Ranking Yadi's backups through the years

August 25th, 2021

  and the St. Louis Cardinals have agreed on an extension that will keep him in St. Louis for the 2022 season. That will be Molina’s 19th season in the Majors: He will turn 40 on July 13 of next season, on a day he will face the Dodgers at Busch Stadium. This is an incredible feat, not just that Molina is still hanging around, but that he’s still the starting catcher. Ivan Rodriguez retired at 39 in a season he only played 44 games. Molina will be nobody’s backup in 2022. Then again, he never is.

This is the great joke throughout Molina’s career: There’s no safer, and more relaxing, job than being Molina’s backup catcher. Molina is famously difficult to get out of the lineup: In 2016 he caught 147 games at the age of 34. But there have, in fact, been actual other Cardinals catchers since Molina took over the job full time in 2005. The thing, though, is that there are only 13 that played more than 25 games for the Cardinals, a truly remarkable figure. (The Tigers have had four this year.)

Here are those 13 Yadier Molina backup catchers, ranked (subjectively, by me).

The WAR totals listed are each guy’s total WAR while with the Cardinals (per Baseball Reference). These players are not ranked by WAR, but it just goes to show how little impact the non-Molina catchers have had for St. Louis since 2005.

1. Matt Wieters, 2019-20 (0.5 WAR)
The Cardinals, for the first time, brought in an established starter to back up Molina in Wieters, the former top-shelf prospect who had settled in as a perfectly average big league catcher. Molina ended up missing nearly a month in 2019 with a thumb tendon strain, and Wieters hit 11 homers, the only Cardinals catcher other than Molina to reach double digits in homers since Tom Pagnozzi in 1996. The 2020 season, somewhat surprisingly, ended up being the end of the road for Wieters, who had only one extra-base hit all year.

2. Eric Fryer, 2016-17 (0.3 WAR) 
Fryer was a godsend out of nowhere for the Cardinals in 2016, hitting .368 in 24 games before, inexplicably, the Cardinals waived him. When he returned in 2017, he hit .155 and was out of baseball the next year. But we’ll always have 2016.

3. Jason LaRue, 2008-10 (0.0) 
He actually got into 128 games at catcher over three seasons for St. Louis, which is a lot for a player not named Molina. He would have had more, were it not for the 2010 fight with the Reds in which Molina and Brandon Phillips had a tussle at the plate that led to a brawl between the two teams. LaRue was kicked in the head by Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto, suffered a concussion and did not play in a Major League game again.

4. A.J. Pierzynski, 2014 (-0.4 WAR) 
The White Sox hothead was brought in to start for the Cardinals after Molina tore his right thumb sliding into third base that July. He was scheduled to be out 8-to-12 weeks, but came back after seven, returning Pierzynski to the bench. He played two more years with Atlanta afterward and is the only person on this list who caught more years in the big leagues than Molina has (so far).

5. Andrew Knizner, 2019-21 (0.1 WAR, and counting) 
Yadi’s current backup is getting a little more use than Yadi’s backups usually do, but still not much. He has been a decent, perfectly solid backup, but he hasn’t done much to make anyone think he’s the guy to take over for Molina. If he had been better, the Cardinals might hesitate to bring back Molina every year now that he’s almost 40. But they haven’t.

6. Carson Kelly, 2016-18 (-0.8 WAR) 
Kelly was terrific in Triple-A and gave the Cardinals repeated signs he could take over for Yadi at some point. But every time he got a start, he struggled: He hit .154 in 63 games for St. Louis. Regular playing time surely would have helped him, and he found it when the Cardinals traded him (and Luke Weaver) to Arizona for Paul Goldschmidt prior to the 2019 season. When healthy, Kelly has been one of the best hitting catchers in baseball since the trade. But he never was able to do it in St. Louis.

7. Gary Bennett, 2006-07 (-1.0 WAR) 
Bennett was at the end of his career when he got to caddy for Yadi for a couple of years, and he’s actually responsible for the biggest hit any Cardinals backup catcher had during the entire Yadi era, a walk-off grand slam against the Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball the year Yadi won his first World Series.

8. Gerald Laird, 2011 (-0.4 WAR) 
Laird hit .232 in his one season in St. Louis, but he’ll live forever in Cardinals lore for being the guy who was first to run onto the field after David Freese hit his walk-off in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.

9. Tony Cruz, 2011-15 (-2.6 WAR) 
The maestro of Cardinals backup catchers, in that he realized just how long you could make a career out of it. Cruz was Yadi’s backup for a full four seasons and leads all backup catchers in games with 256. The problem was that he was an absolutely dreadful hitter, putting up a .220/.262/.310 line in what was roughly the equivalent of a full season over that time. This was the peak of Yadi’s career, though, so Cruz’s services were barely required. He left after the 2015 season to go back up Salvador Perez in Kansas City, but an injury derailed that idea. Here’s a random fact about Tony Cruz’s 2013 season: The Cardinals made it all the way to Game 6 of the World Series in 2013, and Cruz didn’t get a single at-bat or inning the entire postseason.

10. Einar Díaz, 2005 (-0.7 WAR) 
Molina was hit by a pitch in July that kept him out a month of his first full season as Cardinals starter, and the team discovered, quickly, how much it needed him.

11. Francisco Peña, 2018 (-1.1 WAR) 
Peña was one of the worst-hitting backups (.510 OPS with St. Louis), which is saying something, but he had a Cardinals connection everyone appreciated: He was the son of Tony Peña, who caught for the Cardinals from 1987-89.

12. Mike Mahoney, 2005 (-0.3 WAR) 
An excellent defensive catcher who hit .156 in 64 at-bats for the 2005 Cardinals, getting a call up because of Molina’s first injury. He did get to play in the last season at old Busch Stadium, though.

13. Kelly Stinnett, 2007 (-0.8 WAR) 
Stinnett was never a terrific hitter, but he was at the end of his career when he signed up for the platonic ideal backup catcher spot. Hitting .159 in 26 games is not a great way to extend your career, however. (And it didn’t.)

Up for one final fun fact? Here are the single-season WAR (per Baseball Reference) leaders among Cardinals catchers not named Molina since he took over the starting job in 2005:

  1. Eric Fryer, 0.6, 2016
  2. Matt Wieters, 0.5, 2019
  3. Matt Pagnozzi, 0.3, 2010
  4. Andrew Knizner, 0.1, 2019
  5. George Kottaras, 0.1, 2014 (Kottaras had five at-bats in 2014)

I very much look forward to writing this piece when Molina turns 60.