, he did start to pick back up from his awful regular season. In 2007, he drew more walks and got more hits–he was still a below-average hitter, but in conjunction with his superior glove, a .340 on-base percentage made him a pretty good player. In 2008, he took yet another step forward–he walked more often than he struck out, his batting average cleared .300 for the first time, and while a 97 wRC+ is by definition below the league’s average mark, the average MLB catcher had an 87 wRC+. Defensively, Molina remained impeccable, and with his offense now sufficient to win the often arbitrarily distributed award, Molina won the first of his nine career Gold Gloves. And his ascent continued: in 2009, he once again won a Gold Glove, and with his offense now solidly above-average (a 9.2% walk rate with a 7.2% strikeout rate in the twenty-first century remains unimaginable), he made his first All-Star Game, in St. Louis no less, and received down-ballot MVP votes. While his offense did regress a bit in 2010, to more or less a clone of his 2007 performance, he had the statistically best defensive season of his career. And when he got into a confrontation with Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips in August, he assumed a mantle not only of veteran leadership at 28, but of being absolutely cherished by fans in St. Louis.
In 2011, Molina took his biggest step forward yet. While he had an above-average season under his belt at the plate, it was in 2011 that he became a legitimately feared hitter. He nearly doubled his career high in home runs with 14 while retaining his other positive peripheral statistics to the tune of a 126 wRC+. He was still the best defensive catcher in baseball, and now he had offense that would have put him in the top half of first basemen or designated hitters that season. And although his postseason lacked a “ninth inning home run at Shea”-level highlight, he was a solid contributor, including scoring two runs and getting on base three times against the Texas Rangers in a World Series Game 7 victory.
With Albert Pujols departing in free agency, the Cardinals looked to Molina to provide veteran leadership like never before, but on a more tangible level, the team had been saving up to re-sign Pujols, so once he headed to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, there was money to spend on Molina, who inked a five-year, $75 million extension early in Spring Training 2012 to keep him on the Cardinals through 2017. In the moment, it was viewed as a fair deal for both sides, and if anything slightly generous to Molina, who at this point was no longer viewed as a gaping offensive liability but was not considered to truly be the kind of hitter he was in 2011. As it turned out, his 2012 was his best offensive season ever. His home run total jumped all the way to 22, equaling his previous two best seasons combined. He was walking more and his strikeout rate remained below 10%. As per his new usual, Molina was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner, and he finished fourth in NL MVP voting, even picking up a couple first place votes along the way. In the immediate post-Pujols years, Molina became an even more beloved player, as he became the face of staying in St. Louis. And it didn’t hurt that he had become a full-fledged superstar.
In 2013, Molina remained elite. His power went down but his batting average went up, and he remained the sport’s greatest patrolman behind the plate. Molina finished third in NL MVP voting, picking up another couple first-place votes; that both votes came from St. Louis writers became a source of some national scowling, but once pitch framing became incorporated into player value metrics, the race between Molina and Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen became vanishingly thin. And for a fifth consecutive season, he played in over 135 games, showing a level of durability almost never seen among catchers in the modern era.
In 2014, Molina started to show some signs of wear and decline; injuries limited him to 110 games and forced the Cardinals to scramble and acquire a firmly post-peak A.J. Pierzynski to tandem with Tony Cruz behind the plate in the interim. When he did play, Molina was still an above-average hitter, but barely, and by Defensive Runs Above Average, he remained very good, but his tangible value was no longer that of the hands down, best defensive catcher in baseball. In 2015, his offense dropped again; with just four home runs in 530 plate appearances, it was Molina’s worst season by wRC+ since 2006. While there was plenty of fear that Molina was going to rapidly decline, perhaps not to 2006 levels but with a dramatic fall nonetheless, he rebounded at the plate in 2016, hitting 14% above league average while playing in a career-high 147 games. And while it was the first time since 2007 that Molina did not win the National League Gold Glove, his metrics remained solid and he picked up MVP votes for the first time since 2013.
Entering Spring Training in 2017, there was much consternation about Molina’s impending free agency, but a late March deal through 2020 was signed. At $20 million per year, it was unlikely to be the relative bargain of his 2012 contract, but the Cardinals clearly wanted to assure Molina would remain a Cardinal for life. And Molina saw a resurgence in his power numbers, with 18 on the season. In 2018, he got all the way back up to 20. It was largely assumed in the mid-aughts that Yadier Molina was never going to be an even passable MLB hitter, and yet over the last twenty-five years, only three players had more home runs in a Cardinals uniform.
Molina is back with the Cardinals for an eighteenth season, on a one-year contract. He isn’t as good as he once was. In his last two seasons, and in four of his last six, Yadier Molina has been a below-average hitter. For the last several seasons, his caught-stealing and pitch framing numbers have been decent, but not elite. He isn’t a terrible player, by any means, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that at this point, Yadier Molina is a legacy act. It’s like going to a Rolling Stones concert the next time they go out on tour–sure, Mick, Keith, and company are doing great for a bunch of guys pushing eighty, but you can’t go into it expecting to see a height-of-their-powers performance. But it can still be fun to see it. And Molina still provides the kinds of moments that send chills up your spine. Think of Molina’s first-pitch home run to tie a major division game in September 2019 against the Chicago Cubs, or his game-tying single in a must-win Game 4 of the 2019 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, or his subsequent walk-off sacrifice fly two innings later. He did these things by the time “Yadier Molina can’t hit enough to stick around as a starting catcher in the big leagues” takes were old enough to get their Learner’s Permit.
The numbers have Yadier Molina as somewhere around the Hall of Fame borderline, but the reason he’s going to end up in Cooperstown is because of how everybody around him feels. Fellow baseball players revere Yadier Molina. Pitchers who have worked with him speak of him as though he is a holy figure. Even players who are nominally Molina’s fiercest rivals, like Brandon Phillips, have conceded to having endless respect for him. And that reverence is why I believe that, ultimately, Molina will be viewed favorably by baseball fans at large. But he will never be as beloved as he is in St. Louis.