Watching Yadier Molina, Baseball's Secret Genius

Most baseball fans agree that Yadier Molina plays catcher like few baseball players ever have. To watch him do what he does is a different and more amazing thing.

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Jun 29 2015, 4:45pm

Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball, to no one's great surprise. They have been the most consistent team in the sport for a half-decade, and prior to last week, almost all of their success had been taken as further evidence of a defining organizational stability. The Cardinals' admirers lauded the organization's ability to withstand injury and attrition, develop young talent in a timely manner, and make reasonable trades and signings; detractors grumbled about the same things, and about the media's taste for bringing them up.

While this young season has brought a surprising dose of reputation-sullying intrigue by way of the team's supremely goofy espionage scandal, it has also been defined by more of the same old St. Louis steadiness between the lines. All around are the kind of tribulations that might have felled a prospective contender. First and most grimly, the Cardinals' right fielder of the future, Oscar Taveras, died in a car crash during last year's World Series. The trade made to fill that gap, in which homegrown hard-thrower Shelby Miller was shipped to Atlanta for Jason Heyward, has only recently begun to work out, with Heyward catching fire after a slow start, while Miller flirts with no-hitters. Ovoid slugger Matt Adams, the team's first baseman, has a strained right quad and could miss four months. The most devastating blow came when ace Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles running out a bunt during his fourth start of the season. He may miss the rest of the season, stoking the concern of a few—and the hope of many—that this just might not be the Cardinals' year.

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And yet, like every other year in recent memory, it has been. Credit for the strong start goes to a lineup built on a metronomic top of the order—Matt Holliday, currently on the disabled list with a quad strain, reached base in his first 45 games of the season and somehow still seemed less steadfast than leadoff man Matt Carpenter, for whom two-strike counts appear exactly as bothersome as an excessive chill in a glass of water—and a diverse but uniformly effective rotation.

Credit also goes to Yadier Molina, the Cardinals' entrenched and almost mystically great catcher. How much credit goes to Yadi, though, is hard to say. On a team that proceeds by means of plain and observable calculation, in a sport that quantifies most every atom of impact, this not-knowing is precisely what sets him apart. He's the one part of the Cardinals that's hard to figure.

When your buddy congratulates you on your cool neck tattoo. — Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If a universally supported claim exists in contemporary baseball, it may be this: Yadier Molina is the best defensive catcher in the game. The Cardinals' faithful insists upon this, of course, politely but firmly and maybe with a trace of latent smugness. But so do other partisans or unaligned fans across the country. Watch a St. Louis game on the opponent's feed, and you're likely to hear the announcers devote a half-inning to Molina's brilliance. They cite his career caught-stealing rate, allude to his handling of a pitching staff, and invoke Johnny Bench and Pudge Rodriguez. The tendency is particularly strong in cities that have an ascendant catcher of their own; the Kansas City booth, as laudatory as any in baseball of its home side, can only voice a hope that Salvador Perez, one of the finest young backstops in the game, one day reaches Yadi's level.

The consensus comes easily, but what exactly makes Molina so important can be harder to define. Despite advances in our ability to quantify once-inscrutable skills such as pitch-framing, the work and value of a catcher remain largely mysterious, gleaned through the anecdote as much as the statistic. In an age in which we can compare the numerological nuances of Ted Williams and Bryce Harper with a couple clicks, we still access catchers by way of old baseball tropes: the gait and timing of their mound visits, the inherent bodily clout and ascetic stillness of their crouches, the combinations of called-for pitches and the infrequency of the pitchers' shaking-off.

We parse catchers, more than we do other players, through style. Molina's is minimalist, cool. In the catcher's box behind home plate he pads around on his toes. He makes only the necessary movements, calling for the pitch—rarely more than once—and sliding his mitt over to the desired quadrant. His targets are luxuries, reliably set in spots that cause significant trouble for batters without requiring extreme carefulness from his pitchers.

For the most part, Molina does without the tricks other catchers sometimes use, the tap of the dirt before a high fastball or the shift inside and then out before the pitch's release. He seems at times to practice a kind of telekinesis, as if the pitcher needs only to let go of the ball and Molina will make it go where it needs to. But, again, we are in the realm of "it seems." We can't fully know it by watching him do it, but watching Molina work is so commanding and bracing and different that we can't help but see something.

A big part of any catcher's job is counting the number of players on the field. If it's more than eight, you've got a problem! — Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Much of what we see is the Cardinals' pitching staff looking great. Even without Wainwright, the current St. Louis rotation features three sub-three ERAs and, with the exception of Tyler Lyons, a temporary replacement for the injured Lance Lynn, none reaching four. Two promising but previously inconsistent youngsters—the lightning-armed Carlos Martinez and 2013 postseason hero Michael Wacha—have found their footing, and Lynn and John Lackey have piled up strong starts with less astonishing stuff.This is in keeping with a long-established pattern of maximizing talent; in years past, pitchers like Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse washed up in St. Louis, and studying with now-retired pitching coach Dave Duncan and throwing to Molina, lopped a run or two off of their averages.

The quieter work of Molina belies, of course, what everyone knows about him: that his right arm is the baserunner's biggest threat. This, at least, is statistically gleanable—his pitch-framing stats are variable, but Molina has surpassed the league-average caught-stealing rates by reliably wide margins over his decade-long career—but the image, once again, puts the impression over. The pure thrill of watching Molina nab a would-be thief benefits from his usual calm; it is akin to the B-movie moment when the monk reveals himself to be a kung-fu master. One instant, Molina plucks a pitch off the dirt with all serenity; the next, he looses a hard, tailing throw that, almost often as not, beats the runner to the corner of the bag.

For a few years in the early 2010s, Molina's greatness was as easy to measure as it was to see—in addition to his defense, he started hitting quite well, posting OPSs well into the .800s and garnering MVP consideration. In the last couple seasons, that trend has waned due to age and nagging injuries. This is probably just as well. Pleased as the Cardinals must have been about Molina's production, it was somewhat out of keeping with the fundamental quality of his play. He is the subtlest and most effective practitioner of baseball's subtlest discipline. Low in the order and quiet in his crouch for a team that keeps on winning, Molina is just where he belongs.