It should come as no surprise that Yadier Molina, the younger brother of former catcher Bengie and current Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose, made it to the big leagues. Fair or not, when you are the younger brother of two established pro athletes, the expectations for you are to match or exceed what your siblings have previously accomplished. For years, those affiliated with Major League Baseball spoke highly of Yadi, insisting that he was by far the most talented of the three brothers. I’m sure a lot of fans took those comments with a grain of salt because in sports, those sorts of comments are often thrown out there but ultimately never reign true.
The First Five Years (2004-2008)
Like a majority of professional athletes, Yadier Molina made his debut in Major League Baseball thanks to an injury, when starting catcher Mike Matheny went down with a strained-rib in June 2004 (oddly enough, Matheny is now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals). Molina went on to appear in 51 games that season and was part of a team that eventually made it to the World Series (losing to the Boston Red Sox). Molina made very little impact at the plate, but his defensive ability was evident from day one. The Cardinals let Mike Matheny walk as a free agent that offseason, which showed the confidence the Cardinals organization had in Molina as their future backstop.
For the next two seasons (2005-2006), Molina continued to establish himself as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Catchers who would successfully pick off baserunners with ease was a rarity, but this was a skill Molina went on to trademark and be known for around the league. However, the offensive part of his game proved to present much bigger challenges for Molina and the club. After hitting a less than desirable .252 in 2005, Molina hit rock bottom at the plate in 2006 when he posted a .216 average (.274 OBP). Despite the struggles, then Cardinals manager Tony La Russa inserted Molina into the starting lineup almost every game, even once being quoted as saying “I don’t care if he bats .000, I’m still rolling him out there because of his defense.”
La Russa’s loyalty paid off during the 2006 playoffs when Molina belted a two-run home run off Aaron Heilman in the top of 9th in game 7 of the NLCS vs. the New York Mets. The hit, which propelled the Cardinals to the World Series, was as unexpected as any in postseason history. Molina went on to have an impressive World Series in which he hit .412 and helped the Cardinals capture the World Championship.
For the next two seasons (2007-2008), Molina transformed from a guy that every pitcher wanted to face, to one that nobody wanted any part of. Molina’s 2007 batting average of .275 was up 59 points over his previous years .216 – an astonishing one year improvement. Aside from the batting average, Molina also became more patient as a hitter, as evidenced by his strikeout to walk ratio. His defense, spectacular as always, finally got the national attention it deserved when he took home his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2008.
The Last Five (plus) Years (2009-Present)
2009 marked the first time Molina was selected to the MLB All-Star game. Now an established veteran, Molina continued to hone his skills in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. On most teams, Molina would have been viewed as THE guy – in St. Louis, he was just one of a few. When you are on a roster with the likes of a Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, it’s easy to get lost in the mix. Nonetheless, Molina was no longer the young kid trying to make a name for himself – he was now well on his way to becoming the face of the franchise.
Molina was selected to the all-star game and awarded a gold glove in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons. His offensive ability continued to progress, now a .300 hitter – impressive for any player, almost unheard of for a catcher. The 2011 season ended in yet another trip to the World Series for Molina and the Cardinals, and for the second time in six years, Molina ended the year a champion. The Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in an epic seven-game series that saw Molina play his usual stellar defense and contribute a team record nine RBIs for the series.
Shorty after the 2011 World Championship season, Molina’s close friend and franchise icon Albert Pujols joined the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent. In what was surly a gut check to the Cardinal organization and their fans, Molina took it upon himself to become the new face of the franchise that offseason. The results showed in 2012, when Molina had his best season as a pro posting a .315 batting average and launching a career high 22 home runs. Molina’s hard work paid off, as he signed a five-year, $75 million contract extension that year, all but ensuring he would retire as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2013, Molina had another incredible season that left him just short of winning his first National League MVP award (many believed he should have won). For the fourth time in a decade, Molina was a member of a Cardinals club that represented the National League in the World Series. Unfortunately for Molina and the Cards, they were once again outdone by the Boston Red Sox in six games. The 2014 St. Louis Cardinals are favorites yet again to get back to the World Series thanks in large part to the presence of Yadier Molina – ten years ago who would have thought we’d be saying that?