With the Cardinals Deep In Young Pitching, Yadier Molina Is More Valuable Than Ever

If you wanted to select one game to cite as the ideal example of Yadier Molina’s greatness, you wouldn’t go wrong by nominating Wednesday night’s 6-3 victory over Colorado at Busch Stadium.

Molina was the star of the game defensively, the star of the game offensively — and, as always, the star that shines and endures and never fades.

As the catcher who has no equal — and limitless energy, an exceptional mind, the innate ability to lead,  and hard-shell toughness — Molina handled a sequence of five consecutive rookie relievers who paraded in and combined to shut Colorado down over the final 6.1 innings.

As a hitter with a recharged bat, Molina struck for three hits including the two-run double in the eighth that opened the Cardinals’ 3-2 lead to a much safer and secure 5-2.

And in crossing another career mile marker that highlights his lasting excellence and indefatigable competitiveness, Molina went past 15,000 regular-season innings caught for his career. He is one of only 13 catchers in MLB history to squat for 15,000-plus innings. (To be precise, at the end of Wednesday’s victory, Molina was at 15,005 and 2/3 innings.)

If we we include Yadi’s extensive postseason experience, he ranks 11th in big-league history with 15,761 and 1/3 innings. And is eighth all-time with 1,815 games caught, postseason included. And of course, late last month Molina moved into fourth place in franchise history for most career regular-season games, with 1,825 going into Thursday. Molina’s service time in St. Louis is exceeded only by Stan Musial (3,026 games), Lou Brock (2,289), and Ozzie Smith (1,990.)

It was all there for Molina against the Rockies.  The legendary stamina that’s fueling Molina to one of the best seasons of his career.  He’s 36, but you’d never know it. Instead of breaking down, Molina is gearing up. And longevity is hard to attain at such a physically demanding and debilitating position. During the post-expansion era (1961-present) only 24 catchers have caught 200 or more games at age 36 or older. Molina isn’t there yet, but he’ll get there.

After all, Molina has two years remaining on his contract after the 2018 season and he isn’t slowing down. He’s played on four NL championship teams, and two World Series winners. He’s won eight gold gloves, and been chosen to the All-Star team nine times. He clearly wants more.

Molina’s productivity on offense, which is at its highest level since 2013. Through Wednesday Molina had 13 doubles, 14 homers, and 47 runs batted in — all of that in only 78 games and 284 at-bats because of a one-month stay on the disabled list after emergency surgery on his pelvic area. Molina’s .482 slugging percentage was his best since his .501 slug in 2012. His .814 OPS was his finest since 2013.

Among MLB catchers with at least 300 plate appearances this season, Molina ranks fourth in batting average (.289), seventh in onbase percentage (.331), fourth in slugging (.482) and fifth in OPS (.814.) Only two catchers had slammed more homers than Molina, and only four had more RBIs.

But just seeing Molina work in the dirt — and turn the hard work of catching into something beautiful — was the most impressive feature of his Wednesday performance.

We saw him guide the procession of rookies — Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks and Mike Mayers — through battles with 25 Colorado hitters over 6.1 innings. The five freshmen allowed two hits and a run, struck out seven, and maintained their poise despite walking four Rockies.

Since president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Mike Girsch reconstructed the bullpen before the team’s July 27 home game against the Cubs, Cardinals’ relievers went into Thursday’s game against the Rockies with a 1.73 ERA in over 26 innings in the past six games. And six rookies covered 19.1 of the 26 innings, allowing three earned runs (1.65.) The six rookies are Hicks, Hudson, Mayers, Gomber, Poncedeleon and Tyler Webb.

Leading rookies through the anxious early stages and getting them to a calmer, more settled place in their careers is a Molina special. By my count, Molina has caught 72 rookie pitchers since becoming the starting catcher in 2005. The notables include Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Jason Motte, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Jordan Hicks, Lance Lynn, Tyler Lyons, Austin Gomber, Kyle McClellan, Jaime Garcia, Luke Weaver, Kevin Siegrist, Alex Reyes, Anthony Reyes, Tyler Johnson, Josh Kinney and Shelby Miller.

As Miller once told the New York Times when asked about Molina:  “I pretty much worship the ground he walks on.”

Molina has caught 11 pitchers that were named to the NL All-Star team a combined 16 times: Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Jason Isringhausen, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Edwin Mujica, Ryan Franklin and, this year, Miles Mikolas.

Molina caught the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner (Carpenter.) Carpenter also finished second in the voting in 2009 and third in 2006 with Molina as his catcher. Wainwright worked in perfect harmony with Molina while finishing second or third in the Cy voting four times. Molina also caught two other Cardinals’ starters who received  Cy Young votes: Kyle Lohse (2012), and John Lackey (2015.)

This year Cardinals’ rookie pitchers are second in the big leagues with 3.6 WAR (wins above replacement) and the legendary catcher is their human GPS. Perhaps the rookies one day will get to experience the satisfaction of being named to an All-Star team or winning an award. Or maybe they’ll be fortunate to be on a team that wins the NL pennant and World Series.

“He’s connected our history to the present,” Mozeliak said of Molina. “And in a way he’s connecting us to our future by working with the young pitchers that are here now. And there will be more of them.”

Shaped by Yadier Molina.

As a National League general manager once told the Boston Globe: “Molina isn’t a catcher. He’s a system.”

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