On Tuesday night, Yadier Molina made his 22nd consecutive start behind the plate for the St. Louis Cardinals. Since July 1st, the only game Molina didn’t start behind the dish was in the second game of a double header against the Cubs (which was most notable for being the only game I’ve ever seen in Wrigley). Even at 36 years old, Molina is a daily staple at arguably the most difficult position in baseball.
Throughout his tenure as the Cardinals full-time starter in 2005, a defining characteristic of Molina's presence is a near total absence of stolen bases by opponents. Not only have baserunners been unsuccessful when they attempt to steal, they’ve hardly even tried.
In my pitiful attempt to quantify how impactful that effect has been, I looked at stolen bases attempted against each team and the success rates of those attempts spanning back to 2005. This is far from perfect and I don’t isolate individual performance at all. Still, the picture is nothing short of remarkable:
The Cardinals have allowed opponents to successfully steal only 64.3% of the time, 3.7% below the next-best team. The gap between 6th place Braves and 23rd place Indians over that span is 3.8%. The Cardinals have allowed only 739 stolen bases since 2005, the stingiest among all teams by a full 303 bags. The gap between the 9th place Blue Jays and 29th place Diamondbacks is 293. In total, baserunners have attempted to swipe a base 360 fewer times against the Cardinals than the second-lowest team total. That gap, again, is larger than the gap between the 9th and 29th place teams (339 attempts).
Inevitably, though, Molina has started to lose a step with age. His pop time, which hovered between 1.95 second and 2.00 seconds from 2015 to 2017, has dropped to a below average time of 2.04 seconds in 2018 according to Statcast. However, even as he’s seemingly slowed down – his caught-stealing percentage rate is 28.3% since 2016 compared to 44.3% before – he still limits baserunners better than almost anyone in the game.
This year, despite Molina going down with a terrifying injury and turning 36, no team has fewer steal attempts against than St. Louis. Only one team has allowed fewer stolen bases, period. Undoubtedly, the pitching staff’s ability to keep runners close has played a factor this year and in past seasons. It’s borderline impossible to quantify how much stolen bases should be attributed to the pitcher versus catcher. Either way, the Cardinals have been completely peer-less over the last dozen or so years in terms of limiting the run game and the constant has always been Yadier Molina behind the plate.
Runners not stealing doesn’t show up in the stat sheet and won’t boost Molina’s WAR, which is suddenly a universal benchmarking tool for certain HOF voters. It’s hard to notice, really, especially for someone like myself where it’s all I’ve ever known – I can’t remember a time in my life where teams ran on the Cardinals like they do on the Padres. Yet, despite being hard to notice, it saves runs for the St. Louis staff. While we can't pin a specific value to Molina's stolen base prevention, it's played a role in the Cardinals second-best “FIP-beating” ERA.
I don’t know when Yadier Molina is finally going to really start showing signs of age. I didn’t like his extension because it guaranteed three extra years to a well-worn catcher at $20 million a pop and I thought he had finally started to show real signs of age. So far, I look like an idiot. When I’m proven wrong like I have been so far with Molina, I enjoy looking like an idiot. Hopefully he makes me look like an idiot all the way to Cooperstown.