Following Yadi: Cards have best of best behind plate
Molina's journey to elite status took root as youth, when father made pivotal decision
ST. LOUIS -- It was against the wishes of most everyone who had a vested interest in Yadier Molina's budding baseball career -- family members, baseball coaches, long-time friends -- but Benjamin Molina Sr. refused to listen to outside opinions. He was insistent that his son would keep playing, even if it were in a league with men as much as twice his age.
Yadier Molina had been suspended from his youth league, and his dad feared the repercussions of a layoff. He believed the Double-A league, which featured the best amateur players in Puerto Rico, could be an option.
Double-A players ranged widely in age, the youngest usually 17, some as old as 40. When baseball was still a sanctioned sport in the Olympics, these were the players chosen for the national team.
Yadier Molina was 15 when his father scheduled a workout. It took one practice session before Molina was added to the Hatillo Tigres roster. Right away, he earned a starting job.
"Nobody thought that he could do the job with those big old men," big brother and Cardinals assistant hitting coach Bengie Molina said. "They thought he was good, but nobody thought he could play at that level. My dad said, 'You know what, play through it. Whatever.' For some reason, my dad had a feeling he was going to be alright."
Once himself an amateur player in Puerto Rico, Benjamin Molina reared his boys on the baseball field. He dreamed that they would one day become professional players, never knowing that he would eventually become the patriarch of Major League Baseball's most acclaimed catching family.
Bengie spent 13 years in the Majors before beginning his coaching career this season. Jose just completed his 14th season after two years in Tampa Bay. Neither, though, has been as elite as the younger Yadier, who 10 years into his big league career is making his fourth trip to the World Series and eliciting comparisons to some of the best to ever play the position.
The Gold Glove collection is expected to soon grow to six for the five-time All-Star. He's considered the gold standard behind the plate, the rudder that keeps a pitching staff on course. Bengie insists it is all a product of the unpopular decision his dad made all those years ago.
"He was a kid who was playing with men," Bengie said. "That right there made Yadi who he is right now. People think that the Minor Leagues did it. Yes, it helped. But in my mind, when my dad took him and put him in that amateur league, that's when he became a man. That's when he became a better player and was put on a track to become who he is today. He got worked from everywhere. But Yadi just adjusted to it, like you see him do today."
The best of the best
Despite all the advancement in baseball analytics and metrics, assigning an appropriate figure to a catcher's value remains an inaccurate exercise. The catching fraternity, however, seems to have little disagreement when determining the best at their craft.
"It's not even close," insisted Cardinals reserve catcher Rob Johnson.
Molina's expanding Gold Glove collection validates the assertion. So, too, does the naked eye.
It's why Atlanta's Brian McCann, uninitiated, marveled with Adam Wainwright during the summer All-Star Game about the ease with which Molina plays. It's what brought young Mariners catcher Mike Zunino to the top step during Seattle's September visit. He was staring down Molina, trying to learn.
It's the reason that upon returning to his home after his first Spring Training workout, Cardinals reliever Randy Choate was immediately asked by his stepson if he had the opportunity to throw to Molina.
"It's a question you get a lot as a pitcher," Choate noted. "His reputation precedes him, which makes you excited to throw to the best catcher in the game."
But what, exactly, is it about Molina that makes him the best? The answers are all different, yet still some version of the same. That idea of simplicity that McCann noted comes up often.
"You look at him and it looks like he's not even working hard," Johnson said. "That's what comes to your mind. He has showed me how much more relaxed he is and how controlled with his body he is."
Teammates describe his mind like that of a computer, constantly filtering scouting reports of opposing hitters while matching that up with the strength of his pitcher. He has an above-average arm to stop the running game, having held opponents to a 55 percent stolen base success rate in his career. It's impossible to quantify, too, how many runners he intimidated from even trying.
His footwork is something to marvel. His method of receiving buys his pitchers strikes. He takes the onus of positioning his teammates -- infielders and outfielders -- based on how he plans to have his pitcher attack a particular hitter.
The trust the staff has in Molina's ability to block pitches also frees it to throw any pitch in any count in any game situation.
"Sometimes you see guys kind of panicking, but with him it's just like, 'I got it,'" Cardinals pitcher Jake Westbrook explained. "We're not even worried about it. It's not like I can't bounce this breaking ball because I don't know if the catcher is going to block it. If he calls it and tells you to bounce it, you have no problem doing it."
The difference between Molina and everyone else became clear to anyone who observed the back field blocking competition one day in Spring Training. Six catchers in big league camp joined bullpen catcher Jamie Pogue, who started the curveball machine. A line was drawn around home plate.
If a catcher could block a pitch onto the plate, it was worth two points. Stopping it within the box was scored as one. Outside of it resulted in a negative tally. There were to be three rounds. After the first round, Molina had a score that more than doubled that of any of the other five.
"It was a joke," Johnson said. "He is jumping out of the way and blocking balls that are basically going straight down onto the plate. It was so impressive. After two rounds, it was over. We didn't even need to go to three rounds. It was incredible."
Such stories have made their way around.
"I think as a pitching staff, even though we know he's amazing, we take it for granted," World Series Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright said. "And then when you hear other catchers talk about how great Yadi is, that just kind of reinforces the knowledge that we are throwing to the best catcher in memory. I'm very fortunate to be in a situation where I'll probably throw to one catcher for my whole career, and it's Yadier Molina. I've been very spoiled."
"I think you will notice that every catcher has one or two holes -- they may not have a good arm throwing, they may not get down to the ball blocking so good, another guy doesn't catch the ball well because he's slow with his mitt," added Bengie Molina. "There are holes in catchers, just like there is with a hitter. But what I see from him is that he doesn't have any holes. That's what makes him the best."
A guiding force
As a child, Yadier Molina floated around the baseball diamond. Almost always, though, he found his way back behind the plate. He began catching around age 5, and Bengie recalls how his younger brother would always be the first player taken in the youth league draft.
Yadier got noticed in the amateur leagues and was eventually taken by the Cardinals with their fourth-round pick in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft. Once in the Cardinals' system he learned from famed instructor Dave Ricketts, as well as Mike Matheny, who, after one Spring Training workout, broke the news to his wife, Kristen.
"I saw the kid," Matheny told her, "who is going to steal my job."
Now the second-year manager of the Cardinals, Matheny continues to be amazed. In a year when the Cardinals were boosted by the contributions of so many rookie pitchers, Molina was the constant. "Follow Yadi," became a mantra of sorts as each new wave of players arrived. The young pitchers certainly had the prerogative to shake off their catcher; regardless, most didn't.
"It definitely takes a lot of pressure off of us," rookie Kevin Siegrist said. "He encourages us to throw what we want to throw, and pretty much 100 percent of the time, he's right. If we execute what he calls, we're going to have good success."
Molina posted a catcher's ERA of 3.16 this season, the lowest of his career and fourth lowest in the Majors this season. He also caught a National League-most 1,115 1/3 innings despite battling a knee injury that put him on the disabled list for two weeks.
He has navigated several kids through the biggest appearances of their career, oftentimes initiating mound meetings to calm them down as things look to be going awry. Matheny has joked that he wants to learn what exactly it is that Molina says, since more times than not instant execution follows.
"I don't think you can put a 'games won' or a price tag on what he has done to help our young pitchers," Wainwright said. "The large majority of our pitchers don't shake one time throughout a game, because they're throwing to Yadi and they know he has a good plan, and they trust him. When you have young guys who are just coming up and getting their feet wet and in big spots, they're not thinking about outsmarting hitters. All they're thinking about is executing a pitch. He doesn't take all of the pressure off them, because you still have to make the pitch. But it makes it a lot easier to execute."
Long noted for his excellence behind the plate, Molina has become a legitimate dual threat over the past few seasons. His batting average has steadily climbed, from .262 in '10, to .305, .315 and .319, respectively, in the three years after. Molina has shown more power as he has matured, too. Last year it came in the form of 22 homers; this year, he led Major League catchers with 44 doubles, the most by a backstop since Ivan Rodriguez in 1996.
"The way that he has been able to progress and become the hitter that he has become ... I remember going over in scouting meetings [how to prepare for Molina], and the biggest thing with him was, 'Don't fall asleep on him at first because he'll steal second,'" Choate said. "We weren't as worried about him necessarily as a hitter. Now, when you're trying to prepare for him, you have to prepare for both sides. Fortunately, I'm not on that side anymore."
Molina challenged for the NL batting title deep into the second half of the season and has become a fixture in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup. He has hit cleanup against left-handed starters this postseason.
"[Albert Pujols] would talk about how to know the pitchers, and he showed me how to study the pitchers," Molina said. "I've been fortunate to have those guys when I started over here. Right now, I'm practicing what they taught me."
Brother Bengie surmises that Molina first wanted to establish himself as a defensively sound Major League catcher before turning too much attention over to the offensive side. Then, when he put his mind toward becoming a complete hitter, he picked Pujols' mind and used his exceptional work ethic to will himself to becoming elite.
During Spring Training, Molina is among the earliest to arrive each morning. He's typically among the last to leave the field, too. In between, not only is he working to get better, but he is tutoring the organization's young catchers on how to also improve.
"I never worked that hard, to tell you the truth," Bengie Molina said. "It's not that I didn't work hard, but not that hard. It was amazing the way he worked. It was no wonder he's the best in the world. It doesn't happen by accident. It happens through a lot of work."
Others have noticed, too.
"In your mind, you think superstars just roll out of bed and they are just that good," Johnson said. "But this guy's work ethic is incredible. I was working with him [recently] in the cage and he brings out video and is looking at video of his swing and picking it apart. To know what to look for and to know what to feel and to have that ability on top of it is really incredible.
"He is a no-doubt Hall of Famer in my mind. He's just one of those really down-to-earth, extreme superstars. I think around the game that can be hard to find."
Molina finished fourth in the NL MVP Award voting a year ago. This fall, he'll likely land higher -- perhaps on top. He could be hurt by teammate Matt Carpenter's own MVP candidacy and by the storybook season in Pittsburgh, which brought Andrew McCutchen further into the spotlight.
Regardless whether national recognition follows, Molina has emerged as the face of a Cardinals franchise now seeking its third World Series championship since the catcher made his Major League debut.
"You have sort of the baseball tangibles that he displays, whether it's defense, what he does from an offensive standpoint now that he's put himself in an elite category, especially with what position he plays," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But I also think there are things that he's grown into, like his leadership. He's almost sort of the glue of the club. You see it in the way he carries himself and the way his teammates respect him. When you combine the baseball skills with all that, it shows the importance of what he brings to the team."