THE REDBIRD REVIEW
This is my third in a sequence of analyses that salute the top position players and pitchers during the 28 seasons of franchise ownership under Bill DeWitt Jr.
So far, I’ve made the Top 10 picks at starting pitchers, and the Top 10 selections of relievers.
In this installment, I focus on the catchers that have played for the Cardinals since DeWitt became franchise chairman in 1996. I rank the top five and added a few honorable mentions.
1. Yadier Molina. I bet you weren’t expecting to see his name at the top, eh? With all due respect to other candidates, this was a one-man competition. Molina’s extraordinary body of work during the DeWitt Era not only made him the best all-around catcher in franchise history – but he’s on the short list of the best catchers in major-league baseball history.
During his St. Louis career that began in 2004 and ended with his retirement after the 2022 season, Molina was selected to 10 All-Star teams, earned nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, and the 2013 Silver Slugger award. He received National League MVP votes in five seasons, finishing third in the balloting in 2013 and fourth in 2012.
During his seasons behind the plate for the Cardinals, the Redbirds ranked third in regular-season wins, and second in postseason wins, and had the second-best ERA in the majors.
Molina wasn’t the primary starter in 2004 – that job was Mike Matheny’s. But during Molina’s time with the Cardinals the club competed in 13 postseasons, won four NL pennants and two World Series championships.
Molina ranks sixth in MLB history for most postseason games, 104. Molina’s 104 postseason games are the most by a National League player at any position, and only Jorge Posada (Yankees) played in more (119) among catchers. For postseason success, Molina is the winningest catcher in National League history, handling the assignment in 52 victories.
Yadier’s name is all over the franchise leaderboard in career achievements offensively:
– 3rd to Stan Musial and Lou Brock in most games.
– 3rd to Musial and Brock for most plate appearances.
– 3rd to Musial and Brock for most hits (2,168).
– 4th to Musial, Albert Pujols and Brock for most doubles (434).
– 6th in RBI with 1,022. Only Musial, Pujols, Enos Slaughter, Jim Bottomley, and Rogers Hornsby drove in more runs for the Cardinals.
– 9th in extra base hits (591) and 9th in homers (176.)
Molina distinguished himself historically in so many other areas, making a list of all of his achievements would require a separate baseball encyclopedia.
In the history of major-league baseball, only one catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, was credited with more defensive Wins Above Replacement than Molina. And it was close.
The young Molina was so astute defensively and brilliant in pitch selection, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan did something they’d never done before: they gave Molina complete freedom to call the game.
No catcher who ever worked for TLR and Dunc was tasked with the crucial responsibility of pitch calling – and they put this important duty in Molina’s hands in 2005, when he was just 22 years old.
More than any player – at any position – during the DeWitt Era, Molina defined everything that made the Cardinals a celebrated St. Louis institution and MLB powerhouse.
Yadi gave his team an intense competitive personality. His edge sharpened others. He was a revered leader. He made so many St. Louis pitchers better with his planning, pitch-calling, and defensive excellence. Teammates didn’t want to disappoint him. Opponents respected him and feared him. Molina was much more than a catcher; he was the hub of the Cardinals cosmos.
2. Mike Matheny. He did an outstanding job for the Cardinals from 2000 through 2004. During the DeWitt Era Matheny ranks third to Molina in WAR. He won three Gold Gloves. During his time as the team’s catcher-leader, the Cardinals were fourth in the majors in regular-season wins and had the fifth-best ERA. Matheny played in 27 postseason games for St. Louis, and batted a solid .254 with three doubles, two homers and 10 RBI. The pitchers had immense respect for Matheny and loved working with him. Catching is a tough position for tough people and Matheny certainly qualified. He’s worthy of consideration for selection into the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
And not only for his catching, either. Matheny’s .555 winning percentage as Cardinals manager was higher than that of Tony LaRussa (.544), Whitey Herzog (.530) and Red Schoendienst (.522). Yes, Matheny inherited a defending World Series champion from La Russa. And, unlike TLR and Herzog, Matheny didn’t have to oversee a rebuilding job.
But Matheny led the Cardinals to four postseasons in his full six years as the manager, and led the 2013 Redbirds to the National League pennant. He’s one of 11 managers in franchise history to do that. The other 10 pennant winners were Billy Southworth (3), La Russa (3), Whitey Herzog (3), Red Schoendienst (2), Gabby Street (2), Johnny Keane (1), Rogers Hornsby (1), Bill McKechnie (1), Frankie Frisch (1), and Eddie Dyer (1).
3. Tom Pagnozzi. Pags didn’t take no mess. (I’m channeling James Brown there.) Before DeWitt and partners purchased the team, Pagnozzi played for the Cardinals during a down-phase period in the early 1990s, but set himself apart from the mediocrity by winning Gold Gloves in 1991, 1992 and 1994. And he was chosen for the All-Star team in ‘92. Yes, that happened right before the beginning of the DeWitt Era, but I just wanted to point out Pags’ good work for the Cardinals.
Pags was a Cardinal for a surprisingly long time, 1987 through 1998. And Pagnozzi was the starting catcher for the 1996 Cardinals at the beginning of the DeWitt Era. That was an important year for St. Louis baseball, with the Cardinals appearing in the postseason for the first time since 1987. And Pags had his best year offensively for the 1996 division champs, batting .270 with a .423 slugging percentage and .734 OPS. He had power (13 homers, 23 doubles) and knocked in 55 runs.
With the team transitioning to new ownership and leadership in a season of dramatic change, Pags was the ideal catcher to guide a pitching staff that had a lot of new arms including Andy Benes, Alan Benes, Todd Stottlemyre, Dennis Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt. La Russa was a big Pagnozzi fan, and that’s all we really need to know.
4. Willson Contreras. Sure, he’s only been a Cardinal for one season, but that’s enough for me. In 2023 Contreras rebounded from a chaotic start to turn a robust season offensively, batting .264 with a .358 onbase percentage, .467 slug and 826 OPS.
In single-season productivity by Cardinal catchers during the DeWitt Era, Contreras’ slugging percentage, OPS and adjusted runs created (wRC+) rank third. His 20 home runs were tied with Molina for the second most by a Cardinal catcher in a season over the last 28 seasons. (Molina is at the top, with 22 home runs in 2012.) And Contreras had the fifth highest RBI count in a season (67) during the DeWitt Era.
WC’s Isolated Power was the highest in a season by a Cardinal catcher during this era. And another metric that reflects well on Contreras is Win Probability Added. In 2023, Contreras finished second to Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman in WPA among major-league catchers. There are a lot of good catchers in the majors so that’s impressive.
Contreras was fantastic this past season in his performance with runners in scoring position, batting .314 with a .424 onbase percentage and .559 slug. And he had five homers and a team-leading 10 doubles with RISP.
Among MLB hitters with at least 150 plate appearances from the start of July until the end of the regular season, Contreras had a 1.059 OPS that ranked second to Atlanta’s Matt Olson. And Contreras had the highest wRC+ (188) over the final three months, edging out the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts. That means Contreras was 88 percent above league average offensively from July 1 on.
Per wRC+, with 100 being the league average, here are the best three seasons by a Cardinal catcher since DeWitt took over in 1996:
Molina, 138 in 2012
Molina, 133 in 2013
Contreras, 127 in 2023
Over the two years preceding Contreras’ arrival, St. Louis catchers had a 67 wRC+ and were near the bottom of the majors offensively at 33 percent below league average. That means Contreras improved the offense at the catcher spot by 60 percent in his first St. Louis campaign.
5. Eli Marrero. While doing research I was surprised to discover that Marrero has the second-most WAR (4.6) among catchers during the DeWitt Era. But that’s also misleading because Marrero was used at multiple positions. He appeared in 445 games a catcher for St. Louis from 1997 through 2003 but also logged 41 games at first base and 152 in the outfield. But that added to Marrero’s value, because La Russa could have more flexibility and options by moving Marrero around as needed.
Marrero wasn’t in Matheny’s class defensively, but he he slugged .422 or higher four times and had very good speed. Marrero had a terrific 2002, posting a .427 slug and .777 OPS. That season he slugged 18 homers, swatted 19 doubles, stole 14 bases and drove in 66 runs.
Marrero played in 13 postseason games, and didn’t do well (.091 average) overall. But his home run was the big blow in a 5-4 victory over the Giants in Game 3 of the 2002 NLCS. It was STL’s only win of the series.
Marrero played an indirect role in making Adam Wainwright a Cardinal. Before the 2004 season Cards GM Walt Jocketty dealt outfielder J.D. Drew and Marrero to the Braves in exchange for pitchers Jason Marquis, Ray King and an up-and-coming prospect – Wainwright – who would become the second greatest starting pitcher in St. Louis franchise history.
Honorable mention: Tony Cruz, Gary Bennett, Andrew Knizner and Tom Lampkin.
I’ll be back next week with additional installments to the All-DeWitt Era Team.
Thanks for reading and have a swell weekend.
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.