In 2006, when the St. Louis Cardinals were clinging to the division lead in a year in which they would eventually win the World Series, they had a young player who was struggling offensively with a batting average around .200. Then-manager Tony LaRussa defended that player and stated that the player could hit .000 for the year, and he would still put him in the lineup every day because of that player’s outstanding defense. That player was catcher Yadier Molina, and he is currently hitting .315 for the 2013 season.
To reiterate; one of the greatest managers of all time decided that a player was worth having out there every day, without a care as to what offense he could produce, solely because of his defensive attributes, and that player is now seventh in the National League in batting average.
That is just the beginning to Yadier Molina’s Most Valuable Player case.
By now, the entire league is aware of Molina’s sterling defense for all the same reasons that earned La Russa’s highest respect; a cannon for an arm which shuts down the opposition’s running game, textbook technique when blocking pitches in the dirt, and Gibraltar-like qualities when baserunners barrel towards the plate attempting to score. Yadi has won five consecutive Gold Gloves, a streak that does not figure to end anytime soon.
But Molina’s defensive contributions go even deeper. He is revered for his expert handling of a pitching staff and knack for calling pitches in crucial situations. Like La Russa before him, current Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a terrific defensive catcher, constantly mentions his complete trust and amazement with Yadi’s ability to handle the pitching staff. Indeed some in the Cardinals’ organization have implied that this trait is Yadi’s strongest and most valuable. To a man, every pitcher on the Cardinals staff will give major credit to Molina for any success they might have enjoyed this year.
And if Yadi’s ability to handle a pitching staff is his forte, then the 2013 season has been his masterpiece. (Tuesday’s game being the latest example). This year’s edition of the Cardinals has included an inordinate number of rookie pitchers seeing quality time on the big league mound. Despite this, the Cardinals have a team ERA of 3.47, good for fifth in the NL. The rookies, ten of them in all, are instructed to never shake Yadi’s pitch signal off, and one can only wonder what the Cardinals’ season would have looked like without the guidance of Yadi behind the plate.
Since the struggles of 2006 Molina’s offense has steadily improved, and he has been one of the better hitting catchers over the past three seasons. Matt Carpenter is probably the Cardinals’ offensive MVP, but Molina is not far behind. Molina has 42 doubles, good for third in the National League. Additionally, Molina’s bat always generates contact reliably. He has only struck out 55 times this year, which is the least among the top 25 hitters in the league in slugging percentage, and by a large margin, according to MLB.com. Molina’s clutch hitting has been as fine as ever, posting a .369 batting average with runners in scoring position according to ESPN.com.
Perhaps Yadi’s value to the Redbirds is most easily highlighted by his recent stint on the 15-day DL. Yadi did not play from July 31 through August 14, and the Cardinals went merely 6-8 over that time. Despite missing that 14 game stretch, Yadi has still played in 133 games this season, quite a total for someone logging the majority of that time at the most physically demanding position. The Cards have gone 82-51 in games that Yadi has appeared. When Molina does not play, the Cardinals look very average, with a 12-14 record. But Molina’s presence elevates the club to a division-winning level, and that is the definition of an MVP.
Yadier Molina has always been one of the smartest and most opportunistic players in the majors, and now his offensive consistency has peaked and he is truly one of the best players in baseball. He has been playing at an MVP level for three years now, and with the Cardinals winning the division this is his year to take home the hardware.