On the surface, it was improper for Cardinals catcher and franchise icon Yadier Molina to leave the team during the series in Arizona for reasons that had nothing to do with health, or a family-related emergency.
Molina traveled to Puerto Rico to be with los Vaqueros de Bayamón – the pro basketball team that he owns there – as it won the league championship.
Molina started the first game at Arizona before taking off. In reality Molina missed one game that he would have started had he stayed in Phoenix. Backup catcher Andrew Knizner handled the Saturday-Sunday assignments as the Cards completed the sweep.
For the short amount of time that Molina was gone, the Cardinals didn’t miss Molina, but his mini-vacay was a bad look … and yet another confusing Yadi adventure in 2022. Given the circumstances, it’s been surprising to have so much unrest – and even controversy – during what should be a happy, love-filled final season for an all-time great Cardinal and his buddy Albert Pujols.
This sentimental journey with No. 4 has had too many jagged edges along the way. With the career Molina has had, a final season should be celebrated unconditionally.
Instead, we’ve been left to scrutinize his actions and wondering why there’s been a sequence of uncomfortable developments bubbling to the surface.
What’s up with that?
Well, just a theory …
What if Molina wanted to call off his plans to play in 2022 and informed the Cardinals of his change of heart?
What if he wanted to retire and be done with it? Is that why he showed up late and out of shape – because he’d already checked out mentally?
What if Cardinals management pleaded with Molina to stick with the planned farewell season in 2022 – and that the club would work with him and give him the leeway to make it easier for him? This team couldn’t have marketing plans and ticket-sales plans in place and ready to roll for a season-long celebration of Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright without Molina being there. And the cost of tearing up the plans and creating a new marketing-sales pitch at such a late hour would have been chaotic and costly.
Understand that the Cardinals are generating considerable revenue during Molina’s farewell season, and it was in the organization’s best interests … including financial interests … to coax Yadier to stick with his commitment to play this season.
In addition, the organization doesn’t have Molina’s successor in place, and wasn’t ready to make the transition to a new catching era.
Compromises can be made. So if the occasional break in Puerto Rico – including his appearance at his team’s championship-clinching win – was part of an unofficial agreement between the Cardinals and their catcher, then why get ticked at Molina? Makes no sense.
Molina called his pro basketball team a “business” and added that he felt obligated to be there because the people of Puerto Rico expected it. That may sound ridiculous to you, but if so, then you don’t understand Molina or his special relationship with the island that he loves so intensely. You can sneer at that, and if you do, your reaction is revealing.
I think there’s been a lot going on here. Stuff that we won’t really know unless someone directly involved wants to speak out on it. Then again, there’s been a lot going on with Molina for a long period of time.
Here’s what most of the Molina critics are failing to acknowledge or understand: this franchise has allowed Molina to call the shots for many years. Molina plays when he wants to play, and that’s it.
Molina plans to manage a baseball team in Venezuela this fall and winter after the current MLB season. The New York Times recently asked Molina about his desire to manage in MLB, and wanted to know if he felt ready for the challenge.
Molina’s answer: “I’ve managed for 19 years in the big leagues.”
Until Oli Marmol took over this season, managers Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt were afraid to take the risk of offending Molina by insisting – how ironic now – that he needed to sit down and get some rest. Matheny and Shildt also put a limit on the implementation of advanced metrics that Molina dislikes.
Marmol doesn’t do that. He makes the call on lineup decisions. Marmol was hired to change at least some of the ways that the Cardinals approach baseball, and he’s doing just that – to his credit. His managing, for example, includes an emphasis on platoon-split advantages that have spurred offensive improvement.
This year, team ownership-management had no problem (at least publicly) with Molina arriving late to spring training, or when he headed to Puerto Rico for his lengthy rehabilitation of an inflamed knee. Again, nothing new here, my friends. Yadier does what Yadier wants to do – and the team makes it easier by granting approval.
That’s why I smile at the people who think that his retreat to Puerto Rico was some outrageous fainting-couch moment.
Management was OK with it. (Of course.) His teammates were fine with it. Molina didn’t ambush anyone; all concerned parties knew about this in advance, which is why rookie catcher Ivan Herrera was called up from Triple A Memphis before the weekend series in Arizona.
The Cardinals are winning, winning, winning. With Monday’s thrilling 1-0 victory at Wrigley Field, the Cards are 70-51 on the season and lead the NL Central by five games. The Cards have the best record in the majors (17-3) since July 31, and the No. 2 winning percentage (.735) to the Dodgers since July 10.
Pujols continues to launch baseballs like it’s 2001, and the team is 8-0 when trade-deadline pitching acquisitions Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana start games. Paul Goldschmidt is making a run at a Triple Crown, and is the favorite to win the league MVP award, and third baseman Nolan Arenado is making sensational play after sensational play.
This has been a marvelously entertaining run by the Cardinals, and the vibes are all positive. And some fans are fixating on Molina’s basketball getaway on a trip that did not harm the Cardinals in any way? Please. You’re trying to be miserable. Try to be happy.
And if management and teammates don’t care about this, then why should you care? How does this impact you? Do you think you’re in charge of Cardinal protocol? Good grief. Get over it.
Given what Pujols has been doing lately, and all of the joy that he’s created, it’s incredibly silly to foam at the mouth over Molina.
As if on cue, Molina returned Monday and caught another shutout, guiding Montgomery through nine innings of masterful one one-hit, no-walk, seven-strikeout pitching. Montgomery has praised the catcher for advising the lefty to make more aggressive use of his fastball, and it’s working. After his first four starts as a Cardinal, “Monty” has a 0.35 ERA.
Molina’s catcher ERA this season is 3.25, the fourth-best in the majors among the 42 catchers that have been behind the plate for at least 1,500 opponent plate appearances.
When Molina catches a game for the Cardinals this season, they allow 3.48 runs per game. That’s nearly a full run less than Knizner’s 4.32 runs allowed per game.
Molina is a top-five pitch framer, and has the ninth-best strike percentage among 60 MLB catchers this season. Knizner ranks near the bottom in both categories.
The old catcher still makes a difference defensively, and at his age (40) and condition the club is happy to take what it can get from Molina during the final weeks of his career.
It’s helpful to open your eyes to the reality of this situation.
This franchise wanted Molina back to play a final season. As I mentioned before, his presence is very good for business – and also quite good for the pitching staff.
I believe that, to a large extent, the Cardinals allowed Molina to set the parameters for his role in 2022, and he’s taken advantage of it. Big surprise there. (Not.) So why direct your rage, exclusively, at Molina? Both sides understood what they were getting into here.
As for those that are whining that baseball isn’t a priority for Molina, I would advise these fine people to take a look at Baseball Reference to acquaint themselves with a couple of basic stats: with the postseason included, Molina has caught 18,966 innings over 2,212 games for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Molina cares. He doesn’t have to prove that. He already has, many times over. Remember the day when Molina had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery after being struck in the testes by a foul ball? The surgeons had to remove … well, never mind. You can figure it out.
Molina has played with a level of pain that would break many athletes, and I cringe to think of how he may struggle to just move around 10 years from now. I hope I’m wrong.
Molina’s hands are battered, his knees all but yelp in agony, he’s had his share of lower-back pain miseries. Molina has toiled in all of that gear in the St. Louis summers since 2004, and has played with passion and determination under the toughest of circumstances than any catcher I’ve seen in my lifetime.
I don’t even want to talk about how many times his brain has been rocked by a foul ball, or a bat.
You don’t have to like Molina personally, but do not question his heart. The fake outrage on Twitter – questioning Molina’s commitment to his team – is laughable. He’s been incredibly diligent about his job, catching more innings than anyone in the majors during his time, and often refusing to take days off when a manager recommends it. But after nearly two decades of faithful service, a quick hop to Puerto Rico is offensive and inexcusable?
The Cardinals have won four NL pennants and two World Series titles and been to the postseason 13 times (soon to be 14) since 2004, and Molina has been the one constant for a pitching staff that has the second-best ERA in the majors since his promotion to the big club in 2004. The Cardinals also have MLB’s third-best winning percentage (regular season) during the Molina Era.
Molina has played in more postseason games than any player in National League history, and played in more winning postseason games than any player in NL history. He’s a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he’ll be wearing a red jacket on opening day in St. Louis for the remainder of his life, or for as long as he’s physically able to be there.
If anything I question Molina’s decision to play ball this season. If he had serious doubts, then why go through with it? He really didn’t need to play if he’d reached the point of burn-out and was worn down after putting so many catching miles on his body. If there’s any reason to give a player the benefit of the doubt for actions that haven’t always been smooth or normal in 2022, it’s this dude.
The Cardinals have a great opportunity to win the NL Central, and Molina’s pitch-calling, pitch-framing and pitcher-guidance is one of the reasons behind the success. I’m hoping that he’ll settle in, and play, and complete his role of a lifetime: that of the greatest Cardinals catcher in franchise history.
Molina has invested so much of himself, and his life, in building a Hall of Fame career and becoming the most successful catcher to wear the Birds on the Bat. I wasn’t crazy about his decision last weekend … but I do understand it.
Much more than that I understand the magnitude of his substantial value to this franchise over the last 19 years, and won’t downgrade his career because he went away for one weekend and missed one scheduled start. Molina has meant so much to this franchise and his legacy is secure. That hasn’t changed, and never will.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com
All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.